How Unschooling Isn’t About Doing Whatever We Like

My Unschooling Book Series (17)

I don’t want to spend too much time online today – it’s Sunday and I want to relax with my family – so I’m sharing a quick thought instead of a longer post:

Unschooling isn’t about doing whatever we like. Instead, it’s about choosing to do what is right.

From the outside, unschooling can sound like a very self-centred way to live: Kids are allowed to do what they like. In reality, although they can do what they like, they will use their freedom to do what is right.

We hope our kids will freely choose to do what is appropriate rather than control them with such things as rules. But why should they do what is right rather than what they like if the two aren’t compatible? Aren’t we just being optimistic about the choices our kids will make? Surely we have to make them do what is necessary?

In my experience, unschooled kids will do what is right if given the choice. Of course, this doesn’t just happen. Even though parents don’t make rules, they do have to do something. And what they do is all bound up with unconditional love.

I know that last short paragraph needs expanding. By itself, it’s a very inadequate explanation because the connection between unconditional love and doing what’s right might not be immediately obvious.  I could keep writing, or I could point you in the direction of my posts about this topic, or I could just say I’m going to make it one of the themes of my book. I’d like to bring together all the thoughts that I’ve shared in multiple posts and podcasts in a way that might reassure readers that:

Unschooling isn’t about doing whatever we like. Instead, it’s about choosing to do what is right.

Of course, our ideas about what is right and appropriate might differ slightly. I don’t think this matters. Perhaps we all agree that whatever we do, we must act with love and respect.

I can see why many people think unschooling sounds like a self-centred way of life. If unschooling isn’t understood properly, perhaps this is a reasonable assumption to make. And maybe that’s why lots of parents don’t want to unschool their children. I wonder if this is /has been a stumbling block for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

btw, I want to thank everyone who is commenting on these posts. I’m finding your thoughts and ideas very helpful as I’m working on my unschooling book. You’re giving me extra things to think about!

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  1. Reply

    Sue and girls. I was a teacher as well as principal in a Christian school. I home-schooled my first four children with success. My last three are all unique.Each of them had IEP’s in public school but were getting nowhere and having to deal with bullying and such. I decided to home school them as well. Every day was a wrestling match to get them to do what they were “supposed” to do.

    When I first read about unschooling a year ago, I was a bit puzzled about it. To me, it i still confusing but, I do understand where you are coming from. However, I get frustrated because, though I make suggestions about things that interest them and so on, they mostly like to sleep in and watch music videos. The youngest will get up and do her language studies as will the middle one. They both like to draw so, we all go to art classes on Fridays. The oldest one, however, does like to do much of anything. She first said she was interested in nursing so I encouraged her to check online what would be required to pursue this. When she found out she would have to have math in there, she decided to look at holistic healing. She read one or two books on that and decided it was too much work and she would like to learn photography. We will see what she does with this.

    I made a resource note book that contains suggestions for different courses of study that they have shown interest in. It has things like books available at the library, movies available there or online, online courses available and so on and so forth.

    Please, tell me I’m somewhere close to where I need to be before I pull all my hair out.

    1. Reply


      It can be very frustrating when we tell our kids they can do whatever they like and they don’t immediately rush off and start learning, especially when we’ve put a lot of effort into finding resources based on their interests. Yes, we might feel like pulling out our hair! (Don’t do that!)

      Despite us doing all the right things, our kids might look like they don’t want to learn about anything. But maybe there’s a reason they aren’t getting excited. I really do believe that kids want to learn. However, maybe some children’s love of learning has been squashed by the experience of having to learn what other people think is important. Learning has become a chore. Perhaps when children move from school or structured homeschooling to unschooling, they need time to adjust, to just be themselves, to relax and not worry about fulfilling any expectations. Even though kids can learn whatever they like, there might still be an expectation that they’ve got to learn SOMETHING! A parent is waiting!

      Perhaps it would be helpful to forget about learning for a while and just concentrate on enjoying being a family. Sleep in, watch movies, go on some outings, take lots of time for chatting, do things that are enjoyable without worrying about whether they are educational or not. Once the pressure to learn has been removed, your children may start to get excited about their various interests and even find some new ones. And I bet your conversations and movies and other activities will lead to lots of learning experiences even if that isn’t the aim!

      Maybe we are tempted to encourage interests that will lead to a future career. But what if we forget about the future and just concentrate on today? Interests come and go. Some last a long time. Some are fleeting. Some lead to other things. They are all valuable whether they look like they are career material or not. They are also valuable even if they don’t look interesting to us. And sometimes as Jack said in her comment, kids head down pathways of their own and learn about all kinds of things we’d never have thought to tell them about. Learning can be fascinating and exciting!

      When we start to unschool, we need to change our ideas about what learning looks like. We might value our kids doing such things as art and maths and language courses, and, if they are interested in these courses and enjoy doing them, they’ll learn a lot. But learning can look like video games, pinterest, and youtube as Jack mentioned. Talking to kids about what they’re doing and getting involved with them can sometimes help us see why our children like doing certain things, why they are important to them, and what they’re learning. And maybe you can share your own learning, work on your passions, show you find learning exciting… Because it is!

      A last thought: Perhaps when we start unschooling, we’re impatient for results. We want it to work. We’ve imagined how it should look and maybe we get discouraged if everything doesn’t fall into place quickly. But there’s no hurry. Kids need time, and we have far more of it than we think.

      I hope some of what I’ve said is helpful. If you’d like to chat more, please do!

    • TL
    • November 20, 2017

    While I am on this topic here is another example in regards to math. My girls have a “boring” but very good, in my opinion, math program. They don’t like doing it but I can see when they have progress and understanding, there is a feeling of satisfaction for them (though they will never admit it). They would never do it on their own, though.

    Or I have them copy some brief passages and I believe it is good for them. They wouldn’t do it on their own. Same is true about reading certain classics. They don’t like starting out reading but since they are required, they do. Most of the time they end up liking the books…

    I wonder if there is also a difference between a school imposing a standardized curriculum on all of the children and a parent, who has experience, a bit more wisdom, and loves the child, imposing certain requirements on the child?

    However, living this out in our daily lives is a struggle. Imposing anything is hard and unpleasant. A school has reward systems, competition, ambition. At home we have none of that except “do this since mom believes this is good and right.”

    Every day there is a philosophical battle in my mind and my heart in regards to education and upbringing of children. There is also a battle to get my kids to do what I think they should. I look to the Gospel and read to love others as thyself and here again I stumble as to what that would mean. Yet I doubt if leaving them be would be truly loving them…

    Maybe you could touch upon these issues.

    On another note, your blog is very different from other unschooling blogs. I have read much of what is out there and you are the only one in the unschooling world whom I can relate to. I believe your book can offer a lot to readers like me. All the best:)

    • TL
    • November 20, 2017

    I am on a roll here:) This is a subject of interest to me as you can see. These are questions I ponder all the time. In regards to unconditional love… Adam and Eve had sinned and as a result there were tough consequences for them and their progeny. Yet God is love. Absolute and true love. Isn’t it so hard to comprehend all this? Raising kids is the toughest and the ultimate job that we parents have. I guess that is another reason I am drawn to your blog. You really care and take it seriously.

    1. Reply


      It’s hard to trust and let go of our own ideas and expectations, isn’t it? We love our kids so much and want to do our best for them. Maybe it feels like it’s our parental duty to battle on and make our kids do what we feel is right. Perhaps we think we’d be jeopardising their future if we don’t make them do certain things? Does it really matter if they like what we want them to do? We’re only concerned with their best interests. Perhaps our kids should listen to us because we do indeed have more experience than them.

      I’ve worked my way through all these thought too. In the end, I concluded life isn’t meant to be a battle. My duty isn’t to make my kids do certain things. The most important thing I have to do is love them. We have to be a close and loving family. We’ve experienced enough outside battles for me to know we can’t battle with each other. We have to support and encourage each other through the inevitable hard times of life. And how can we do that if there are things getting in the way of our close relationships? But this doesn’t mean we just give in and let our kids do whatever they like without any input from us. As I said in my post, unschooling isn’t about doing what we like but rather what is right. Our kids have to be educated and they will eventually need to find their place in the world. But unschooling will allow them to do this. How? Oh yes, I hope the answer is in my book!

      But for now… understanding more about how unschooling works might help. It’s difficult to change our ideas about learning all at once. We need to read and ponder unschooling and observe our children. Unschooling is a whole new way of looking at things.

      These are just a few thoughts I had as I was reading your comments:

      Kids will learn when they are interested or have a need of knowledge. They are capable of working hard. They don’t need us to push them. They might not want to learn what we think they should. They might not want to work their way through a maths program we like, for example. But, if we let them, they will develop their talents and interests, and they will learn all they need to know.

      We can share what we value, invite our kids to listen to books we enjoy etc. But our choices might not be what our children are looking for. We have to respect their choices.

      At school, children learn because teachers use, as you said, rewards, competition etc. Punishments and shame are used too. Unschooled kids learn because they want to. Motivation comes from within. Learning is therefore retained because children see it as valuable to them.

      It’s never too late to learn anything and when children actually have a need of a certain skill, they’ll learn it faster.

      One last thought: As parents we might think that we are responsible for our children’s futures. If they fail to achieve their dreams, then it’s our fault. However, I think our role is to support and encourage our children so that they are able to take responsibility for themselves. Of course, we’ll give them any help they need, but they have to be in control. They have to be motivated to go out there and achieve their goals themselves. Of course, God is ultimately in control of all of our lives so maybe we also have to trust Him.

      I feel this converstaion could go on and on. So much to say! Please feel welcome to return if you want to chat some more!

  2. Reply

    TL, I’ve deleted your first comment and reposting it here without your name.

    Maybe you could explore this topic: humans are predisposed to sin (laziness for example) or to put it another way, to take the path of least resistance. How does that mesh with unschooling?

    For example, my son wants to be a scientist and I know in the field he wants to study he will need advanced math. He is 12 and wouldn’t sit himself down and learn algebra. So I make him do it. I toyed with the idea of waiting until he is old enough to realize that he needs to learn it. But I am afraid it will be too much of a daunting task and too many other things will vive for his attention (driving, getting a first job, dating, who knows…) I don’t want to leave him hanging, so to speak, and unable to persue his dream, because I didn’t have what it takes to make him do what is “right”. This is all speculation, obviously, but maybe something worth exploring in your book:)

  3. Reply

    TL and Marc, thank you for your comments. I have very limited online time today because we’re celebrating a birthday. I look forward to replying to your comments as soon as I can. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  4. Reply

    Sue, I am so glad we can finally talk about this. My husband’s aunt is a teacher and recently posted on facebook about some outrageous kids who are so entitled that they want to be able to go to the bathroom whenever they like! They also want to take notes on computer. I mean if my husband asked me to start carving the grocery list onto stone tablets there is no chance I would question this. But I am not an entitled brat like modern kids. 😉

    Haha, jk, I love unschooling. I do believe that kids need to be trusted. Learning can take place so much faster and better if a child wants to learn something. Currently I am limiting the type of screen time allowed in the mornings. I am trying to direct my kids away from some games/videos with little substance that are easy to turn on and get stuck in. It has worked well for us and I have talked to the kids about why we are doing this. I’ve also worked with them on exceptions like checking on a certain game in the morning.

  5. Reply

    I wondr if we treat our kids like we like to be treated, would we like to be forced to learn certain things for the sake of our future? And would it stick?
    I am finding with my two teen and preteen boys if I let go enough to see where they want to head, they totally surprise me with their direction and knowledge. And yes this does mean video games, pinterest, and youtube! From these sources we have wide ranging discussions. The latest being all the statistics about the latest devices and how they work and differ, and all the statistics about various race cars and how their engines work. I never would have thought to teach either of these topics!
    My eldest has mentioned wanting to be an engineer, and to this point he has done little maths. I mentioned this to him and he says he is willing to do catchup when required. If it is related to an end goal, these topics are often more palatable…when they decide.
    Yes we need to guide and continue to be plugged in to their lives and contribute, but in the direction they are wanting to go. Not to impose our own direction and drag them along kicking and screaming. We need to trust and let go control enough to allow them space to show us who they really are. It can be scary, especially when they seem to just sit there, or head in a weird direction, but with full engagement from us and plenty of laughs and play, they will get there. We need to realise, it isn’t a race…there is plenty of time. This is my mantra!

    1. Reply


      ‘it isn’t a race…there is plenty of time’ I love your mantra! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. I found them very helpful when I was responding to the above comments!

  6. Reply

    Jazzy, I like what you have to say about treating our kids like we would want to be treated! I do know that when I restrict screens to certain learning purposes during the morning(watching a tutorial or a documentary, etc) there is a different feeling in the house and everyone is more engaged. When everyone sleeps in too late and they watch tv and play video games things get more hectic. Maybe having six kids at home makes a big difference. I know having a small house I don’t like to have the main television on too much because it completely overtakes the house. Maybe with time, as the kids have a wider palate of activities that they enjoy, I can relax more on this. It just seems to be a nice middle ground for us right now. 🙂


    1. Reply


      You said things get hectic when your kids watch TV or play computer games. You also said you have a small house. Do you yearn sometimes for quiet? Perhaps you work and feel better when the TV isn’t overtaking the house? If you do, this is okay. Perhaps what’s needed isn’t a rule but a principle: We have to be considerate of everyone in the family.

      My kids can use screens whenever they like for as long as they like. However, no one uses the TV during the day unless we have all decided we want to watch something together. No one plays music out loud unless everyone has gathered to listen to something in particular. I think everyone recognises that we work better in a quiet house. If anyone wants to watch or listen to something, they’ll use their own device plus headphones because that’s the considerate thing to do.

      “Maybe with time, as the kids have a wider palate of activities that they enjoy, I can relax more on this.” Perhaps when that time comes, you might be able to encourage your kids to be considerate when they’re playing games or watching TV. Help them find ways they can do what they want without imposing on other members of the family. Then you’ll still be able to have the peace and quiet you need.

      1. Reply

        Sue, I like your ideas! It does have a lot to do with consideration and thoughtfulness. When my kids are watching shows or playing games I do feel they are more closed off and less happy to stop what they are doing and play with their baby sister or help in another way. I also wonder if certain types of games such as the “time management” games or the games where you build a world and need to wait for work to be done have an addictive quality? I feel it is kind of like pornography or substance addiction where a person gets a quick reward with little work. I guess that’s where it comes down to talking to our kids? I’m a little confused. I know that when I go off to co-op on Friday mornings my 11 year old son is waiting for me to leave so he can play his minecraft but he also manages to clean the kitchen beautifully each time. Maybe the time management games are paying off? LOL!

        This is a great discussion! I am enjoying it and it’s very helpful to me. I’ve got to run and help get some kids in bed but I look forward to hearing more from everyone. 🙂

        1. Reply


          I don’t hav emuch esxperience with computer games, but I do know what it’s like to become closed off. That happens to me when I’m writing. I think it’s got a lot to do with entering a creative level of consciousness. Once we’ve moved into that zone, it is hard to return quickly. Being closed off is frustrating for other people but it’s good for the person who is working. Wonderful things can happen when we’re in that other world!

          I have found that the girls and I need time to return to normal life when we’ve been working on something that drags us away from the world around us.

          If your kids were willing to help with their sister would you be more willing to let them play their games and watch their shows? Could the issue have more to do with the fact you need help? I wonder if you could talk with your kids and mull over some ideas that will allow everyone’s needs to be met.

    • Nancy
    • November 22, 2017

    I enjoy all of your good ideas. I have to run and don’t have time to add any unschooling ideas of my own, but i truly enjoy all that I read from you Sue and everyone who contributes.

    1. Reply


      It’s good when we share ideas and have a good discussion, isn’t it? Thanks for stopping by!

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