Unschooling Grows Far Beyond “Not School”

It’s pretty typical to move through adulthood staying generally disengaged from life: you do this and that and the other thing, like get a job, get married, have kids, send them to school. It’s quite easy to do—the conventional treadmill carries you along and delivers you to each stop without much effort of your part. Yet for many, there’s an inner conflict between what lives in their heart and the societal expectations in their head. Many manage to ignore it until midlife when, as children move out and things slow down, they find themselves evaluating their life so far and get tangled up in the aptly named midlife crisis. Others are drawn to examine the disconnect earlier, often following the hearts and minds of their children. No matter the path that led you to unschooling, with it you are choosing to step off the conventional treadmill. And once you’ve taken that first step it becomes harder and harder to continue down that well-worn path of convention—unschooling soon asks us to examine the deeper questions.

When we choose unschooling we likely do so with the intention of opening up the possibilities for our children, of giving them the space and the support to forge their own path through childhood. Yet as we watch them in action, often spellbound, our minds begin to stretch even more and soon we start asking that of ourselves. As unschooling parents we espouse the joy of learning, champion the idea of lifelong learning … and we begin to realize that it applies to us as well. Our perspective grows. Who am I? What is my path? What kind of parent do I want to be? It becomes apparent that even as adults we are not “done”; we can learn and change and take small steps each day towards being the person we want to become.

We see our children exploring life with zeal. We join them. They are enthusiastically vocal in celebration of even the smallest victories, and in the next moment they are struggling with frustration and deep sadness as things go awry—each experience is expressed from the depths of their soul. We begin to reawaken, to remember what it means to be so directly engaged with life. It is beautiful! And we begin to feel protective of our children, not wanting them to lose that openness, that depth of feeling, both joy and sorrow, as they get older. It begins to dawn on us that if we so eagerly want them to retain that lust for life into adulthood, if that’s what living can look like in all its glory, as adults, couldn’t we be living that too? Yes!

With that realization we are drawn to exploring ourselves, to finding that depth of engagement in life, with all its twists and turns and ups and downs. For maybe the first time we really see the value in nurturing our spirit. It stuns us. We marvel that the journey we started to fully and deeply support our children and their learning has turned so completely around and we are learning so much from them about being alive and fully engaged with life. Often we didn’t even realize we were encased in a layer of conventional goo, a dour mix of expectations and judgment and fear, until we managed to wipe some away and rediscover that the world is fresh and interesting and inspiring!

We are always learning. The learning is in the living. Looking back, I realize the biggest gift we give to our children and ourselves with unschooling is time. Time to live and to learn and to do it all again the next day, the next week, the next month. Time to cocoon, time to process, time to reflect. Time is at our disposal; it is not our master. When you first begin unschooling it can feel like such a huge leap—one day the kids are going to school and the next day they aren’t. Or they hit school age and the first day of school comes and they don’t go. It is huge! And faced with that momentous act, it’s so easy to get caught up in the idea that it must be met with equally huge goals and plans and activities.

Instead, try baby steps. Gradual, yet determined, steps toward the person you want to be in this new unschooling family paradigm. And remember to take time for reflection, for turning your thoughts and observations over in your mind, for playing with the puzzle pieces and seeing how they fit together. It is in this time of contemplation that so many connections fall into place. And don’t fret that you need swaths of alone sitting time to think—I recall many a-ha moments while doing the dishes, or in the shower, or tidying up the toys. :-)

What else do we discover? That no matter how strongly we wish to know and understand it all right now, to have this life thing figured out—what makes us tick, what brings a smile to our face, and why fear sometimes trickles in—it is a process, a cycle. Round and round and round. As a parent, as a person, you never reach the end of learning because with each iteration through another question or challenge our children are older and more experienced, and you are older and more experienced. New things are coming into your lives and others are dropping out, all of which bring new insights. There’s always more to learn and understand—about ourselves, about others, about the world.

And somewhere along the line it dawned on me that it’s not about figuring it all out so I can finally, from that moment on, live a happy life.

This process IS a well-lived life.



  1. Beth says

    This is EXACTLY where I am right now in my life and in our homeschooling life. This was so beautifully written. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. says

    This is beautiful. I remember the first day we didn’t go to school, the day that would have been my oldest’s first of kindergarten, and the first “first day of school” that I had missed–from primary school student, then college student, then middle school teacher–since 1983! My sons and I playing in and out of our sunny house–we watched “Dinosaur Train” on TV, we made lunch together, we made block towers, hung up the laundry to dry, cut shields out of cardboard, took a nap, played guitar, and plenty of other stuff besides that I don’t recall. When the school bus passed by our house at 3 o’clock, I realized, we had done it. This was really it. The day had been luxurious in the minutes and hours spent together enjoying being together and doing interesting things, and we could do it again tomorrow, and the next day… I was absolutely filled in that moment with gratitude for the great gift that was time.

  3. says

    I always liked the saying, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” I have to remind myself of this often. As an eclectic homeschool mom, I appreciate reading about your unschooling journey. I definitely agree with you on “the gift of time.” It’s precious.

  4. Sherrie says

    I just recently discovered your website and newsletters .. This is my favourite post so far! Beautifully said!

    I only wish more people realized they are on the treadmill as I was. Lots of school then teaching elementary then home with my first child and back to work again .. Now home with my second and home to stay .. The whole school year I went back I started questioning the system and wondering if it was the best environment for ‘real learning.’ I also missed my daughter like crazy (and i was only teaching part time).

    I love watching my young children play and learn and I couldn’t imagine a better learning environment than home! I’m excited for the journey and so ready to shift paradigms of success… For myself and my family .. I am so grateful to you Pam for all the inspiration and explanations of how this works!

  5. Heather says

    I am in my 3rd year homeschooling my now 14 y.o. daughter. We’ve basically had to “take the year off” because I had major surgery last summer & am still bed bound off & on as I regain the use of my left leg. I started looking at unschooling because I’ve questioned why I have to teach her certain subjects that she has absolutely no interest in & why that process was causing so much misery for both of us. This is my 1st week of truly trying to stop the treadmill of forced learning & I find that my emotions are all over the place…fear, doubt, worry, depression…all over the question, ” would unschooling ruin her future? Am I just giving up on school because my body & mind are just so exhausted?

    I’m reading many blogs on this topic but am still struggling in my head with the thought that unschooling my child is my lazy way out. I live in a very small, religious town where everybody knows everybody & a high percentage of us are homeschoolers. I don’t know anyone who unschools. When I’ve broached the topic to other moms I’ve heard a variety of comments, “those people are hippies, they just let their children run wild, those kids won’t have any future, YOU’RE not considering doing that are you?!?”

    I really want to enjoy this journey with my child & I want to heal – body & spirit. Thank you for your blog, it is a small bit of peace in my world at the moment.

    • says

      Hi Heather,

      It’s so true–getting started with unschooling is so exciting and so scary, all at once. You’re definitely asking the right kinds of questions. Maybe your health issues have led you to start looking at unschooling, but as you learn more about it, if it makes sense to you, the reasons you’ll discover to continue will be solid and lifelong.

      For now, can you think of it as a few (more) months vacation? No expectations, just living. You can continue to heal and learn more about unschooling. Your daughter can pursue her interests. You guys can hang out together and enjoy each other’s company without the stress of forced learning hanging over your heads.

      If you’ve signed up for my Exploring Unschooling email series, it’ll come every few days for the next month or so and will talk about various aspects of unschooling, hopefully helping you get a better idea of unschooling. :-)

      And remember to have fun!

      • Heather says

        Thank you Pam…I do think I could stand to really take some time off and just relax. I’m not sure that is in my DNA (I’m a perfectionist, OCD type person) but I’m trying. I appreciate your comments and your blog they have really spoken to where I’m at right now.

  6. says

    This is where I am too. Partly down the road with unschooling (18 months), but a few years in the making of how to live a better life that doesn’t involve the treadmill. Not that I planned it this way, but my earlier attempts at creating financial/work freedom are now allowing us to unschool with less financial stress. Taking the leap to unschool has willing forced me to make decisions around my business that have to work for us as a family.

    I like to focus on quantity time rather than being pressured to make our quality time perfect.


  7. Deborah says

    Would love to read your emails on this subject. Have one that graduated from charter school, but did home school him for 2 1/2 years. Now have one that has dropped out in 11th grade to finish online, she is excited of the possibilities. She is still taking a few classes at the school that she wanted, like choir, chemistry, and french. I know, strange combination, but she likes the labs. I have explained that she now can choose what she wants to learn and she is more relaxed. She can take the time to figure out what she wants to be and do. Wanting to learn a subject is so much more fun when you do not have to worry about all the expectations. If I had to start over they would not have gone at all. Looking forward to grand kids.

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