How Unschooling Saved Us (Sort of)

Unschooling in action: building a model of the world's tallest building while still in pajamas.

Unschooling in action: building a model of the world’s tallest building while still in pajamas.


Unschooling (n):

a home-school education with the child taking primary responsibility instead of a parent or teacher; also called “child-directed learning” or “self-learning.”    –from  (The word doesn’t yet appear in Merriam-Webster)

Good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone. –John Taylor Gatto

 Living is learning, and when kids are living fully and energetically and happily they are learning a lot, even if we don’t always know what it is.  –John Holt


Two years ago, I hadn’t even heard of the word “unschooling.”  My son “Jack,” then four, was slogging disconsolately through pre-K, gamely sounding out letters with his classmates though he could already read chapter books on his own.  I was researching local kindergartens in hopes that next year would be better.

We knew finding the right school would be tough.  They’d have to be flexible and understanding, able to accommodate a kid with off-the-charts reading ability and a passion for certain subjects—astronomy, geography—who struggled to keep his hands to himself and melted down when he didn’t know the right answer.

Public school, with its crowds, slashed budgets, and tendency to keep kids in lockstep, was probably out.  But there had to be a school somewhere that would be a good fit for him.  Right?

We’d been told by an expert in giftedness that homeschooling would be Jack’s best bet, but I wasn’t ready.  I wasn’t going to go there unless we had run out of options.

Besides, my husband and I are, as he puts it, “school people.”  We first met in the teachers’ lounge of a public high school, for God’s sake. (He taught Spanish and social studies and I taught English.) Now he’s a high school principal, and I lead creative writing workshops for adults, but our shared love of schools remains.

We found an alternative private school for Jack that seemed to get it.  When we explained our dilemma to them, they nodded sagely.  “We get lots of kids like him,” they said.  “Don’t worry.”  (Yeah, right.)

It only took a few months of kindergarten to realize it was a disaster.  Jack was anxious, lonely, and angry.  His innate love of learning was fading.  His joyful demeanor had given way to a wan exhaustion.  All he wanted to do was watch the movie Cars over and over—a bad sign for a kid who used to soak up adult-level astronomy DVDs.  In January, we pulled him out without a plan, simply because we couldn’t take it anymore.

And so began our great adventure.  Taking the advice of many in the gifted homeschooling community (thank you, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum), we spent the first few months “de-schooling.”  That meant avoiding any sort of instruction and letting a weary and skeptical kid decompress, play, and relax his way back into learning.

All that letting it be made sense in theory, but it wasn’t natural for me.  A teacher by temperament as well as training, I have a perennial itch to direct things, and as weeks went on with nothing really quantifiable happening, I couldn’t help but feel anxious.

Then one day, we were eating lunch and Jack was waving his fork in the sunlit air beside him.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Trying to cut dust particles in half,” he answered.  “If I cut them,” he went on, “will they break up into cells or atoms?”

Free of the confines of school, his curiosity was coming back, and it kept on coming.  He wanted to know about weather, and the Periodic Table, and his old loves, geography and astronomy.  He invented his own carnival games, acted out long imaginary stories with his toy cars, and listened to the Hallelujah Chorus over and over again.  Between playdates and park days, he taught himself Power Point and Comic Life on the computer.  Most of all, he seemed happy again.

At some point, I told myself, we’d start doing “real” homeschooling. I imagined this would happen mostly at the kitchen table and would involve paper and pencils and me teaching him the “important” stuff.  We’d have a schedule and a plan.

But any time I tried to take charge or push an agenda, it backfired.  Jack would melt down, or instantly develop an aversion to whatever it was I was trying to teach, even if it had originated in an interest of his own.  He needed, for a whole host of reasons, the freedom to learn what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted, and for as long as he wanted.

And I needed to get out of his way.

That’s how, in our house, de-schooling became unschooling.  Simply put, it was, and is, what works best for our kid.  It’s thrilling to watch him “go deep”—delving into American presidents or skyscrapers to the exclusion of all else—while also having plenty of time and space to play and be a kid. (It’s trickier when he wants to dive into subjects that we’re less comfortable with, like Minecraft.  But that’s another blog post entirely.)

There are a few caveats here.  Unlike some, we’re kind of old school about things like bedtime and teeth brushing and limits on screen time.  And for all the faults of the public education system, I refuse to bash schools and what for me has been the joy of the classroom.  What’s more, I see a real value, over time, in knowing how to buckle down and learn something that’s not one’s first choice. We’ll have to figure out that one before too long.

But I’ve also come to believe in the wisdom of unschooling, and the way it allows kids to bloom.  For asynchronous kids like mine, it can be nothing short of a miracle.

Wendy Priesnitz of Life Learning magazine writes:

Children don’t need to be taught how to learn; they are born learners. … And if they are given a safe, supportive environment, they will continue to learn hungrily and naturally—in the manner and at the speed that suits them best.

 unschoolingbloghopWant to read more about unschooling?

Who’s Smarter: Me or My Kid?

Blue Glass Light Bulb - 2

A few weeks ago, I published a piece in Salon about the struggle to understand the needs of my gifted son, “Jack.”

In the comments, a reader calling herself Biogirl wrote:

I am going to come across as harsh, I’m afraid, but in my opinion it’s important for you to remember that your son is NOT smarter than you. 

Here is what I would say to her, if I could.


Biogirl, I’ve been thinking about what you said.

You’re so right. My son is NOT smarter than me, and it’s so important that I remember that.

For example:

  • He tries to take his pants off with his shoes still on, and then doesn’t understand why he falls down.
  • He thinks that “I don’t have to go to the bathroom, I just LIKE to wiggle like this” is a convincing argument.
  • He sees nothing wrong—on a germ level or a social one—with picking one’s nose and eating it.
  • He would never, on his own, choose to floss, wear sunscreen, or eat a vegetable of any kind, and really, how smart is that?

And also, unlike him:

  • I know that if your friend wants you to stop singing the same annoying phrase over and over again very close to his face, it is in your best interest to STOP.
  • I know that changing the clock doesn’t make the thing you are waiting for come any quicker.
  • I know that it is not a good idea to make loud, public observations about people’s differences, such as yelling across a crowded store, “That person is so old!”  or, “Hello, black man!”
  • I know that wearing underwear backwards is not as much fun as it looks.

Now, on many other counts, Biogirl, I have to disagree with you.  Because really, there are lots of ways my six-year-old IS smarter than me.

You see, I am in my mid-forties now, and while I do hold a couple of Ivy League degrees, the lady hormones are working their evil magic on my gray matter.

As Bill Nye the Science Guy likes to say (he is a big hit in our household), consider the following:

  • My son pretty much remembers everything we’ve ever done, and where we were, and who we were with at the time.  I, on the other hand, can’t remember where I parked my car thirty minutes ago.
  • When he speaks, the word he means to say is actually the word that comes out of his mouth.
  • He retains the name of virtually every person he’s ever met.  I often find myself saying, “Nice to meet you,” only to have the other person glare and say, “Oh, we’ve met.”  (That’s always fun.)
  • He knows what a “transitional metal” on the Periodic Table is. I would not know a transitional metal if it hit me over the head, which I hope it doesn’t, since I’m not sure what it is or how much it might hurt.
  • He knows how to make Siri call me by a nickname.  I suggested “Rock Star,” but he decided on “Sally Haven A-Whatley.”  Don’t even ask.
  • He knows the order of the U.S. Presidents, their parties, and their major accomplishments.  I pretty much remember the ones I voted for, and the guys on the money.
  • He can read a book and listen to a (different) audio book at the same time. (Yes, as far as I can tell, he is absorbing them both simultaneously.) I cannot parallel park the car unless I turn the radio off.
  • He knows about a great many Revolutionary War figures, including British generals, American patriots, and colonial women spies.  This should make him very useful should we need to plan an insurgency, or should we run low on cash and need someone to win us a bundle on Jeopardy.

But all kidding aside, Biogirl, of course you’re right.

He is just a kid.  I am older and wiser.

To say he is smarter than me in a tagline is just a cheap way to grab eyeballs in an insanely over-saturated media market.  (But hey, it got you reading, right?)

The real problem here is with the word “smart.”

It’s like the word “love.” It means about a thousand different things, at different times.  What are we talking about, anyway?  Raw intellectual ability?  Critical thinking skills?  Social acumen?  Good judgment?  All different things, on which each of us would rate differently at different times, with vastly different real-world results.

What is really true is that my son has a different kind of brain.

From a sheer computing standpoint, he’s got a lot more processing power, and not just because he hasn’t killed off a bunch of brain cells doing the unadvisable things I have.

At any given moment, his brain is doing a whole lot more things at once than mine knows how to do.  In their article, “Brains on Fire: The Multinodality of Gifted Thinkers,” noted researchers Brock and Fernette Eide describe a kind of storm of organized, complex activity all happening at once.

That can be an awful lot for a little guy to handle.

And that’s where I come in.  My job is to help him manage the intelligence he has—how to feed it, benefit from it, enjoy it, and ultimately balance it with the rest of life, and love, and living a world full of all different kinds of people.  My job is to help him develop wisdom, compassion, and perspective.

That’s every parent’s job, isn’t it?

That, and to stop doing the dishes and checking the email for once in my life so I can play Legos with him like he’s been asking.  He and I both know that’s the smart thing to do.

So, Biogirl, maybe we agree after all.

Now excuse me, I have to go find my car.