So, How Do Unschoolers Turn Out?

I am the mother of two boys, 5 and 8 years old. They don’t go to school — instead, we homeschool. More than that, we “unschool.” Unschooling or Life Learning basically means that we don’t use any particular curriculum for learning. I do not force my kids to sit down and do school work. We have no grades, no official textbooks, no separation of subjects, no distinction between “school time” and “free time.” Instead I seek to expose my boys to as many interesting things as I can, to follow their interests, to find the opportunities for learning all over the place. We talk about science and history and politics and language and numbers, but in the context of everyday conversations that might be sparked by a tv show we watched, or a book we read, or keeping tabs of resources in a video game.

I’ve heard unschooling described as “living as if school didn’t exist.” Unschooling is based on the understanding that children, and all humans, seek out the information that is interesting and important to us, without needing to be coerced into learning. Idzie Desmarais of the blog I’m Unschooled and Yes I Can Write describes unschooling this way:

Unschooling (usually considered a type of homeschooling) is student directed learning, which means the child or teen learns whatever they want, whenever they want. Learning is entirely interest driven, not dictated or directed by an external curriculum, by teachers, or by parents. For an unschooler, life is their classroom

We’ve been doing this for two years now and I feel much more comfortable and confident in our choices. But still, I wonder… how will this turn out long-term? There are no guarantees and every child is different, but is there evidence for making any sort of educated guess about how unschoolers turn out? Something based on more than our gut feelings and assumptions?

When you search online for information about unschooling, you come across a lot of people who have very strong opinions about the subject. Most people who hear about unschooling are immediately convinced that there is NO WAY this method could work. That it will surely result in kids who are spoiled, lazy, who never learn anything, who will never get into college or get a real job. I see these comments over and over again, said by other parents, other homeschoolers, teachers, educators, etc.

So… is that true? Is that what happens? What DOES happen to kids who grow up unschooling?

As it turns out, there are a lot of kids who unschool and somehow manage to actually do ok. It’s hard to draw firm conclusions about it as most of the evidence is anecdotal. There are a couple of larger surveys that suggest quite positive results, but those can easily be picked apart as being biased, or having too small a sample size, etc.

I have been trying to search online for evidence of unschooling gone wrong… of kids who unschooled and regretted it, or hated it, or who really did grow up to never learn to read or write or do anything (clearly, there are many people who remain illiterate through adulthood, but that is usually from neglect or lack of opportunity, which is very different from parents who are actively unschooling).

In 2011 Peter Gray and Gina Riley sent out a survey to unschooling families. They received responses from 231 families about their unschooling experiences, what they saw as the advantages and disadvantages of it, etc (see full results here). These responses were overwhelmingly positive, although again that could be sample bias. These surveys were filled out by the parents, who in theory could have blinders on and love everything about unschooling even as their kids were bored and unruly, right?

So then in 2013 Gray and Riley decided to find grown unschoolers and ask them about their experiences directly. They sent out a new survey, getting 75 responses. A summary of the results is talked about here, and Gray did a four-part blog series with more in-depth discussion of what he found (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Some of the responders had always been unschooled (never attended a traditional school), others were only unschooled for a period of time for various reasons. The vast majority had a very positive view of their unschooling experience. Most of them had gone on to college for a bachelor’s or further advanced degree (they CAN get into college!!), and/or had jobs that sustained their living (eg- not mooching off their parents or whatever).

In addition, you can also find many grown unschoolers who become public advocates of unschooling. Not only did these kids grow up into functional adults, but ones that felt strongly enough about their experiences to speak openly and publicly about the benefits.

So, basically, it seems the fears of unschooling resulting in a bunch of spoiled, illiterate adults who can’t function in society are, well, somewhat unfounded.

But surely there are horror stories as well, right? I’ve been searching for them and been surprised at how difficult they are to find. Sure, I could see the parents not wanting to boast about “failed unschooling” but you would think the kids would be speaking out if they felt strongly that their parents had done them a disservice, right? I mean, people LOVE complaining about how their parents wronged them.

I did find a transcript of a Facebook group discussion about kids teens and adults who had felt resentful of unschooling, or felt like they were left behind academically. Usually these were not direct responses, but kids in a family the commentor was friends with, and they viewed the kids or teens as great, intelligent, talented people, but the kids themselves felt badly about themselves. Certainly this is important to pay attention to — it’s important to try to understand why kids may feel that way, and what can be done to ameliorate these complaints. At the same time, I don’t see these complaints alone as a strong argument for throwing unschooling out the window. After all, how many adults today feel resentful, angry, bitter about their own more traditional schooling? Obviously we want to minimize how many people grow up feeling this way. It is a reminder to keep lines of communication open with our kids as they grow up, to ensure that we are helping them figure out and fulfill their goals.

There is a whole other discussion we could have here (but won’t) about what it means to be a “success” and how everyone defines this somewhat differently. There are also factors surrounding class and race that affect the ramifications of a family following such an unconventional approach to education. I know my kids are already at an advantage because we are white and upper-middle class, meaning they are both more likely to have various doors open to them even with a nontraditional educational background, and we are all less likely to be treated suspiciously for being out of school.

All that aside, the findings about adult unschoolers are reassuring. It helps to see other people’s stories and how they turned out, particularly that most of them seem to have enjoyed and feel grateful for the more relaxed upbringing they had, and feel they are the better for it. I hope that as unschooling grows, more research will be done on it so we can know more about the outcomes. Till then, I will make do with what I’ve got — the information and stories we have so far, and letting my gut and my children be my guides.