What Really Matters…

Unschooling is one of those terms that people love or hate. Or at least, the vocal people seem to shout from the far ends of the continuum, and then everyone reacts.  It’s been the same arguments for years now.

I don’t mind the term at all anymore. I used to avoid it, because I wasn’t completely sure we’d stick with such a different way of approaching learning.  Maybe I wanted to give myself room to back out, if we needed to. When my kids were younger and we were “in the thick of it,” I didn’t really care about whether we were considered unschoolers or not.  We were part of pretty eclectic group of homeschoolers and people referred to us as one of The Unschoolers.   At the time, only one or two books about unschooling existed and, of course, we read them. But they didn’t govern our lives.


Back then, the label didn’t have all the cool groovy connotations it has now.  Actually, people wrote about how unschoolers were going to be the unraveling of the homeschooling movement.  Terms like “educational neglect,” were tossed around. While we noticed their comments, we didn’t really react much. We just lived. We wrote about how much fun our families were having learning together.  We dove in, connected with our kids and got creative.  The kids continued to grow and blossom naturally.  And, yes, they learned – every single day.

Today, unschooling seems a little different. People want to BE unschoolers before they even understand it. They’ve read about it.  Unschooling sounds intriguing, so they latch onto it.  They want to leave the school system and quickly find a place to fit in.  We’ve been conditioned to need a group or a tribe to function.  But when people care more about the label of unschooling than actually unschooling their children, a problem exists. The cart is before the horse.  The bowl is hotter than the soup.

And lots of people want to take advantage of those fears. People declare themselves unschooling gurus and want to show you how to “do it right.”  Many of these gurus don’t even have grown children yet. They’re not even done! How could they possibly advise someone else?  All too many people are eager to sit and listen/read along.  People desperately want instructions!

The only real instructions are this:

1. Get to know your child. What makes them tick? What inspires them? Do those things.

2. Explore with them. Discover new places. Read maps. Go places.

3. Create a home environment full of interesting art and music and games and food. Let the home be the place where everyone feels nurtured.

4. Remember that your children are not extensions of you. They have a their own path and their own choices to make. Your job is just to clear away some of the undergrowth that’s trying to get in their way. Stay tuned into what THEY want to do or to be. Help them with that.

5. And know that your relationship with them is all that matters. Learning a particular thing at a particular age, but sacrificing your relationship with them? Please don’t. Realize that it’s years of programming happening in YOUR head saying things have to be a certain way. That’s not true at all.

I would caution anyone new to unschooling to worry less about if you’re unschooling the right way and pay more attention to your own kids. Notice if you have a tendency to stay on the computer to read “just a little bit more,” and if all these fabulous tools are a distraction or a way to procrastinate from plunging in.  Sometimes when we’re so focused on getting it right (which is translated into we’re afraid we’re screwing up royally!) we don’t get around to starting.  Or we don’t dive in and give it all we can. Of course, there are all kinds of psychological reasons for this, and everyone will have to identify their own obstacles.

My dad used to say,”Too much analysis leads to paralysis.”

It can. And as someone who OFTEN chooses to procrastinate, it’s a great tool for continuing to intellectualize all the nuances instead of simply starting.

So with school just beginning for many American kids, dive in with your own.  Create some new “Back to School” traditions. Remember that those blogs, email lists, websites and catalogs are just tools for YOU to use. Not vice versa. Don’t let any of it distract you from the fact that your kids are standing right there in front of you.  And you have this glorious adventure awaiting you WITH them!  Seize the day!

Your kids.  Their learning.  Your relationship with them.
Those are the only things that matter.


If I Knew Then What I Know Now…


14 thoughts on “What Really Matters…

  1. J. Rose Allister says:

    I do still sometimes use the term “unschooling” to those I encounter, but the stigma is still going strong attaching this to uncaring,neglectful parenting. So I more often refer to us as “organic” or “free-range” learners. It’s just as much of a conversation-starter, without the preconceived notions attached. It’s more how I think of ourselves anyway.

    • sue patterson says:

      For a very long time, we just said, “We homeschool, but we do it our own way,” if we were talking to non-homeschoolers.
      If we were talking to homeschoolers, we said unschooling and just let the chips fall where they may. 😉

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Pamela says:

    Love these words of wisdom: ” know that your relationship with them is all that matters. Learning a particular thing at a particular age, but sacrificing your relationship with them? Please don’t.”

    Thank you!

  3. Lua Martin Wells says:

    Great article – I think you show that homeschooling/unschooling is not this complicated thing that needs a lot of costly curriculum – the important thing is to help your kids discover what they’re most interested in! That’s what we did, too, and it worked out just great!

    • sue patterson says:

      So bummed that I missed this comment way back last fall! Lua, if you see this, how old are your kids now?

      Thanks for writing! 🙂

    • sue patterson says:

      Another one that somehow didn’t show up on my end until later… :/

      My dad had quite a few of those little quips of advice. 😉

      I’m happy to share him with you, Kim!

  4. Ashley says:

    I just have to say that this is EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now. I feel like I have buried myself in information for the last year trying to find the “right way” to do things because I am terrified of making a mistake and ruining my kids lives. My question is how do I get over that fear? Every time I get on this unschooling path that feels so right something scares me and I panic. I need someone to say “It will work so just stick with it.”

  5. sue patterson says:

    Ashley, you just have to take the first step… one step at a time. You don’t have to see the whole path and have it all figured out. And, I’d suggest you make some plans for what to do when that anxiety pops up again. Have you ever tried meditating? Even just a few minutes of deep breathing could help. Also, focus on your kids strengths and your relationship with them. All the rest really will work itself out. 🙂

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