Unschool Part 1: The magic portal between how we treat our kids and how we treat ourselves

For the next few weeks, I want to write about unschooling, which is the kind of education we do here at Casa Caliri. Sometimes, though, I hesitate to write about homeschooling. Often people use it as some sort of a “good mother” cudgel. 

I’ll opt out of those Mommy Wars. You do what works for YOUR family, ‘kay? I pinky-swear I’m not being judgy here.

Unschooling makes me see the world differently, and I want to share some snapshots of it with you–to inspire you to live the life YOU are choosing for your loved ones.

And now, on to the post.

When I decided to homeschool, all my reasons were about my kids.

I wanted better things for them than the boredom, anxiety and isolation I felt in school. I wanted learning to be spacious and breathtaking and fun. I wanted a family that spent most of its day together.

Seven years later, all those reasons still resonate with me.

But there’s another reason why I unschool that has a lot more to do with me.

The life we’re living rubs off on me just as much as it does on them.

This month I interviewed Addie Zierman, and she talked how the phrase “intentional parenting” makes her anxious.

As we chatted, I wondered if Addie could see into my brain, because words like “intentional’ throw me for a loop too. I feel like I need to live up to something. I need to do more.

That anxiety is one reason I choose to unschool. When considering home education with my eldest in utero, I knew I would drive everyone around me crazy if I tried to school traditionally. Like Bert sings in Mary Poppins, my default is to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone. I am relentless when it comes to doing, to improving, to being just slightly type-A.

Unschooling assumes that the teaching and learning can happen without anyone grinding anything. That empty space and joy will create magic. That books and blocks and princess clothes serve as a fine curriculum. That play is actually work in disguise.

My work would be more stepping back and letting go than hovering. That sounded hard but sane. I saw friends unschooling; their kids learned a surprising amount of academic facts.

I took a deep breath and jumped.

I don’t regret that decision at all, because I see my kids getting the things I hoped for them.

But just as important: I’m getting that same sort of life to boot.

How? Because how we treat our kids is a magic portal to how we treat ourselves.

I started wondering: I’m giving them freedom to do X, and they thrive. What if I gave myself more freedom?

I started noticing: I give them permission to not be ready for reading, or math, or fill-in-the-blank, and when they are ready they take off like a rocket. What if I gave myself that same space?

I saw that many of the expectations, hurry, anxiety, schedules and grading of school are actually quite optional, and I wondered: Is there any other thing in my life I’m agreeing to without good reason?

I’m not saying that if you unschool, these attitudes will magically set themselves on your shoulders, or that I have them perfectly figured out. I’m not saying you have to homeschool to experience them.

But I know I see this more clearly after seven years of unschooling.

I see that the freedom I give to my kids will rub off on me.

Letting go of anxiety will lighten not just my shoulders, but my kids’.

The patience and grace I give myself will affect how I parent.

How I treat my kids is a magic portal into my heart–and vice versa.


Please don’t take this as me saying you should do better.

Instead, think this: If I give myself grace for being who I am today, I am extending that grace to my kids, too.

Think this: That over-and-over patience I have with my daughter is a deep patience with myself.

Think this: The freedom and creativity I say yes to today is a legacy I’m creating for my son.

Because how we treat other people—especially people we have power over–matters. How we live out our lives in the wiping of noses and making of lunches matters. How we pursue our passions and make playdoh cupcakes matters.

It matters because no matter how small, how humble, and how unintentional, every small decision will be writ large in the sky of our becoming.

If you like the sound of unschooling, check out my very unschooling-inspired ebook, Dancing Back to Jesus: Post-perfectionist faith in five easy verbs.

Image credit: Börkur Sigurbjörnsson

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  • http://project-based-homeschooling.com/pbh-grown-ups Lori

    lovely xoxo

    • Heather

      Thanks, Lori!

    • http://blessedlifewithchildren Angela

      I have to admit, I find this idea of unschooling, but not quite sure what it is. I will be homeschooling starting next year for my daughter.

      • Heather

        Hey, Angela, I hope the post proves encouraging and helpful to you! It is SO HARD to figure out what is the right path in homeschooling; please know that none of us figure it all out at once, and it’s okay to muddle around a bit. So much of homeschooling is learning alongside one another (for adults, this is sometimes harder than for kids–we have a lot more ego involved :)

  • http://fimby.tougas.net renee @ FIMBY

    exactly. interest-led learning and homeschooling was the best thing that ever happened to me (smile) I exaggerate slightly. Other good stuff has happened but learning and desiring to give myself the same freedom and opportunities for creativity and growth that I give my kids has been one of the greatest gifts of the whole experience.

    • Heather

      Absolutely–there are SO many ways to go about this education business, and not all of them fit everyone, but I feel very lucky to be on the path that we’re on.

  • http://www.marblesrolling.com Jacqueline

    Yes! We’re at the beginning of our homeschooling journey…the very, very beginning, and I do feel the same sense of freedom that I’m seeking for my kids as freedom for myself and my projects, my pursuits, my passions. It feels like we’re really sharing the same space in the world and that we’re aligned in the best ways possible.

    • Heather

      “It feels like we’re really sharing the same space in the world” Yes! That there aren’t really arbitrary divisions between the work that adults do and the work that children do, that we can be fellow workers and collaborators even if one of us can’t read or the other has a Master’s degree.

  • Kolein

    Thank you. Exactly the moment I gave up trying to make everything happen perfectly is precisely the moment everything happened perfectly. Freedom to be is every freedom there is.

    Loved the post!

    2 boys, 2 parents, 2 dogs all learning together how to BE free

    • Heather

      Love that, Kolein–letting go is an impressive super power. I find I’m also just more okay now with things not being perfect, or radically redefining my idea of perfect :)

      • Kolein

        Certainly, I do not have “letting go” mastered. Still a student myself in that department. :)

  • Debbie

    Oh my goodness, this is just what I need to hear!!

    I am so in to giving my boys the grace to learn and explore at the pace that is right for them and yet I too quickly place unhelpful and exhausting expectations on myself.

    Tomorrow I can be super-mom again but today I need a nap!

    • Heather

      Oh, I hear you. I am queen of “unhelpful and exhausting expectations.”

  • http://6512andgrowing.com/ Rachel

    My favorite part:
    I saw that many of the expectations, hurry, anxiety, schedules and grading of school are actually quite optional, and I wondered: Is there any other thing in my life I’m agreeing to without good reason?

    • Heather

      It can kind of mess with your head, this realization that so many “shoulds” are optional :)

  • Melissa

    How would this method work with a state that requires standardized testing every year or lesson plan reviews every year?

    • Heather

      You know, Melissa, that’s a great question. That’s not true of California, where I live, so it’s hard for me to speak authoritatively. A few points:
      –Testing: Unschoolers, like other homeschooling kids, generally do very well on tests. Also, I think if there were some reason a certain subject needed to be mastered to check an administrative box, you could speak to your child about it, explain what the reality was, and work together to find a solution. Also, (again, I could be wrong here), but most standardized tests aren’t like entrance exams, where the results stick to your kid for life. It’s just an assessment, one that most unschoolers would question the value of anyway.
      –Lesson plans: Again, you could work with your kid (this can work with surprisingly young ages) to figure out approaches for required subject areas. You might be surprised by the breadth and depth covered by this approach. If nothing else, we have time on our side, since learning happens during any waking hour, during “vacation” and on weekends.
      –A friend of mine lives in a more restrictive state; she was able to find a charter program that’s very flexible and open. (we participate in one here, too). That also solves a lot of the logistical problems). Charters aren’t for everyone, but they can be useful.
      Any unschoolers from more restrictive states want to chime in here?
      I hope that answers your question!

  • Valerie

    This post came at a perfect time for me. Thank you.

    • Heather

      I am so glad to hear that, Valerie! I pray you are encouraged and lifted up today!

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  • kelly

    thank you! this is just what i needed to hear right now. I’ve been divorced a year and am seeing my children doing worse in school, emotionally, and socially now than EVER before. i have desperately wanted to unschool them and am taking the leap this coming fall, but needing to go back to school myself made me terrified. At the end of the day I felt like I would simply not be enough and would miserably fail. Thank you for speaking to a core fear and reminding me to give myself some grace and growing room!

    • Heather

      Oh, I hear you! I think we all long to get to that place where we feel competent–but I think we’re longing after something that’s illusory. I learned a lot from Brene Brown’s thoughts on parenting, where she asks not whether we were doing everything perfectly, but whether we were in the process of becoming the people we want to be. Because that’s what our children will learn: to work out their own path and to keep trying.

  • http://www.penelopetrunk.com Penelope Trunk

    What I wonder is why parents who unschool decide to not be judgy. Obviously the reasons that you choose to unschool apply to everyone. Everyone’s kids deserve to explore the world in the same way their parents do. Parents want to do what is interesting, they want freedom to decide what to read and they want to measure their success by their own definition of success and not someone else’s.

    So why do we pretend that only some kids deserve this? Why do we pretend that only some parents can do this? Everyone can do it. Every family can do it. There are parents who are very poor unschooling. There are single parents unschooling. There are uneducated parents unschooling.


    • Heather

      Penelope, thanks for commenting here. Excuse me while I have a little fan-girl moment.
      Okay, I’m back.
      You know, I completely disagree with you on this. Do I agree that unschooling/homeschooling is backed up by research? Yes. Do I agree that it seems just like the most fabulous idea ever? Yes. Do I agree that’s it’s a viable option for many more people than one might assume? Yes.
      But I don’t agree that we must shame or guilt or scare people into following us. I reject that approach. If we value “..freedom to decide” and “measur[ing]…success by [our] own definition of success and not someone else’s” then we need to give people that freedom. Period. We simply can’t have it both ways.
      Okay, so, thanks for stopping by :)

  • http://SistersUnderTheTrees.com Stephanie Friant

    Thank you for your post. To echo the grace we need to have for ourselves, having my children in public school has been wonderful and perfect for us. The extra support, the Spanish immersion, and the freedom we then have to add to their education as needed is wonderful. We all need to find what works for ourselves, our kids, and our families, and embrace it. Blessings.

    • Heather

      Absolutely, Stephanie. I have many friends who find joy in their public schooling journey. And I think women are also sold parenthood as some sort of precipice journey, where the wrong step, the wrong path will make everything fall to pieces. No wonder we struggle with anxiety. I see the world as a much more grace-filled place, where we CAN make different choices, even if it’s not what “experts” say. We must absolutely extend grace to ourselves and to others. We have to trust each other to make the best choices for our families.
      I think it’s also worth mentioning that me doing things in my family out of a sense of obligation has led me to depression, and dishonesty and unhappiness. It really hurt my family, instead of helping it. I think choosing unschooling or homeschool must come out of a sense of freedom, and a sense of it being good for everyone. An unhappy parent simply is not going to be able to be wholly there for his or her kids.
      I honor and enjoy Penelope’s prophetic voice, but I don’t always agree with her.
      Thanks for sharing your experience here. I hope everyone sees this website as a place of grace and non-judgement.

  • http://www,localgrain.org/fieldsandfire Adrie

    Lovely, thanks for sharing your story!

    • Heather

      Thanks, Adrie!

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  • Barbara

    We have been homeschooling for 7 years. I am now at the point I want to un-school but am unsure of how to do that or where to start? What does that mean for kids in middle school/high school. No clue how to start but right now we are doing school to get it done and none of us are enjoying it. I also have kids age 11, 6, 4 and 2. It seems that someone always seems to not get the attention I want to be able to give them. There is not enough of me.

    • Heather

      Hi, Barbara! Since my eldest is 7, I have no pretensions in “knowing” the answer to your question. But I’ll take a stab at it based on what I’ve heard from others. First, I would think about your overall family goals and values. What lessons do you want your kids to learn? What values are you trying to instill? Then look at your life. Is your daily schedule reflecting those goals? Where is there misalignment?
      When you start making changes, do it _slowly_. Start with the misaligned areas. Or, is there one area/subject/time of day that gives you more hives than others? Is there one small thing you could do today to relax, let go of expectations, or stop requiring compliance? Is there one battle you could stop fighting, trusting that your children will be okay?
      I love this quote from Lori Pickert’s Project-Based Homeschooling (which is a book you might consider buying): “[just as you give your children freedom,] give yourself the right to follow your own path, work at your own pace, follow your own interests, make mistakes, and try again.” You don’t have to change everything today. You don’t need to get it all “right” today. And you don’t have to follow someone else’s definition of “right”. Simply choose to have grace with yourself today as much as you are able, and let that be enough. I promise big things will follow from that small step.
      You might look at Renee Tougas’ blog (listed in the post); she has older kids and has posts that cover how they do learning for middle school and high school. I would bet Simple Homeschool would also have resources from homeschoolers with more experience than me.
      I would also counsel talking to your kids (but I wouldn’t change your entire way of life in one conversation). Ask their opinions. Is there an area of learning that they long to change? How would they like to structure their days? What frustrates them? Invite their opinion, participation, and ownership. It is scary to let go of control, but I have seen with my own young kids that children will surprise you with their self-motivation, leadership, and chutzpah. Their self-direction might not come on your timetable, but it will come.
      I pray you find the grace to know that you ARE enough, just as you are. I pray that you feel supported and held up as you make changes. I pray you feel strongly connected to your kids. And I pray you have grace for each day.

      • http://www.creechclan.blogspot.ie/ Barbara C

        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply so thoroughly. This is so helpful!

        • Heather

          You’re welcome, Barbara!

  • http://lauragraceweldon.com/blog-2/ Laura Grace Weldon

    Children do indeed open us up to so much more don’t they? Awe, laughter, and love so strong it feels like a physical pull. They also open us up to extraordinary lessons as you so beautifully point out here. “A magic portal.” That’s it exactly.

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Sharing on my Free Range Learning page on FB.

    • Heather

      Thanks, Laura! I am so excited to see you here!

  • http://www.quillandcamera.wordpress.com Kara

    I love this Heather. I’m so excited about this series :)

    • Heather

      Thank you, Kara! I am too!

  • Erin

    I’ve been really struggling with this idea. After years of being unhappy and unfulfilled at school, we are considering homeschooling my now 10 year old daughter. I guess I’m mostly concerned that there will be a great deal of strife about Minecraft vs school work. If I left her day to her, she would literally play minecraft/watch mineceaft videos all day. That’s her thing. That said, there are things she needs to learn that can and will make or break her if and/or when she decides to go to college. How do you approach this while “unschooling”? Seems to me there will come a time where she will either be forced to learn that boring algebra/geometry etc or sink when the time comes to need it for entrance exams etc… If love to hear your thoughts on this as we do want to homeschool but are terrified of the potential issues.

    • Heather

      Hi, Erin! These are good questions; I’m still working out how we handle screen time in my house. I think the most important thing to know about homeschooling is that you can really do it in a way that works for you. I think it’s important to pay attention to the values you have as a family and prioritize those, rather than looking to others to figure out the “right” way to do it.
      I will also say that if your child leaves school, she will be de-schooling for months. What she does in those months will be incredibly unmotivated, and it’s not something to worry about. I would really counsel looking into that concept.
      Also take a look at my “unschooling” post for other links to get you started–those authors do a much better job of explaining the “how” of unschooling than I can.
      As for minecraft and other video games, some homeschoolers would say they actually are incredibly educational. You might poke around on this blog, but here’s an entry to get you started: http://project-based-homeschooling.com/camp-creek-blog/friday-link-round-up-5-25-2013
      Lori (the author on that blog) has posts about dealing with screen time too–I find them helpful.

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