Leave Those Kids Alone - Pacific Standard

Leave Those Kids Alone

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.
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When we think of homeschooling, we think of parents taking their kids' education into their own hands and designing their own curriculum. But a growing group of parents—the unschoolers—is throwing curriculum out the window. Pioneered by the educator John Holt in the 1970s, unschooling lets kids decide what they want to learn, and when. Parents’ primary responsibility is to get out of the way.

What inspired you to try unschooling?

When [my first child] was in kindergarten I became really disillusioned. The work they were doing was so boring. I thought it was a big time waste. And I didn’t like the social dynamics.

Milva McDonald, 52, mother of four and contributor to Boston.com. (Photo: Josh Andrus)

Milva McDonald, 52, mother of four and contributor to Boston.com. (Photo: Josh Andrus)

What makes unschooling effective?

Kids want to be able to do what they want to do. That’s why you’ll hear unschooling parents say, “Well, my kid didn’t do any math, and then when my kid was 13, within six months my kid did the entire high school math curriculum.” That can happen if your kid is really driven and motivated.

Adults really want to give kids a chance to lead but they don’t know how. If you’ve raised an unschooler, they know how to learn. They know when to teach themselves. And they know when they need help, and they ask for it.

Switching to unschooling seems to require a pretty big change in a parent's lifestyle, especially because of the time and resources it demands. How much of a challenge is it to make unschooling work?

Unschooling is difficult but it’s not impossible. It opened my life up, because the reality that options exist came home to me. You can find ways to do things.

It is a privilege, and you feel lucky to do it, but it’s not like you’re sitting up on some hill with tons of money. I’ve known homeschooling families that take public transportation and walk everywhere. Families find ways to make it work economically. It takes a certain level of privilege, but there’s also sacrifice.

How far does unschooling go? Do some parents just let their kids run wild?

There’s a group that has coined the term radical unschooling. They say if you put any limits on your child, then you’re not unschooling. I was once on a discussion board and wrote that we don’t have a TV, and I got a big lecture about how I was hurting my relationship with my children by depriving them of television. Sometimes arguments happen on e-lists. If you’re in a school situation, there are rules. But here there is no authority, and people have to work it out, which can be a challenge.

The media likes to find families that are at the extreme of this, that will go on Good Morning America and say that they don’t make their kids brush their teeth.

I don’t want to shove this down everybody’s throat. There are families I know who do great with their kids in school. And there are also families I know that don’t do so great homeschooling.

As a parent, how difficult is it to let go and allow your kids to explore?

Trusting your kids is a challenge. What if your kid doesn’t read when they’re seven years old? There was a point at which one of my children was 11 or 12 and couldn’t spell for beans. So what do we do? I talked about it with this particular kid, and she ended up turning it around with Scrabble.

While it's great for kids to be able to pursue their passions, isn't learning how to deal with things you don't want to do, and cultivating the patience to endure sometimes mundane tasks, important in life?

I completely disagree with the school of hard knocks philosophy, the idea that you develop strength by facing adversity. For children, I think that’s completely wrong. I think it’s just the opposite. I think that children become strong by having their needs met.

I don’t think putting up with things you don’t want to do is anything that needs to be taught. I think life is going to hand that to everybody. There’s just no escaping that.

To many people, unschooling may seem reserved for a certain intellectual class. Do you think parents have to have a particular background to be able to unschool effectively?

To unschool children, I think you have to have thought about it, you have to have done a lot of reading and put a lot of care into it, but you don’t have to have any level of education. You have to be able to help your kid and be a facilitator, and pay attention.

Is it wrong to opt out of public education? Do you worry that just makes education worse for everyone else?

I feel for public school parents who are fighting really hard to advocate for their kids in that environment, and I respect that. But if another family makes a different choice, then we should be tolerant of that. There are a lot of issues in public schools, and no one’s going to save public schools just by staying there. If your child is suffering in school, and your child can actually become a more confident, more educated, happier human being by unschooling, why on Earth would you not do it?

—Milva McDonald, 52, mother of four and contributor to Boston.com

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