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Unschooling: Taking Lazy Parenting to the Extreme?

By sandymaple |

empty-desks-sm250When our children hit a certain age, most of us pack them up and send them off to school.  We do this because it is expected and necessary.  How else are they going to learn the things they need to know to succeed in life?  Of course, not all parents are willing to put their children’s futures into the hands of paid strangers. And estimated 1.5 million children in the U.S. are homeschooled, learning their lessons in the comfort of their own homes with mom or dad leading the way.

But what if there were a third option?  An option that didn’t involve lessons at all?  What if we just let our kids stay home and do their own thing, choosing what they want to learn, when they want to learn, and even if they want to learn?  For an estimated 100,000 kids in the U.S., that is exactly the type of education  – or non-education – they are getting.

It’s called unschooling and parents who subscribe to this unorthodox idea believe that by allowing their children the freedom to do as they please, they will find their passions and the learning will happen naturally.  And if what they want to do involves watching television and playing video games all day, then so be it.

Unschooling isn’t a new concept, but the idea seems to be catching on with more parents.  Good Morning America profiles the Biegler family who are proudly unschooling their two teen-aged children.  Parents Christine and Phil extol the virtues of raising their children not just school-free, but rule-free as well.  They not only shun textbooks and lessons, their kids have no chores, responsibilities or schedules.  One stays up all night long and admits that she’s not prepared should she want to attend college. The other, who hasn’t attended regular school since first grade, says he was “never really into some of the stuff” he was expected to learn back then.

If these parents aren’t worried about what kind of future their undisciplined, free-spirited children will have, parenting expert Ann Pleshette Murphy is.

“This to me is putting way too much power in the hands of the kids, something that we know kids can often find anxiety-producing, and it’s also sending a message that they’re the center of the universe, which I do not think is healthy for children.”

With all the issues kids face in school – bad teachers, bullies and negative peer pressure – I can certainly see the appeal of homeschooling.  But unschooling – at least the way the Bielgers are doing it – feels all kinds of wrong to me.  Not for the lack of textbooks and lesson plans, but for the lack of parenting.  Is it not a parent’s job to prepare their children for the real world in which schedules, limits, rules and responsibilities exist?

I have no doubt the Bieglers mean well and I wish their children all the best.  But, as psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim points out, they are children, not little adults.  Should they really be raising themselves?

Image: Terrapin Flyer/Flickr

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38 thoughts on “Unschooling: Taking Lazy Parenting to the Extreme?

  1. Lucky says:

    And these parents won’t realize what they’ve done until their kids are 30 and still living at home. But maybe that’s exactly what they want.

  2. GtothemfckinP says:

    Future tea-partyers or the like? Or future welfare recipients? In any case, these kids are getting a raw deal. I can be on board with home-schooling, but it would take a very VERY special kid to school themselves in an effective way. SHAME on these loser parents.

  3. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    Why stop at unschooling? How about unfeeding and unclothing? Just drop them in a field and let them fend for themselves. Awesome.

  4. Roy says:

    I wish there was some explanation on how they are getting away with this in Mass. Is the school committee/superintendent approving this situation? Here’s the law:

  5. Stephanie says:

    It will be a rude awakening when these kids have to earn a living in the real world. I hope for their own sake that they’re independently wealthy…

  6. Dawn says:

    This mother in the article apparently said this: “What wasn’t included – Shaun discussing his extensive knowledge of mythologies with Juju, all of the footage of us next to the RV showing the map of the US & explaining our 2 month trip across the …country, our trip to Australia (they asked for photos & we emailed them a bunch from our trips … See Moreover the years), Kimi’s trip to France (without us, at the age of 10!), Kimi’s Japanese Culture class & Shaun’s 3 sword fighting classes at Guard Up. So much knowledge that was discussed & explained to GMA staff, yet never shown on-air. Frustrating, to say the least!”

  7. Poppy says:

    my 7 year old, always unschooled, is starting his own business this year. he has also taught himself (with help from adults when he requests it) math (up to 4th or 5th grade level) and reading. (he doesn’t love reading but understands it’s important to function) yes he watches TV, plays on the wii and computer, he also adores legos, swimming, bike riding, rollerskating, rock climbing, playing cooperative games, art activities, storytelling, caring for animals and plants and playing with his baby sister. he is passionate about what he wants to learn and confident in his learning abilities. he is also gentle, thoughtful and empathetic. he is not gifted or extraordinary. he is like most of the unschooled kids i know. before you judge their parents as doing them a disservice, you should meet some unchooled kids and spend some time with them. i would happily spend lots of time with most of them, unlike the schooled kids i know. learn about these children before you condemn how they are being raised. true freedom can make the spirit shine.

  8. Laura says:

    Not all unschoolers are like this. The ones I knew would be pretty disgusted with this family. Most unschoolers focus on building important educational concepts into everyday life (like learning geometry by designing a treehouse, learning chemistry by cooking, etc.)
    It’s not meant to be college-prep, but you don’t leave the kids to their own devices. The kids I knew ended up in a trade school or apprenticeship situation. This is simply a case of parents being lazy.

  9. jenny tries too hard says:

    This seems more like unparenting than unschooling. Bad idea.

  10. sick of low level discourse says:

    shame? lazy? unfeeding? welfare recipients? loser? they want their kids to live at home when they’re 30? wow, judge much people? let’s shine this kind of light on your parenting styles and principles and see how the comments shake out. you guys with the sarcasm, the opinions, and the judgment – you are the reason for bs like the “mommy wars”. everyone makes sense to themselves, and it seems much more interesting to try to discover what goals these parents are achieving by parenting this way. meaningless and uninformed opinion sharing is what is shameful.

  11. ann05 says:

    Wasn’t the “unschooling” discussion on Babble cited on the NYTs and one of the most viewed articles? I call shenanigans. Starting this up again to cause controversy.

  12. Snarky Mama says:

    Maybe after all this unschooling these kids will be, what’s the word?, right…unemployed.

  13. Poppy says:

    right snarky mama, ’cause we all know the main goal of good american parenting is to produce good little workers for the 9-5 grind. i know that’s why i had kids. (rolls eyes skyward) god forbid we make something else a priority with our children. (children with high emotional intelligence are more successful in life no matter what they do)

  14. Bob Collier says:

    You write: “Should they really be raising themselves?”

    Are they raising themselves? Isn’t one of the features of “unschooling” the amount of time children spend in the company of their parents?

    So, according to you, children who spend far more time with their parents than children who go to school are “raising themselves”?

    That sounds like crazy talk.

  15. Roy says:

    I would be interested to know what some unschooling parents do for a living and what they imagine their children doing in the future. Their options will be limited, there is no escaping that — unless they have superpowers or inherited wealth. I fear for their ‘shining spirits’ when reality comes calling and I hope their high emotional intelligence is of use in that situation. My experience with life tells me that it’s brutal out there. It’s brutally difficult to make a good living and it’s brutally miserable if you don’t. Letting one’s kids learn whatever they may seems a whole lot to me like squandering the opportunity to prepare them for life outside the safe confines of home.

    A lot of wealthy people in this country would be happy if everyone took their kids out of public school, so their taxes would not be spent teaching social studies to the next generation of cannon fodder, hair stylists and exterminators.

    Meanwhile, those same wealthy people send their kids to private school. They don’t unschool them. Why do you suppose that is?

  16. Laura says:

    To the people defending these parents, this is not normal, even for unschoolers! This is a household with no discipline and no rules, not even set bedtimes. Most of the families I knew were unorthodox (I called them hippies behind their backs), but the kids did not make their own rules. That’s just a bad idea, people, no matter what your schooling philosophy. Kids need limits.

  17. Bob Degroot says:

    Like it or not, there is a lot of hard work to life. Also, there is a lot of slog. I am in my mid-30s but I still remember the absolute shock of having to adjust to working, five days a week, all day, all year. After four years of college and three years of law school, where I had a lot of free time, and unend possibilities, and also a beginning and end to everything, the real world was hard. I adjusted and I am still with my same law firm. But I was not prepared. Being an adult means finding joy in life while also meeting your responsibilities. These parents are not helping their children become adults.

  18. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    I have no doubt that the parents that employ these tactics are highly intellectual and provide their children with all sorts of learning opportunities. I simply remain highly skeptical whether emotional intelligence is going to get these children very far in life. The man who came up with the very concept of EI was pretty thoroughly debunked.

  19. Maggie says:


    This presentation is remarkably disingenuous — though I can’t tell whether that’s at the level of ‘what Good Morning America showed in its 3.5-minute spot’ or ‘what Strollerderby is showing on its one page’.

    Most unschoolers I know are providing tremendous enrichment opportunities for their kids, without the artificiality of lesson plans and ‘now it’s time to close our reading books and start our math lesson’ just when the kid gets to the good part of the story.

    Many parents who have broad experience and themselves are well-read are finding they can teach their children MORE in fewer hours of the day than is being done at even the ‘good’ public school districts.

    If Strollerderby’s description of how this family’s kids are spending their time is accurate (which at least one commenter suggests it may not be), then this is the wrong family to highlight as an example of unschooling.

    Looks like just another fluffy, light, unresearched piece that serves as an opportunity to invite the uninformed reader to vote on a straw-man question: ‘should [unschooled kids] really be raising themselves?’

    Well, is that what the parents actually said they were doing? or are we just voting to stir up controversy?

    Strollerderby, you lost my vote today.

  20. Samantha says:

    What is it about the homeschooled (and now unschooled) movement that its supporters are so rabid? I have never read a post discussing homeschooling without someone like Maggie coming on to fight for the movement. Do they spend all their time online looking to defend homeschooling? Shouldn’t they be rather educating their children?

  21. ChiLaura says:

    Really, Samantha? Homeschooling means that every spare minute must be spent with the kids? The homeschoolers I know are typically done with lessons by noon, leaving a large chunk to the day for play or further learning done independently, and for parents to do what they need or want to do. Think of how much time public school kids waste lining up; switching classes; whole-classroom potty breaks for younger kids; waiting for teacher to deal with 20 other kids first: In short, WAITING for everyone else and wasting time. For my high-energy kids, avoiding all that dead time is an impetus for me to homeschool someday.

  22. ChiLaura says:

    Oh, and if you want rabid, try talking to public school supporters about vouchers or homeschooling! Yikes.

  23. Kim says:

    ChiLaura – While it might be annoying, waiting is indeed a part of life. Going to school isn’t just about learning academic content, but learning social skills and how to deal with other people, even when it isn’t fun or exciting or whatever. I understand the appeal of homeschooling, but sometimes I feel like it’s just one more way people withdraw from participating in a larger heterogeneous group, choosing instead to live their lives in a small space, with a select group of people, and with far less interaction with “random” people. The Internet is making it easy for us to do everything remotely, and kids already have so much “screen time” – is homeschooling/unschooling yet another way to avoid dealing with “reality”?

  24. ChiLaura says:

    I see your point, Kim. The answer, though, I think depends on one’s view of education. Is the purpose of education to teach kids how to fit in to society (more negatively expressed, “to become cogs in a machine”)? Or is it to stretch young minds and encourage indepedent learning and creativity? My kids aren’t yet of schooling age, but I know that they learn plenty about patience when we’re waiting in line at the grocery store, when they wait for me to help them with something, when the family is doing something that they don’t particularly want to be doing (waiting at the table while we finish dinner, for example). I just don’t think that learning a skill like patience needs to be done in the classroom. Getting out of the house — stores, museums, music classes, homeschooling groups someday — also allows us to interact with random people in “real life” situations. (Arguably, school is fairly artificial.) And about withdrawing from a larger, heterogeneous group: One argument for homeschooling is that kids are actally exposed to a more diverse age group if (usually “when”) homeschooling families get together for various activities. In any such group there’s bound to be more age variety than a class of 20 other 5 & 6 year olds, which teaches kids how to act more mature when interacting with older kids, and how to care for younger kids. This stuff *can’t* be taught in the classroom, at least not in any concrete way. I would say that homeschooling can be a way to avoid dealing with “reality,” but when that reality may entail boredom, bad influences from other kids, forming an institutional mentality, or any other number of things that parents don’t want for their kids in their most impressionable years — well, more power to ‘em.

  25. MsHashtag says:

    I was so disappointed to find yet another glib, inflammatory Babble article about unschooling. I was prepared to defend the choice to homeschool and point out that the example in the article is not representative of ALL unschoolers.

    Alas, I see ChiLaura and Maggie have said everything I could hope to say — and with great eloquence and passion. Thanks!

  26. [...] Unschooling: Taking Lazy Parenting to the Extreme? [...]

  27. Poppy says:

    kim, what is it that makes you believe that my children haven’t learned social skills or how to deal with people? all the schooled kids i know avoid eye contact with me, don’t say hello, thank you or good bye, and are generally totally focused on other kids. all the homeschooled kids i know are friendly with adults, speak directly to me, look me in the eye, talk enthusiastically about what they are doing, and ask for help in dealing with others when they struggle. i’m sorry, but school isn’t “reality.” it’s the most non-natural and totally contrived environment a child can be thrust into. i don’t feel the need to defend homeschooling, just to try and educate others who are ignorant about what it’s really like. i love our life and wish more children and families could share in the joy.

  28. Kim says:

    How is school “artificial” when it is a part of many people’s everyday lives? It isn’t any more “artificial” than going to a grocery store – for that matter, why not grow your own food? Attending school, being employed, buying things at a store – these are all “real” aspects of our society and culture. You can choose to opt out of any (or more) of these activities, but that doesn’t mean they then become “artificial” or “unnatural.”

    As far as heterogeneous groups go, I’m talking more about socioeconomic diversity, and mixing with people who don’t necessarily have the same exact values, financial standing, educational background, etc. To be able to homeschool/unschool, you pretty much have to have a parent who isn’t working outside of the home, and for MANY families in this country, this is not possible.

    I make this same argument when people talk to me about putting their kids in private schools, by the way. It just seems to me a way to avoid dealing with people who aren’t like you, or situations that don’t cater to your own children’s needs or desires.

    And Poppy, saying that ALL the schooled kids you know behave impolitely or awkwardly with adults is a bit much. Really? Parenting goes a long way in children’s behavior, whether they attend school or not. I’m not accusing your children of anything – I’m just saying that part of school is learning social skills with people you may not necessarily like or get along with or understand. I’m sure your children are perfectly lovely, but talking to other adults or children in a self-selected homeschooling group is very different than going to school with hundreds of other kids from all kinds of families and backgrounds.

    Full disclosure: I’m a teacher, and I believe strongly in public education. It’s a disaster in much of the country, but if we give up on it, we are giving up on a LOT of kids for whom private school or homeschooling is just not an option. And when we give up on these kids, we are in big trouble.

  29. Poppy says:

    we’re already in big trouble if most people believe that forcing your child out of the house nearly full time at age 5 to spend the day with hundreds of other children and adult strangers is “normal.” why is it wrong for me to self select who my young children spend time with? they are my children. it’s my job to protect them. do you actually know any homeschooled children? have you spent any time with them? my FIL is a retired 4 & 5th grade teacher. (38 years teaching) at first he told my H that my son would be a freak if he was homeschooled. now he sings the praises of homeschool and thinks it’s a great thing. humph.

  30. Silver Fang says:

    Public schools are nothing but mental concentration camps. I was an independent learner and wanted to learn on my terms and was persecuted for not going along with their program. The schools need to be reformed so they cater to the students, not the other way around.

  31. Kim says:

    Yup, Poppy – I do know plenty of homeschooled kids. I have no problem with these children and would certainly not call them “freaks.” I’m just raising my own personal questions about the choice these kids’ parents are making and why. That’s all.

    Glad to hear you are pleased with your choice to homeschool your kids. Have a great day!

  32. Faye says:

    Unschooling/homeschooling is not the lazy way out, nor does it mean that kids will end up unable to cope with adulthood. While not for everyone, some kids just thrive w/an unschooling approach to education. There is more to unschooling than what GMA showed:

  33. Roi says:

    I’m extremely offended by this whole thing. I am an unschoooler, and this piece does not represent the Biegler family, or any other unschooling family I know. From what I know, through mutual friends of Kimi, are not a dysfunctional family. And it’s not possible to tell people about a family’s WHOLE lifestyle in 3.5 minutes.

  34. Adrienne Monster says:

    School is ‘artificial’ in that it creates a social environment that is unlike any social environment people will ever be in in their adult lives. At no point as an adult do you interact daily with a large group of people the exact same age, doing the exact same activities, with the exact same responsibilities and expectations, and forced to complete the exact same arbitrary tasks for the exact same arbitrary rewards. This environment doesn’t breed good professional and interpersonal social skills- it breeds a fake hierarchical structure based solely on the clothes you wear, the music you listen to and the friends you have, a situation where bigotry and intimidation are rewarded and social skills (if they are learned at all) are learned through negative reinforcement. Seriously, when was the last time you saw the most popular ‘cool kids’ from your high school days? They probably aren’t living the coolest adult lives.
    The only way you learn from school to interact with adults and superiors is to do the meaningless work they assign you without question- anything but sitting quietly in a desk for 6 hours is insubordination. It creates a false dichotomy between kids and adults, instead of seeing people of all ages and positions as potential friends and peers (exactly the kind of social skills that help people thrive and ‘get ahead’ in the workplace).
    Sure, there are socially-awkward homeschoolers, but last time I checked there were also a whole lot of socially-awkward school kids too- and instead of learning in an environment that encourages their unique interests and ways of thinking and allows them to interact with people who share those qualities, these kids are mentally and physically abused and even more socially isolated in school. So instead of just being awkward, they come into adulthood also feeling anxious, depressed and distrusting.
    I’ve met all sorts of former homeschooled kids with all sorts of personalities living all sorts of lifestyles, but from personal experience, unfailingly there’s one attribute they all have had in common- excellent self-esteem and self-confidence.

  35. Jenna says:

    The idea that most unschoolers are automatically lazy parents is laughable to me. Choosing to spend all day taking care of your children or shipping them off to someone else for 8+ hours a day… if I was a lazy parent I know which one I would pick and it definitly wouldn’t be the first.

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