Five ways to stop unschooling attrition

Published by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 08:12 AM

There is a frequent, whispered conversation that I haven’t seen written about much online: the fact that as unschooled kids get older, they start drifting off to school.

“My daughter has good friends we see at an unschooling conference every summer, but in our town, hardly anyone her age is still around.”

“My son says he wants to go to school. He doesn’t think he’s learning anything.”

“My daughter wants to go to high school next year. She wants more friends. And now my son says he wants to go, too.”

“He’s bored.”

“She’s lonely.”

The two main reasons unschooled kids opt for school seem to be because their social lives are withering away or because they want to reassure themselves that they’re getting an adequate education.

This might be less of a problem in areas where there are plenty of homeschooling and unschooling families, but many of us don’t live in those resource-rich areas. Over and over again, I hear parents lamenting the fact that they can’t find community — or that their community gets smaller every year.

These parents believe in unschooling — they believe it’s the best possible learning life. So why do their kids end up choosing school? What went wrong? And if we want our kids to stick with this lifestyle, what can we do about it?

My recommendations:

- Embrace meta-learning.

Some kids decide to go to school because they don’t think they’re learning anything. They don’t think they know enough. They aren’t sure where they stand vis-à-vis their public-schooled counterparts, or they suspect their schooled peers are ahead. They’re worried about getting into college.

Someone recently tweeted that her unschooled child told her he didn’t think he was learning anything — and she thought this was a good thing. How could that possibly be a good thing? If unschooling embraces the idea that kids learn naturally all the time, then children should know they are learning. They should understand how learning works, and they should recognize their own knowledge and skills. They should know what they know and they should know what to do when they want to know.

It isn’t possible to feel confident and skilled if you don’t know what you know. It isn’t possible to define yourself as a great learner if you don’t know what learning is.

If unschooled kids partly feel happy about avoiding the drudgery of school but simultaneously develop the sense that they’re falling behind — and the only way to catch up is to go to school themselves — then something is wrong.

The point of unschooling should be for children to master how to manage and direct their own learning. The goal isn’t to not be educated by someone else — the goal is to be in charge of what and how they learn, so they can move forward confidently to do whatever they want in life.

They should know how to plan their own curriculum to acquire whatever knowledge and skills they want or need. If they want to learn about Pluto or snowboarding or programming video games, they should know how to pull together resources, seek out experts, figure out what they need/want to know, and self-assess to decide when they’ve reached sufficient mastery.

They should be confident about their knowledge and skills, and if they detect any holes in their learning that they want to correct, they should not only know how to take care of it, they should know that no one else could teach them better than they can teach themselves.

If unschooling is life learning and “learning all the time,” then kids should understand and speak the language of learning. They should know they’re learning.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

In this scenario, learning is the water — if kids are swimming around in it but don’t know what it is, something is wrong.

- Embrace rigor.

Without encouragement, example, and support, kids may not learn how to dig deeply into a subject and get beyond the surface of learning. Without thoughtful mentoring, they may not remember their own plans or develop the routines and habits of mind that successful learners need to make their ideas happen.

If kids just glide around endlessly from one thing to another, never going beyond the shallowest investigation, just repeating the same bland motions (read a book, watch a video, do a craft or science experiment, then move on), they won’t become expert learners. They won’t ever have to work hard; they won’t ever need to tap into their own self-motivation or self-determination. They may even begin to believe learning is boring — because they haven’t yet experienced deeply engaging, meaningful, purposeful, challenging learning. They’re only acquainted with the pale shadow of the real thing.

Some kids will dig deep on their own — but not all of them. Left to their own devices, not knowing how to take their learning further, many will just coast along, not knowing they are paddling around in water that’s infinitely deep. Several years of this and no wonder they start thinking they don’t really know anything.

Some parents don’t think kids will do difficult work on their own, without being coerced or compelled. Those parents pontificate about kids learning all the time, on their own, but they secretly believe kids will quit once it isn’t easy — so when they see children doing rigorous, challenging, difficult work, they don’t believe it was truly self-directed. Ouch! They believe in kids — but only so far.

One mother curled her lip at the idea of a child having a PBH-style bulletin board to display her ongoing work because it seemed “schoolish.” In other words, she equated doing serious work in a serious manner not with children in charge of their own learning, but with school. How confusing it must be for a child to be nudged away from doing deeper, more difficult work because her parent believes that smacks of the institution of school rather than learning itself.

Deep learning not only helps your kids learn more about the world, it helps them learn more about themselves — their interests, ideas, opinions, strengths, abilities, and talents. They find out what what they can do. They become more proficient thinkers, learners, makers, and doers, and their self-confidence grows along with their knowledge and skills. If they don’t learn to challenge themselves now, when will they? If they don’t develop authentic self-confidence now, when will they?

Children educate themselves, but we adults have a responsibility to provide settings that allow them to do that in an optimal manner. — Peter Gray

- Stop segregating.

Having beliefs doesn’t mean you have to stick with your own kind. That’s not what America’s about. We’re the melting pot. I learned that in social studies in third grade. Yep, I went to public school, I drank Kool-Aid, I watched Scooby-Doo, and I am not a monster. I’m smart, creative, generous, and funny. You’d be lucky to have me as a friend — even though I went to public school.

There are homeschoolers with whom I have absolutely nothing in common except the fact that we are both carbon-based life forms. There are families whose kids attend school with whom I have loads in common — hobbies, values, a sense of humor. There are plenty of great kids who go to school — as you may find out if your child decides he needs to go there.

Stop demanding the homeschool ballet lessons, the homeschool tae kwon do class, the unschool archery camp. Get out and mix with the hoi polloi. This means people who homeschool in other ways as well as kids who go to school.

If your child has lots of friends, they won’t need to go to school just because they have fewer unschooling pals. To have more friends, you have to know more people — so stop artificially reducing the pool of candidates. Sure, kids who go to school are less available during the day; so what? There’s no timetable for friendship.

Making friends is a skill a person needs for their whole lifetime — let your child learn how to be open-minded, inclusive, and focus on similarities rather than differences. Help them have a big, ranging, complex group of friends of all ages and educational paths so school and socializing are two separate issues.

- Eschew labels.

Labels serve no purpose other than verbal shorthand. The wider the application of the label, the less useful it is. We don’t say chummily to someone at the playground, “Well, we’re human. Yep. Yep. And we’re, uh, surface dwellers, mostly. We do have a walk-out basement.”

“Homeschooler” and “unschooler” may have had some real significance ten or fifteen years ago when fewer people were making that choice, but now it’s so vague as to be virtually meaningless. Don’t reach for a label and hope to make a meaningful connection with someone. Talk about what you do. Ask about what they do — their interests, their hobbies, their meaningful work. Dig below the surface and make a real connection.

- Stop spouting dogma.

The only thing worse than meaningless labels is the person who insists they really do have meaning and you’re using them incorrectly. And here comes the lecture no one asked for on the topic no one cares about.

Better yet, they let you know you don’t deserve that label. You’re not wearing enough unschooling flair — and boom, they rip off your name tag and throw it in the dirt.

Ungrip from the invisible manual. Leave it in the car. It’s just as obnoxious to lecture someone whose six-year-old is happily reading Harry Potter about the brain-damaging effects of early reading as it is to lecture someone whose eight-year-old is just starting to read. Judgment is boring and if your opinion comes without request, it’s rude. Lighten up.

Your curriculum choices don’t define you. This applies to all homeschoolers and unschoolers, and most of us pinball among the various approaches over the years anyway. Most of us are on a never-ending journey toward our most authentic, best life, and that doesn’t come with a pre-gummed label.

I won’t say that we’re all united by how much we care about our kids and their education — because people who send their kids to school also love their kids and care about their education. We are all an interesting mixed bag and I sincerely hope the most interesting thing about you isn’t the form of education you’re currently using. Get out of your bubble and lose the agenda.

In summary, you can’t dig yourself a tiny little hole, climb in it, then complain that it’s lonely in there. Open it up. Make your learning experiences bigger and more complex; help your child go deeper and further. Believe that children learn naturally all the time but don’t stop there — help them become self-confident, self-reliant thinkers, learners, makers, and doers. Walk the talk: discover just how hard children will work on something they care about when they’re encouraged and supported.

Don’t limit yourself to building a community of clones — connect with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of ways. Don’t label yourself — live a life of such complexity that when people want to know how you live and learn and work and share, no label will suffice.

If your kids decide to attend school, it doesn’t mean you failed. There’s nothing wrong with going to school, and a child in charge of his own learning should be free to make that choice.

But if they don’t think they know enough — and they don’t realize they have the ability to fix that on their own — then something went wrong somewhere along the way. And if they don’t know how to build community and find friends wherever they are, they’ll have to make more compromises in the future.

So pay attention to those core values: learning and connecting. If your kids master those, then wherever they go and whatever they do, they’ll be choosing deliberately from a place of strength. They won’t drift toward something out of loneliness or anxiety — they’ll be confidently charting their own course.



Comment by Louise on June 10, 2013 at 10:57 AM

As someone whose about to embark on project based unschooling this article is excellent. Thank you. It has me simultaneously excited and scared all at the same time. I will need to be mindful of not digging a hole. I'm genuinely going to miss the chit chat at the school gate and fully intend keeping up with the handful of good friends my son has made there.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 11:23 AM

thank you!

congratulations on homeschooling — i am sure you will love it. make new friends but keep the old! :)

Comment by Denise cusack on June 10, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Lori, you always hit the nail(s) right smack-dab on the head! :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 12:37 PM

thanks, denise :)

Comment by Mhorai on June 10, 2013 at 12:09 PM

As someone who is about to start homeschooling for the first time, I find this article to be very encouraging. Thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 12:38 PM

thank you! and congratulations on homeschooling! :)

Comment by Jenny on June 10, 2013 at 12:26 PM

Wow, that was so spot on, and so much help, a salve and a lesson all in one. Thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 12:38 PM

thank you, jenny! :)

Comment by Stacy on June 10, 2013 at 12:48 PM

Finally! So glad to see verbalized what I've been thinking/living/doing, all these yrs! I wish EVERY homeschooler could read this!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 01:14 PM

thanks, stacy! count on me to say what we’re all thinking. ;o)

Comment by katie Pybus on June 10, 2013 at 01:18 PM

Another great post Lori - I don't know how you do it!

This is something we've seen happen over and over but in most of the cases the desire of the parent who was home educating (that's the broad English umbrella term which covers both home schooling and unschooling) to earn money either for financial need or self worth style reasons have often been the true reason.

One thing I've noticed here is that the reasons people tell you that their children are returning to school or starting school might not be the real reasons!

My daughter especially has suffered much heartache as friends have vanished.

We've tried to forge local friendships but have found different rules apply to schooled children. Sometimes after playing with someone at our local park my daughter will offer a phone number or email address but it is rarely followed up on. In fact the reason my comment is delayed is because as soon as I read this post we went to the park to find some local friends to hang out with but once again were the only ones there!

We've found the local parents of schooled children have very, in my opinion, heavily scheduled free time with few windows for just play which we value very highly.

You are so right about strengthening ties though. In one village near us the decision of one family to choose school resulted in 5 others following them with in a matter of weeks.

Very insightful post - as someone whose six year old read Harry Potter (all of them at six) and now has a six year old who can't read that is my internal conversation I have with myself!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 01:46 PM


Another great post Lori - I don't know how you do it!

thank you, katie! ;o)

We've found the local parents of schooled children have very, in my opinion, heavily scheduled free time with few windows for just play which we value very highly.

we have found a lot of homeschooled families are also really heavily scheduled — to the point where you have to find an open slot on their calendar to “just play” as you say (which we also highly valued). and even if you can schedule a playdate, it’s quite awhile before you can schedule another — so none of that loose, collaborative play over days that we value (building a fort, say, or conquering a dirt pile).

heavy schedules seem to cut across homeschooling/schooling boundaries!

In one village near us the decision of one family to choose school resulted in 5 others following them with in a matter of weeks.

exactly — it’s like an avalanche. one stone moves and suddenly half the mountain comes down.

Comment by katie Pybus on June 11, 2013 at 04:06 AM

Ditto on the heavily scheduled home school families - we find that too - sometimes we have to pencil in a play date 4 weeks or more in advance and, like you say, a bunch of days close together work better to really get to know someone. Especially for children for whom time moves so differently to adults.

It is very easy though to be overscheduled and, in my experience, it can be very all or nothing. Once you start signing up for activities the days seem to vanish.

I call it spinning plates!

For a long time the actual timings of after school acitivies didn't work for me at all. With a 4, 6 and 8 year old in a rural area my 4 year old would always fall asleep on the way home (and often my 6 year old too) and consequently not to tired til really late meaning I was very strung out and grumpy.

Mornings work so much better for us which is why we have tended to gravitate towards doing so much with other home educating families.

I wonder if, perhaps, there are two distinct phases. Having been involved with the home ed community since 2005 I've observed that teens just seem to need a bigger gene pool Some parents seem to provide that by choosing school and others by connecting with home ed groups in neighbouring counties for example. Especially with attachment parented children, after being very close at a young age they seem to take wings and fly!

For me at this stage it is about balance and prioritising the sibling relationship (which in our family suffers if we spent too much time with friends and equally too much time together!) it is a fine and fragile balance.

Two of my three are the deep real learners you describe and one needs huge amounts of help so that point of your post really resonated with me.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 11, 2013 at 07:02 AM


I've observed that teens just seem to need a bigger gene pool Some parents seem to provide that by choosing school and others by connecting with home ed groups in neighbouring counties for example…

i think this is possible — that teens need a bigger gene pool. it makes sense that you need a larger group if you’re ready to date, for example.

that “some parents provide” jumps out at me — i think part of the problem is that kids by this age should be a little more adept at building their own communities. volunteer work, a larger pool of friends, part-time work, online communities, participating in community efforts — there are so many ways for kids to weave a stronger web of connections and friendships as they get older.

Comment by Janet Stücklin on June 10, 2013 at 01:41 PM

I see the world has changed a lot since I was homeschooled. I kept the "h-word" out of conversation as much as possible because I would get attacked. If I used homeschooling as a reason to limit my social pool I would have been alone indeed! So much of what you've written here didn't apply to me, and I still wanted to go to school for the first reason you site: I was afraid I was behind. I knew I was ahead in math, but I felt behind in other things and here's the thing, espeically with private schools, the marketing materials are really impressive.

If an unschooler/homeschooler compairs himself with the ideal a school reports to have he will likely feel he's come up short. However, the reality is rarely as wonderful as the reports, so for me, it was extremely helpful to visit some schools and realize first hand they weren't all they were cracked up to be. Still, I ended up going to public high school so I could be in the band and chorus (not enough homeschoolers in my day to have a decent music program to ourselves!), and I had a blast - for half a year. Then I discovered that not all teachers were interesting in my learning, but only in my doing the work. A self-directed learner won't put up with such classrooms and homework for long and I went back to homeschooling (though I kept on with a few great classes with flexible teachers).

My main point is, for a child who has never had the school experience, it has a kind of mystery that those who have been there can't quite understand. Even if you went to public school, you can't share that experience directly with your child and that child may have to experience it first hand to become fully convinced that what they have outside of school is better than what's inside. Don't worry, they won't loose everything they've learned just because they go to school for a while! Trust them in school as you trust them out and see if they don't surprise you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 01:48 PM

agreed, janet, and i tried to make it clear in this post i am in no way against a child going to school if that’s what they choose — i just think it should be a choice based on what they need and want and not fear/anxiety/loneliness that could easily be avoided.

thank you for sharing your story!

Comment by Janet Stücklin on June 10, 2013 at 02:00 PM

For sure! I think the world really has changed a lot since my day. Homeschooling included unschoolers, but it seems that's changed as well - labels are dangerous, as you say! It's so strange to hear of homeschoolers doing something just because other kids are doing it. That's the way my public schooled friends acted - not something any of the homeschoolers I knew did! With popularity come dangers. I guess early homeschoolers also gained some advantage from having to constantly defend our educational choices. But I think I'm hijaking your post and making myself sound like I'm in my 60's . . .

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 02:22 PM


Comment by KC Pagano on June 10, 2013 at 02:20 PM

I really like the part about not putting yourself into a box and ignoring labels.
When i arrived here in France I wanted immediately to find a homeschooling community, however I was met with nothing. There is NO structure for homeschooling. And even worse there are no activities for 3 year olds. Once they turn 4 however it's a whole other ball game. There are plenty of activities for them to do on Wednesday or Saturdays. There is no school on Wednesday here and Saturday is a weekend day when everything is open.

The culture here is to go to school. Homeschooling is legal but it's heavily regulated in a way I wouldn't be able to keep up with. So if we stayed here I would end up putting my children in school. I had to come to terms with this as I was so into a homeschooling only groove. But now after much meditation I can see that I can continue to help both my girls learn even when they are in school and our project time doesn't have to stop just because they are in school.

I love that you tell it true Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 02:24 PM

thanks, KC! and whether your kids are in l’êcole or la maison ;o) you’re all awesome and you’ll be great!

Comment by mguill on October 6, 2013 at 05:14 PM

Hi KC,

I don't know where in France you are located, but homeschooling (IEF in France, for Instruction en Famille) is infact quite widespread in France. There are 3 national organizations that connect homeschoolers that all (well, at least two of them do) have local branches; L'eda, LAIA and Cise. The two first ones organize national meetings through the year, summercamps etc. There are also several discussion lists on the Net and quite a few blogs from homeschooling families can be found.

I'm surprised to hear that you feel you can find nothing in terms of homeschooling. While organized activites specifically for homeschoolers aren't developped, there are certainly lots and lots of local groups of homeschoolers that meet up all over France. I'm a member of a group in the South of France, that has over 100 members and meet up regularly for play, fieldtrips and activities. I'm sure there must be something within your reach, somewhere.

With regards to regulation, it actually varies a great deal depending on your location, how the controls are carried out and how strict they are.

If you'd like to continue homeschooling and are interested in finding support and network, may I encourage you to look up the organizations I mentioned above? I'm confident that you'll find that homeschooling is infact "alive and well" in France too :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 6, 2013 at 07:00 PM

very interesting! thank you so much for the info!

Comment by Sue on June 10, 2013 at 04:03 PM

After years of struggling with the social issue in particular, I have come to believe there are no easy answers. Our own homeschooling community is small, and mostly elementary aged. There are definite sub-groups which tend to be geographically and religiously divided. Finding people who would be real friends is very difficult. And even when the teens have made friends - do the parents get along? Because unfortunately that is necessary. Even putting aside issues of adult judgment of other families (which happens endlessly because homeschoolers tend to be very set in their values and rigid about keeping their circle of friendship pure) there is the fact that even through the teen years, homeschool mothers tend to stick very close to their children. How do teens make friends if their parents are always right there? And how do you develop a strong, real friendship if you only see each other once a week because of heavy scheduling or the parents not being up to socialising?

Mixing with the hoi polloi is a great idea - except how do you do that without attending classes? Teens generally don't play at the local park. Exactly how do you connect? Or enable your teens to connect? Also, homeschoolers really can be very different from high schoolers, even just in not knowing what the popular trends are. Many have a very different vocabulary. This makes initial connections difficult. I've spoken with homeschooled teens who have gone to school and they say they feel significantly different from everyone else and it makes creating friendships hard.

Sorry to be so negative. The friendship issue is big here - except for those who are strongly religious and attend the same church etc - and I see many teens go reluctantly to school because of it.

I loved what you wrote about the academics though. That was really helpful and definitely food for thought.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 04:25 PM


sue, you bring up so many good points about the difficulty of maintaining kid friendships, let alone homeschooled kid friendships. we have struggled with these issues as well.

The friendship issue is big here … and I see many teens go reluctantly to school because of it.

are you saying you don’t see an easy solution to this problem? because i completely agree with you. i do think it helps, though to have multiple communities so you aren’t over-dependent on any one friend or group of friends.

thank you for your comment!

Comment by Janet Stücklin on June 11, 2013 at 12:50 AM

Homeschoolers are different. So are kids who were raised overseas and return to their "home" country. Not having the same experiences as everyone else makes you different, and that comes with blessings and difficulties. I wonder why you focus on finding like-age friends, though. This seems to me to be a very strange idea of socialization, and a big reason why I don't buy most peopls's objection to homeschooling on social grounds. It's always nice to have one or two close friends with whom we have a lot in common, but in most of the real world you do not have a group of like-aged peers. If you focus on interests rather than age, then there are plenty of ways and places to find friends. Not if the parents are hovering, though, but that seems like a strange thing to do to a teenager.

But if Lori says it's hard then things must be quite different now. I'd never heard of a homeschooler complaining about the social question before - that always only came from the outside!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 11, 2013 at 07:18 AM


Homeschoolers are different. So are kids who were raised overseas and return to their "home" country. Not having the same experiences as everyone else makes you different, and that comes with blessings and difficulties.

while this may be true *sometimes*, i don’t think it’s homeschooling itself that makes kids different; it’s the parents’ other choices. never having watched TV or played a video game makes you different when you’re with a group of schooled kids. if you’ve always been with the same small group of kids, then you tend to stand out. but if you’ve been mixing with all sorts and you do the same activities and are members of the same teams and go to the same park and pool … you see what i mean.

If you focus on interests rather than age, then there are plenty of ways and places to find friends.

yes! and being out of school and not having to stick to same-age friends is great.

sometimes parents tell me their child only has one or two friends and i think, well, that seems like plenty to me. i don’t think kids in school usually have more than one or two *real* friends. the problem usually turns out to be the rest of the child’s social life, which is an aching void of nothingness while they wait to see their friend again. the real problem is that the the rest of their life needs to be full and enjoyable.

if Lori says it's hard then things must be quite different now. I'd never heard of a homeschooler complaining about the social question before…

i was confused when i was running my small school that parents mostly cared about friendships — they were extremely concerned with who their child was friends with, how many friends they had, etc. i had a parent change schools because she didn’t feel her daughter had enough same-age friends of the same gender to host a sleepover birthday party. :/

moving to hs’ing, friends still seem to be a major concern. it seems like every other part of hs’ing is easy to negotiate, but people can’t control whether their child has friends — or enough friends, or the right kind of friends. that seems to be the paramount issue when they choose activities.

i don’t know if it’s because most neighborhoods here have turned into ghost towns with few children around to play during the afternoons and weekends — because most kids have scheduled activities, soccer games, classes, after-school care, daycare, etc. etc. kids just seem to not have as many friend opportunities as in the past.

it is certainly interesting…

Comment by Janet Stücklin on June 11, 2013 at 07:53 AM

Interesting indeed. Thanks for the insights!

Comment by april on June 11, 2013 at 12:17 AM

This post really struck a chord with me. My oldest will be high school age next year and she isn't the one considering school, it's ME! I am the one who wants her to have a wider social outlet. And, since we live in a small town, there are few outlets beyond public school. I absolutely believe my children are learning. (we are loosey goosey homeschoolers who fall more toward the unschooling side of the spectrum.) I cannot, however, keep convincing myself that it's "enough".

One thing I've experienced, though, is that while we are inclusive of all, and willing to make and nurture all kinds of friends, the "hoi polloi", as it were, is more suspicious of us than we are of them! Which is to say, we've had some uncomfortable, awkward situations where families with children in school are immediately defensive and suspicious of our "non" schooling.

We are feeling disconnected in our house. And, while I'm tempted to consider school as a solution, I know the real answer isn't nearly so simple.

but it is incredibly helpful to be reminded that other families struggle with similar doubts!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 11, 2013 at 07:21 AM


while we are inclusive of all, and willing to make and nurture all kinds of friends, the "hoi polloi", as it were, is more suspicious of us than we are of them! Which is to say, we've had some uncomfortable, awkward situations where families with children in school are immediately defensive and suspicious of our "non" schooling.

do you think that’s because it’s a small town? :) (i say that having grown up in a tiny town and living in a small town now…) for some reason, people in a small town take much larger offense when you don’t opt for the local schools!
this is another reason i think it’s a good idea to participate in “regular” activities, scouts, classes, swim lessons, etc., over the years rather than always opting for the homeschool/unschool version — your kids make friends who go to school. then you have someone to stick up for you and say “they’re homeschoolers … but they’re okay.” ;o)
Comment by Carissa Houston on June 11, 2013 at 09:49 AM

"You're not wearing enough unschooling flair." -- I absolutely love your sense of humor and I have subscribed every which way. This is the best post I've read in a week; not only because I agree with you but because it is damn funny and spot on! Thanks!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 11, 2013 at 09:57 AM

thank you, carissa! ;o)

Comment by Spalva on June 12, 2013 at 02:19 AM

Love this so, so much. So much!

I wish I had read this eleven years ago when I was addicted to a certain discussion board and its strict labelling of everything from unschoolers to co-sleepers to AP mothers and non-coercive parents (a group of letters I've long forgotten). I can't believe now some of the stuff I espoused. I can't believe how I've criticized and judged and lectured -- precisely the way you describe it. I've wished a million times that I was never introduced to that place.

I've been an unschooler. And I've been a school parent -- because my daughter, although bullied at school, kept wanting to try again. School has been horrible...and school has been great -- a lot like everything in the world. A lot of the horribleness gets tempered by what we do as a family, by nightly read-alouds, by allowing my girls to explore their interests, honoring them, encouraging them. Public -- or private -- school is not the death knoll of individuality.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 12, 2013 at 08:51 AM


School has been horrible...and school has been great -- a lot like everything in the world.

yes! :)

thank you so much for your comment — so glad you’ve moved beyond labels into a happier place. and thank you so much for your kind words about the post!

Comment by Darcel {the mah... on June 12, 2013 at 01:24 PM

Loved this post. I left several unschooling groups because of the strict rules and the way they treated others seeking real advice. Always felt every word I said would be picked apart. Now I refer to unschooling because it's more well known and it's the method we associate with most. I have no trouble saying my daughter has aspergers and dyslexia...that was another no no in some of the groups I belonged to. Now I feel free to unschool in a way that works for us.

We have and hangout with friends who go to school and who homeschool. I love our community and I'm very thankful we have such a large homeschooling community here. Plenty of resources and things to do.
My girls are in scouts and I just discovered that my oldest wants to do more paperwork type stuff, but she is hesitant because it's so hard for her to remember symbols and having trouble with the alphabet.

I love this journey we're on and I love being able to allow my children to learn and grow at their own pace. I'm very thankful for this blogging community.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 12, 2013 at 03:16 PM

thank you, darcel! you are so right about being thankful for the blogging community — for those of us in areas with fewer hs’ers/us’ers, it’s especially valuable. <3

Comment by Cindy Gaddis on June 15, 2013 at 11:03 PM

Awesome post, Lori! Oooh, I've been thinking these things for SO long. And I also noticed a shift in home/unschoolers around the 11-13 year mark. I've come to discover that it may be a natural brain development shift.

I also just recently wrote a post talking about how I home/unschooled my children. You will notice that I recognized a shift happened at 11 to 13, and my children were looking to be mentored in more formal and deeper seeking learning.

I would love your feedback on it in lieu of what you write here. I think you and I are a LOT alike :-) Oh, and I saw your posts because I was looking to recommend your site/book to someone else, and stumbled on this.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 16, 2013 at 07:37 AM


hi cindy, and thank you. :)

with pbh, of course, mentoring starts at age 3, and children are encouraged to seek out experts and mentors outside the family from the beginning. this becomes a habit that is solidly in place by age 11.

i think that if there is a brain shift as you suspect, it catches off-guard the parents who haven’t been mentoring and helping their kids direct their own learning in a rigorous way. the only path their kids see toward “real” learning is the traditional one — what a blow!

taking kids’ learning seriously from the beginning, showing them how to find their own mentors as needed, and helping them learn deeply and rigorously means that as kids get older (and i see kids much younger taking ownership over their learning, so not sure about the timing!), they know they have the ability to organize what they need.

Comment by Joyanna on July 4, 2013 at 12:59 AM

I so appreciated the meta-learning section! I've read a shorthand definition of metacognition as self-knowledge and task knowledge (which I've liked,too). Like your post, if we don't know ourselves (strengths and weaknesses) and /or the task (the content/topic and the demands of the process itself), we can't see our progress.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 4, 2013 at 07:48 AM

thank you, joyanna! :)

Comment by kmama on July 21, 2013 at 02:56 AM

I read this post with interest, because not only are we home schoolers, we have moved house (and country) often. As a result we have friend dotted about all over the place, and I have found that me eldest two and youngest one make friends quickly, whereas my second youngest is shyer and more likely to follow his big or little brother.

I used to worry about this constantly, and tried (and failed!) to find friends his own age just for him. It was actually my issue, as he -aged nine - believes that he has stacks of friends, many are virtual via minecraft but he lists our elderly neighbour and the sweet shop owner right in there with the kids his own age, and he is happy with the friendships he has.

I have also learnt to embrace all types of home schooler, the Pagan witch, the Christian home schoolers, the environmental activist etc. and I've learnt from all of them. Facebook has proved invaluable at maintaining these friendships!

The taking ownership for their learning we are still working on, but I'm aware it's on my part :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 21, 2013 at 10:56 AM

awesome. :)

Comment by Becca Hall on January 3, 2014 at 03:09 PM

I love this post. As someone who was in and out of school and unschooling, then went to Stanford, and now teaches writing to homeschoolers, I can say that I don't think homeschooling or not homeschooling was the determining factor of whether or not I had a good year at any one point in my education. It had much more to do with whether or not I felt a sense of excitement and agency about learning, and a sense of belonging and community.

Who says you can't unschool while going to school? It's a way of being, not an activity, right?

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 4, 2014 at 11:00 AM

thank you, becca! and i absolutely agree with you. students who go to school can feel control over their situation and know they *chose* to attend and they are there because they want to be — or they can feel completely at the mercy of someone else. it’s all about attitude and perspective.

Comment by Maia on May 6, 2014 at 03:57 AM

I believe the parent's outlook towards unschooling and the wholeness of it makes a huge impact on how the children will think and feel about it. Like if the parent isn't fully confident that unschooling works for their family, no matter how long they've been doing it already (or perhaps, trying to), then sooner or later, the children will start doubting about it, too. The children would depend on the parents for encouragement and support, but if the parents themselves have doubts, it's gonna show, and we couldn't blame the children for not having confidence that unschooling could actually work for them.
With regards to embracing rigor, I somehow have a different feeling towards this. I feel like it's not that the parents became lax, or were not encouraging enough, or that the child might have not explored enough which could lead to why self-directed learning won't work. It might just be that the child may not have found yet what truly interests him, or that one passion which could give him that drive. I think if at one point, the child finds it, he won't really need that much encouragement because it would already come from within. Yes, I believe that we should provide enough opportunities for learning, but not to dwell so much on everything for fear that the child might miss his would-be passion. I think that if the child is given just enough (and not too rigorous) chance to be exposed to certain activities, he would definitely not miss that which would awaken his passion.

Comment by Lainie Liberti on October 15, 2014 at 12:44 PM

I really love this article, a lot of great recommendations, many of which really apply to the mindset of the parent. Learning and connecting are the core values behind self-directed learning and yes, as parents, that is precisely what we should be supporting.

Attrition to high school.
I am grateful my son has never expressed the desire to do this, because from an academic perspective he feels satisfied with his own learning experiences. But you know what?
I get it. I understand why many teens may make the decision to go to school.

During the teen years, everything does change. The brain is developing in different ways and the social aspects seem to hold a much greater importance. My son is 15 ½ now and I can say with complete certainty, his social needs have changed from 10 to now.

As you suggest in your article, we need to stop segregating! And realizing that segregation is self imposed in most cases can be a huge epiphany for many. From our personal experience, we have to make a daily effort to connect with others from all walks of life since we are a traveling family and not in our home country. That has been a huge lesson in connection.

But still there are social needs that do require connection among “peers” for my son. But I feel the balance can be found by redefining the definition of “peer” not solely based on learning styles (unschoolers) or age or gender or any other arbitrary division. Rather defining the idea of a “peer” as someone who has a similar interest, say perhaps in animal husbandry, farming, creative writing, science, sports, etc. That could satisfy the social needs of the teen, who otherwise may be considering going to school.

In our case, we have started to meet those needs by creating social learning opportunities in the form of “immersive learning communities”. We've learned so much from this. I am certain, this model can be applied in any town or country, based around any topic or interest. It requires 2 things really: Learning & Connecting.

In our case, we use PBL as one component of social learning within our “learning communities”. It works well for us, and I see how this can work well with any self-organized group. But what this does mean is that the parents and learner need to redefine the meaning of “peer group” first and actively meet their own social needs by seeking out community and defining the project objectives. You know, project based learning. ;)

By the way, we've been blessed to find PBL over a year ago, and it's something my son uses often mostly for his self-directed writing projects. Thanks again for this article and form for exchanging ideas.

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