Do you trust your child or teen to unschool themselves? Why or why not?

Written Aug 24, 2016

Part of the problem addressing any kind of question regarding homeschooling, or unschooling, is that virtually every experience is different (and since our children are all different, that is a good thing).

That said, I can provide an anecdotal response based on our family’s experience. We have been homeschooling our 10 year-old daughter for one year now, and we are finally settling down into sort of a routine.

From the outsider’s perspective, it probably appears that we are pursuing a somewhat normal, rigorous education, which looks like this:

  • Piano and violin practice daily
  • Guided readings about writing daily (“Models for Writers”)
  • Guided readings (several times per week) from SPQR, by Mary Beard (Ancient Roman history)
  • Daily math discussion, based on “Prealgebra”, Art of Problem Solving
  • Recreational reading (often several books per week)
  • Digital graphics and animation (several hours a day)
  • Computer games / Skype / etc. with friends (daily)
  • Weekly art, piano, violin, Mandarin, and badminton classes

How can this be unschooling?

The key is that, to a very great extent, our daughter has chosen to learn about these topics.

Okay … she didn’t choose the Prealgebra or Mandarin. However, she and I have tried several different approaches to Math, which didn’t work out, and she seems to enjoy the discussions we have as a result of reviewing this book. On the other hand, she is not excited about Mandarin class – but her mother is Chinese; she is already bilingual; her maternal grandparents speak only Chinese. So, in this case, we insist that she learns how to read and write Mandarin.

So, how does it all work?

Well … she spent the first three months becoming a Minecraft Ninja, which was pretty scary for us! However, she got over that, and now spends very little time on computer games. We also worked our way, unsuccessfully, through a variety of different curricula, before settling on the formats that she is comfortable with (we even developed a list of preferred learning formats).

The most interesting thing (to me) is that she routinely disappears down rabbit holes, only to resurface weeks or months later with fairly extensive knowledge. For example, she got interested in Astronomy (probably from watching videos on YouTube from Vsauce, etc.). She kept asking me questions about astronomy, so I pointed her toward a course on Coursera which she took. (Ultimately, I couldn’t get them to issue her a certificate of completion because she was too young!). Anyway, that seemed to satisfy her curiosity about Astronomy. Now she is completely immersed in digital graphics and animation (who would have guessed?). I have offered to get her into a course at the local community college, or even a tutor, but she is perfectly satisfied teaching herself, and by watching videos on YouTube. (In fact, she has become actively involved in online communities for graphics and animation).


Unschooling works because the child chooses what they want to learn, and how. The parent’s responsibility is to provide the resources and guidance to facilitate the child’s choices. In many ways this resembles a mentor relationship.

Do I trust my child to unschool herself? Yes. I am like the pilot who assists the captain of a ship, providing guidance and experience. But, ultimately, the captain is responsible for getting safely to the destination.