How do unschooled children learn the important things in life?

by James Davis

When I first learned about unschooling, I had trouble envisioning exactly what that meant. I heard about an approach to life where kids were free to do whatever they wanted, with whomever they wanted, for as long as they wanted, I was understandably skeptical.

I immediately assumed that this meant, “Well, they can learn about whatever they want, as long as they also learn the very obviously important things in life.” You couldn’t have your kids at home and not force them to read, right? They still had to learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, right? But the more I read, the more I realized that these “unschoolers” weren’t even forcing their kids to learn anything at all. When I describe this approach to raising my children now, people almost always conflate the idea that our kids aren’t forced to learn anything at all with an actual risk that they WON’T learn anything at all. But that hasn’t been our experience whatsoever. I’d love to share with you what we’ve learned.

Kids want to learn the important things about the world precisely because they are important

One of the key stories I had to tell myself when starting to unschool was that I could always stop if it wasn’t working. If my kids were “not turning out okay,” I could always change my mind. The need for this safety net disappeared when my oldest son crossed a milestone that I had heard about many times, but wasn’t ready to believe until I saw it for myself.

He taught himself to read.

We had made awkward attempts to help him learn in the past, but we were always rebuffed. I bought him reading apps for his iPad, and they collected dust until they were ultimately deleted. We kept reading aloud to him, and kept reading words we saw in the world, but stopped any attempt at formal instruction. And then one day, I walked into a room and he was reading a book to his baby brother. I stood there in disbelief, not wanting to break the spell. But it was real. Afterward, I pointed out that he had been reading, and he simply shrugged. From that point forward he’s added more and more words to those he can read, and at 7, he’s basically a fluent reader.

Research backs up this phenomenon, by the way. When kids are developmentally ready to learn, they tend to do so pretty quickly. Sometimes that happens earlier in their lives, and sometimes later, but in the absence of adult pressures young people who are ready tend to find the written word as comprehensible as the spoken word.

We’ve had the same experience with math, as well. Both of our older kids ask for math problems, give one another math problems, and are constantly processing the little math problems that life presents all of us every day. We’re there as partners along this journey, of course, and do our best to remove the roadblocks that are a little too big for them to handle.

Here’s the thing – the important things in life that you’re worried about? Your kids will be aware that they are important, too. You can’t live in the Western world without understanding that reading is important. You can’t manage money, or understand time, or even play video games if you have no understanding of math. Allowing our children to come to these conclusions for themselves is vital, though, because if they understand why something is important they will develop their own motivation for learning it. If kids are forced to learn something, even if it is important, there is significantly more risk that they will develop feelings of resentment (if they aren’t interested) or incompetence (if they are not ready) in the subject area in question.

We stick to trusting our kids and their interests. I suppose we could always press the “eject” button if things stop working out, but in the meantime, it's been such a pleasure to watch them learn what the world has to offer from a place of curiosity rather than a place of coercion.


Editor's Note: This article is the first installment in our new unschooling column, where James Davis will share his answers to common questions about unschooling. James is an unschooling father of 3, an entrepreneur, and a Free State Project mover living on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. When he's not spending time with his own children, he tries to get adults throughout the country to rethink the adult-child relationship through speaking engagements and staff trainings. He continues to experiment with the ideas of child autonomy and self-direction at Camp Stomping Ground, a summer camp he co-founded in 2014.

The FSP's publication of participant opinions and activities does not represent support or endorsement and may not portray the diversity of opinions and activities that exists among participants.

  • Aug 15 2017 

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