twitter facebook stumble upon rss

Why I Unschooled My Three Kids

sign up for the momlogic newsletter Tweet This

When we heard about unschooling this week on "GMA," we weren't sure what it was all about. We wanted to find a mom who had unschooled her kids and felt this was the right decision for her family. That led us to Sandra Dodd, who unschooled her three children -- now aged 18, 21 and 23. They never had one day of "normal school" -- and Dodd has no regrets.

sandra dodd

momlogic: Why did you make the decision to unschool your three kids?

Sandra Dodd: It wasn't "a decision" made all at once. We registered to homeschool the first for kindergarten. That was so easy and fun, so we went another year. Each child had a choice to stay home or go to school, and by the time the third one chose home, I had five years of good unschooling experience and it was an easy choice, because our home life was peaceful, busy and interesting.

I knew four homeschooling families for a few years before I considered homeschooling. Two were doing school at home and the other two were unschooling. The unschooling families had great relationships with their children and the kids were more open, honest and communicative. I wanted that.

ml: Can you explain what "unschooling" means to you?

SD: Unschooling is arranging for natural learning to take place. It involves having a rich environment and respecting children's ideas and interests.

ml: What's the difference between unschooling and homeschooling?

SD: Unschooling is homeschooling, but it's not school at home. Not all homeschoolers recreate schools' schedules, lessons and tests. Some families have book reports and other things that have to do with management of large groups. It's as though they've brought the assembly line home for just one child, or a few children.

Some people homeschool because they think schools teach too much and aren't controlling the kids well enough. Some people homeschool because they think schools teach too little and control too much. I don't mind my kids learning things schools fear to teach, or having choices in their lives. Practicing on small things gave them knowledge and experience when they were old enough to practice on larger things. Some families homeschool to limit their children's access and freedom. For us, it's the opposite.

ml: You've said that your only regret about unschooling was giving your son two and a half/;reading lessons at age 7 -- can you elaborate on that?

SD: I was concerned with the opinion of my in-laws. My son wasn't ready to read. I bribed and pressed, and partway into that third lesson I looked at him and realized I needed to care more about how he felt than what my mother-in-law thought, and the partnership and relationship with my child should be primary. I knew he would learn to read, and he did. His breakthrough "reader" was a Nintendo player's guide, not at all "a beginning reader." First he learned to read maps and charts. Then the words came. Being read to and being surrounded by text didn't hurt, but it was his interest and desire and mental abilities all coming together that made it happen effortlessly.

My other two learned to read differently, but on their own, too. We answered all their questions and helped with words and discussed why English spellings are odd sometimes, but those were conversations and not lessons. Each person, in school or not, figures out how to read in his or her own way.

sandra dodd

ml: How do "unschoolers" learn to read and write?

SD: Children want to do what parents are doing. Parents who write for fun, make lists in front of their kids, read and write letters (or at least e-mail) and share that with their children are making it seem important and useful. Parents who don't write at all might have a harder time having children who wanted to do it, but we had no problem at my house. Their early writing was often lists of things they owned or wanted, or the rules to games, or poetry. Sometimes I would transcribe and they would rewrite, but it wasn't an assignment, it was a game, done because they thought it would be fun. And it was fun, because when it stopped being fun they did something else.

ml: You used to be a teacher -- did that factor into your decision to unschool your kids?

SD: The education classes I took were in the early 1970s, at the height of the school-reform movement, at a university where "The Open Classroom" was valued and promoted. I taught in the days that teachers were given a great deal of free rein, in a school where many of the other teachers had known me my whole life. That was good. But school reform didn't take, and things slid back to less creative ways again. I'm sure the experience made it easier for me to have confidence that a rich environment and attentive adults could be enough.

ml: Your kids are now 18, 21 and 23. Can you give us a bit about how they're doing now -- whether they're in college, employed, have their GEDs, are happy?

SD: They're all happy and healthy and involved in various things. No GEDs necessary. The oldest lives in Austin and works for Blizzard Entertainment. For those who don't know what that is, it's a strong and growing international company. They paid for his move, he has good benefits and paid vacations. For those who do know what Blizzard is -- yes, it's a cool job. He's been working for them since he was 20.

The middle child has had three jobs, all of which has lasted over a year. That's pretty good for a 21-year-old. He's a drummer. He's buying a Jeep. Recently he's unemployed, but it's partly our fault. He helped me with a couple of unschooling conferences, and helped his dad after shoulder surgery recently. He's had some housesitting and childcare gigs that paid well. He's undecided about job or college, though he's registered for the community college for summer. Friends keep inviting him on out-of-town trips and it doesn't bother us at all that he's taking advantage of those opportunities.

The youngest is in Quebec for a few months, living with a trilingual unschooling family and helping them with their young daughters. They'll be going to a conference near Montreal in June. I'm going to visit before then, on the way to a different conference at which I'm speaking in New Jersey. Last winter, she spent six weeks in the U.K. with an unschooling family, and before that she was in Oregon with a family she's known for several years. She's getting to see other parts of the world and learn more about family dynamics, which has always interested her. The host families get to know someone who grew up without school, which helps them have confidence that unschooling can work.

ml: Do you have any regrets about unschooling your children?

SD: None. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

ml: What is "radical unschooling"?

SD: Unschooling is learning from the world around. Radical unschooling has to do with seeing that learning is much more than academics, and that learning happens all hours of the day and night, not just "during school hours." It's not radical in a revolutionary way. It's radical in that it is based in the root of the idea of natural learning.

ml: How do you respond to people who say unschooling is irresponsible?

SD: No one who knows our family in person ever says that. When strangers who don't know what they're talking about say it, I offer them a link to my blog or website.

ml: What's your advice to others considering unschooling?

SD: There's not a quick, short answer to that. I help others understand unschooling all the time, every day, and have for fifteen years or more. It's simple but it's not easy, because the parents need to recover from and overcome the deep fears and prejudices that come from years of schooling. A child will recover from school quickly, but it takes longer for the parents. Many have done it, though, and found their lives to be more joyful and light. I advise them to be their child's partner, not his adversary (advice I was given by a La Leche leader in 1986). I tell them to look directly at their child without overlays or filters or labels -- to see who he is, right now, and respond to that. I say if they're worried that they're not doing enough to make life interesting and sparkly, they should do more. Many unschoolers have contributed writings and ideas and images we can refer newer unschoolers to. Information and inspiration are available.

Some people say, "But I have an outside job." Learning doesn't need to happen "during school hours." Even if a parent works 40 hours, there are still a lot of learning-hours left in the week! Where the children stay while the parent is at work doesn't need to be "school." It could be any caregiver. Once a parent gets into the swing of unschooling, she'll see that learning happens all the time.

ml: Do you think public school can squash the love of learning in some kids?

SD: Everyone knows that.

ml: Did your kids have rules like bedtimes, no candy before dinner ... that sort of thing?

SD: We didn't have those rules, but our kids went to bed every night and didn't eat candy before dinner. It seems crazy to people who believe that the only options are rules or chaos, but our children slept when they were sleepy, and ate when they were hungry (or when something smelled really good, or others were eating), and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they were able to know what their bodies needed. I grew up by the clock, up at 6:30, eat quickly, bus stop, school, wait until lunch, eat, wait until dinner, go to bed. I had no idea that sleep and food could be separated from a schedule like that, but they can be.

sandra dodd

ml: Did your children have friends growing up?

SD: We were involved in La Leche League, and we've stayed in the same town, so there are still friends they have now whom they've known since they were babies. They've had friends from karate, hockey, dance, homeschool playgroups, the gaming shop, and met friends of those friends. They made friends playing Pokémon when that was first big. Our house was a hangout, too, with extra tables, board games, video games and room to stay over. Kirby was involved in an animé club for several years, and went to conventions in Denver, and would be sent to run the animé room at local events.

They've also made unschooling friends increasingly over the years, from all over the country -- people they met at unschooling conferences. They've visited in other states, and we've had visitors.

ml: What are some of the unconventional ways that your kids learned outside of the classroom?

SD: Video games and collectible card games. At first I thought "nothing unconventional," but I'm sure many people would think so. We did a lot of singing in the car, sometimes kids' things intended to be educational, and sometimes things that were just funny. All my kids liked '60s music as youngsters and are good singers, so there has been a lot of music-related interaction and research. As early readers, they had lyrics of songs they liked. We've always discussed things and looked things up. We have interesting books and posters and humor and plastic study sheets in the bathroom.

I've always put things out on tables, counters, in bathrooms, just because they were fun and interesting. Kids would find them, pick them up or not, play with them or talk about them. When they stopped being interesting, I'd put them away and bring something else out. I termed that "strewing," and many families have borrowed that concept with great results.

We never "made" our kids get jobs, but they had jobs from age 14 or 15, and learned a great deal from the work and from the coworkers (another source of friends).They learned by volunteering to help people do things, and they were offered jobs because they were willing to help freely, too.

ml: Is unschooling legal?

SD:Homeschooling is legal, and unschooling is a way to homeschool. Each family needs to understand natural learning well enough to make it work in such ways that they can be confident that their kids are learning. Regulations are very different state to state, but there are unschoolers in every state who can advise others on how to fulfill the local requirements. Despite reports to the contrary, unschooling is not "doing nothing." There's a great deal of doing involved!

ml: Can unschoolers go on to become successful adults?

SD:Of course! By the time they're adults they've already been in the world for years. They're not kept home until 18 and then let loose to go wild. Each of my children, in unrelated ways, was offered a job in their mid-teens, by adults who knew them and saw their reliability and intelligence. They've proven themselves to be honest, thoughtful and eager to work and to learn. They always gave two weeks' notice if they were quitting, while kids around them were just leaving jobs without even saying they were gone.

One of their local unschooling friends got a job at a cell-phone call center when he was 16. By the time he was 18, he was a supervisor. One of the newer workers (a high-school graduate) complained when she found he didn't even have a GED, and he outranked her. School had made her false promises about the value of a high-school diploma. He had been working there for over a year, really knew the job, and was reliable. Those things are more important than diplomas.

All of my children have worked in jobs alongside college graduates. Mine did so without college loans to repay, though they might pick up some college debt yet. My husband didn't get his engineering degree until he was nearly 29, and he went through public school and then straight to college. He ran out of steam, tired of school and schooling, by the age of 20. It came back to him, though, once he had some time to recover. My kids won't need to recover from schooling.

ml: Anything else you would like to add?

SD: I expected my children to learn, and they did. What surprised me was their ease at dealing with people of all ages, from younger children to adults. They made eye contact and shook hands from an early age. They're poised and confident.

There were many benefits I hadn't expected, and all were positive. The most difficult part of all is criticism from those who have no idea what they're talking about. Confidence grows, though, as families unschool, and soon the criticism seems less frightening and looks more like jealousy or resentment or fear.

Unschooling isn't a movement to take down schools. It's one of many options. It's not easy, and each family does it at home, in their own way. That alone makes it difficult. It's not like showing up somewhere each day and smiling and letting others make your children's lives interesting.

Part of the resentment and fear involves the fact of having a choice. Although I loved school in general, I remember when I was unhappy about something there my mom would say with confidence that I had to go, there was no choice, that it was the law and my parents would be in trouble if I didn't go. It's easier when parents can say that. It makes the parents innocent of their children's unhappiness, or any harm that comes to them, if the parents had no choice. When other parents find an option and take it, that shows that there is an option, and the security of "no choice" is gone. It's why many school-at-home families complain about unschoolers, too. They've told their kids they have to sit at the table and do schoolwork; there's no choice. When their kids meet unschoolers and say, "But Marty doesn't have to ..." the parents get mad at the unschoolers for disturbing the peace. As I was unwilling to sacrifice my children's happiness and joyful learning to make others feel better about what they're doing, though, it couldn't be avoided. I certainly was not unschooling to make anyone unhappy!

next: Mom Sues Makers of Gardasil
190 comments so far | Post a comment now
KristinaBrooke April 23, 2010, 7:33 AM

It is nice to see a unschooling homeschooling family in a positive light. So much of the mainstream press focuses on parents who SAY that they are unschooling/homeschooling but are usually the worst examples of the group.

I have been reading Sandra Dodd’s site for a while and I love her philosophy and I love that her children are creative, intelligent, and mature.

Bruce Sallan April 23, 2010, 7:44 AM

I homeschooled my older son when he really needed it and the public schools were ignoring him. Why? Because he wasn’t trouble enough - he was just underperforming due to heartbreak and confusion over his parent’s divorce and his mom’s abandonment. ALL he needed was a little attention and understanding. Instead the administrators put it all on me, while I was in the midst of it.

I homeschooled him for 18 months to stellar results. I wrote a blog about it at the time - as I found the world of homeschooling to be a world of caring and wonderful parents (mostly women - sad, but true). VERY hard for any single parent to do it but that’s another story.

Don’t dismiss homeschooling as an option. It can really work!

Also, ‘cause I can’t help myself, I hope you’ll read my blog here on ML - my current one is important as it is the second of two on the dangers, yes dangers, of texting and our kids (especially teens).

michelle April 23, 2010, 8:58 AM

NONE OF THEM WENT TO COLLEGE. ‘Nuff said. Are they really educated? Did they learn calculus? Did they read the great books? Notice how all the discussion focuses on how “mature” the kids are, a fuzzy concept that says nothing about their intellectual and academic achievement. Intellectual development does not happen unless you are exposed to things you would not necessarily choose to be exposed to. The point is not for kids to spend 100% of their time in a feel-good pursuit of what they’re already interested in. Those are hobbies, not education. This is, I think, part of American culture lately, where people only want information that confirms their existing biases, and stick their heads in the sand for everything else. That is the very definition of ignorance. People, if you don’t trust the public schools (which I totally understand), send your kids to a good private school that knows what it’s doing.

monica  April 23, 2010, 10:57 AM

@Michelle: so, Sandra’s children aren’t educated, bec/ they have yet to attend university/college? Have you ever heard of man named Bill Gates? He tried college, decided it wasn’t for him and left. I’d say he did well for himself even w/o a college degree. And what’s up with the calculus comment? Only those who have taken calculus are truly educated??

CarenKH April 23, 2010, 11:02 AM

But they’re happy, and productive. It seems as though you believe academic achievement trumps that? Maybe you bought into the lie that one needs college to be successful? These kids are defining success for *themselves*, and at any point, should they NEED college to pursue what they wish to, I know they’ll have no problems with that.

Would you desire that they mindlessly follow what so many high school graduates do? College without really considering other options, going into debt for a degree they might or might not use, wasting their time doing something they have no desire to do? Sorry, unschoolers are more thoughtful and deliberate than that - because they’re quite nicely intellectually developed, despite what you say.

College will always be there. And I wonder - all those folks with expensive college degrees out of work now… do they wish they had pursued their passions more, rather than buying into the lie?

michelle April 23, 2010, 12:43 PM

Statistically speaking, yes, you need college to be successful (not just in $$ but in life satisfaction). The example of Bill Gates is nice but is not relevant to anything beyond Bill Gates. And yes, part of being educated is being challenged intellectually, including in math and science…and in literature, history, civics. It’s not just learning to read a grocery list or game manual (as the articles so proudly mentioned), both of which are simply functional literacy. Look, these people are free to do what they want, but they need to be comfortable with limiting their children’s horizons and life chances. Unschooling looks like it produces very nice, lovely people and all that, but beyond that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is better than real school.

Jenny Cyphers April 23, 2010, 1:05 PM

“NONE OF THEM WENT TO COLLEGE. ‘Nuff said. Are they really educated? Did they learn calculus? Did they read the great books?”

I went to high school and college. I never took calculus. Does that mean I’m uneducated?

What are “the great books”? I’ve read lots of books, some of them were wonderful and some of them not. Does Harry Potter count as one of those “great books”? Those books were certainly some of the best books I’ve ever read!

Jeff April 23, 2010, 1:11 PM

It’s important to make the distinction between “knowledgeable”, “educated”, “intelligent”, and “successful.” Receiving a formal education guarantees neither knowledge nor intelligence - and certainly does not guarantee success. In fact, there is very little relationship between the above terms.

Knowledge is simply the acquisition and possession of information, but does not imply any ability to apply that information. Education implies that things have been taught, but not necessarily learned or mastered. Intelligence, however, speaks to the born potential that someone has to use the tools at their disposal to succeed in their chosen path. Attending school, or not attending school for that matter, guarantees neither intelligence nor knowledge. Intelligent people can lack knowledge and education. And knowledgeable people can be far from intelligent.

The real key here is in the definition of success. In my mind, at the heart of unschooling (and at the heart of raising children, for that matter)lies a central respect for our children, an understanding of and commitment to the fact that there are many different ways of defining and viewing the world and that our own personal views may not be shared by our children. For some, success is defined through monetary wealth; for others, through experiences, or relationships, or inner peace. However defined, it is critical that we each have the ability and permission to explore what success means for us and pursue it as far as we choose. It is impossible and impractcable for me to impart my own personal definition of success onto any other adult, beacuse I recognize that they have their own set of experiences and desires that guide them. I would never presume to know what is best for them, so why would I not then apply that same principle to my children? Are they somehow less deserving of the respect that I offer to others?

Taken to the next step, should I try to tell my children what they need to “know”, what experiences they need to have, and how they should approach their lives so it all fits with my definition of success? No, I should not. To do so would be manipulative, and restrictive, and coercive, and demeaning, and disrespectful.

Let me end with a simple “promise” that I have made to my kids that really puts all of this discussion into perspective for me:

“I want you to be happy. I want you to see the world for all it can be. I want you to find the things you love to do and do them as much as you want. I want you to develop your own definition of success, and then pursue it like a dog on a bone. I want you to know that I will support and love you, even if you’re down. And I have only one real expectation and hope - that you believe what I just said, and that you call bullshit on me when I deviate.”

BigSandyMom April 23, 2010, 1:13 PM

Michelle I disagree with you when you say that your life is not fully lived until you go to college. I went to college and received my associates degree. And you know what, big deal. Do you know what I do now? I’m a stay at home, homeschooling mother. My husband didn’t go to college. He went right out of high school and went to work. He is in the trucking industry making more money in that big truck than the people with college degrees who work in the offices in the trucking company. So tell me exactly how you are better off with college degrees than without them?

Sara April 23, 2010, 1:25 PM

The children, after they’ve all grown up, seem positively average. College is the easiest way to get yourself a successful career in this day and age. The kid who works at Blizzard? He is probably an unusual case. He had raw talent, knew what he wanted, and got there. Good for him. I’m jealous of his fulfilling life without real school.

However, the current jobs of the other two seem to be only helping more families that choose to go the same route.

It’s tough for me to imagine what kind of lives the rest of the unschooled kids of America will lead. I can’t imagine it to be easy for them.

Thela April 23, 2010, 1:41 PM

I don’t think “everyone knows” that public school squashes your creativity or whatever. I loved school. Everything about school. I learned a lot, I had awesome teachers, I had friends. Its about what’s right for your kids. The only thing I dislike about homeschooling is that it makes the moms so self-righteous. I’ve never met one that wasn’t openly critical about everyone else’s decision.

Prove me wrong.

Sandra Dodd April 23, 2010, 1:50 PM

I have a college degree and I didn’t take calculus. The complaints about my kids’ and other unschoolers’ jobs must have been by people who either didn’t or can’t read carefully. Very few 18-year-olds have had ANY jobs. Very few 21-year-olds have four years of job experience on a resume already. Many of them are college drop-outs, which does NOT “outrank” having made a conscious decision not to go to college now, or ever.

My kids are fine. The many dozens of unschooled teens and young adults I could name and call on the phone are doing wonderfully well. The hundreds I could recognize by face or name are doing just fine.

It doesn’t matter what those who know nothing about unschooling can imagine. Those who DO know about unschooling see vibrant, intelligent adults unscarred and uncowed.

Sandra Dodd April 23, 2010, 2:02 PM

-=I don’t think “everyone knows” that public school squashes your creativity or whatever.-=-

Why the “whatever”? The article is right there. You could have gotten the quote.

The question was this: “ml: Do you think public school can squash the love of learning in some kids?”

Did I think public school CAN squash the love of learning in SOME kids. I went to public school too, and it was better than my house. But I decided to create a home environment that was better than public school, and for my children I did that.

I don’t think you’re suggesting that because you loved everything about school that no one else’s love of learning was squashed. Surely you realized even then that kids who love school are not the majority of the kids in school.

Jen Jen April 23, 2010, 2:15 PM

RE: Thela:

“The only thing I dislike about homeschooling is that it makes the moms so self-righteous. I’ve never met one that wasn’t openly critical about everyone else’s decision.

Prove me wrong.”

That’s my mom then. I’ve never heard her criticize another parent’s decision about sending children to public school. She would only mention us being Homeschooled if that’s where the topic of conversation led. My mother was always humble about it, though quite proud of us, and the achievements we had, but I’ve yet to hear her boast at how this was her doing, and that we owe it to her. That is for us kids to do. =D

People April 23, 2010, 2:25 PM

RE: Jen Jen
Your counter-example can’t be your own mom…

Too much bias!

Frank April 23, 2010, 2:51 PM


I am pretty much your poster child. I was educated at an exclusive prep school using the Trivium/Quadrivium model; studied Greek, Latin, and The Calculus (and more); read all the “great works,” many of them in their original language; and used my National Merit scholarship to get a college degree in Education. I am intelligent and educated. I even worked for Bill Gates, whom you use as an example of abusus non tollit usum but whom I would consider merely more financially successful than most self-directed people who opted out of the limitations imposed by the education system, before I retired (early). College did not get me my job at Microsoft and I’ve never used Greek, Latin, classic literature, or The Calculus, which is how I was taught to refer to it, in my career. College, “education,” and the exposure to boring, meaningless crap did not fuel my intellectual development; they stymied it.

In contrast, unschooling does not limit my or my children’s choices, as you suggest, it opens them up to the entire universe. School is the true model of limitation with its restrictive, specific curriculum. Choose school if you like. I don’t care. It’s none of my business. But don’t impose your metrics on my life. You made one comment which trumps all others: Unschooling looks like it produces very nice, lovely people.

Yes, it does. If you prefer Stepford drones produced by test-driven, curriculum-controlled “education,” that’s your choice. To paraphrase Joshua: As for me and my house, we’ll unschool.

renee April 23, 2010, 3:00 PM

i think these kids shake hands and enjoy the company of people of all ages because they were raised properly not bcause of unschooling/homeschooling,my kids were public schooled and do the same things. i dont agree with the unschooling idea because there is no way you can teach your child everything they need to know to survive in the world nor can they teach themselves.tell yourself what you want but a education goes along way.

Matt Jones April 23, 2010, 3:01 PM

Most of you are missing the point about college. College isn’t a goal or a guarantee. College is a means to an end. One of Covey’s Seven Habits is “to begin with the end in mind.” If “the end” is college graduate, then traditional school is probably the way to go. However, if “the end” is to be a happy productive adult then unschooling provides a path that has proved to be a LOT more likely to lead there than traditional school. College may be part of the path or it may not be. It may be early in the path, or it may be later. The point is that it’ll be a choice that is seen as relevant to a future goal, not a goal in an of itself…

Bernadette April 23, 2010, 3:02 PM

“The only thing I dislike about homeschooling is that it makes the moms so self-righteous. I’ve never met one that wasn’t openly critical about everyone else’s decision.”

You know, since starting homeschooling I’ve never met a single public-school mother who wasn’t openly critical about my decision. In fact, it’s not just the mothers, it’s every single person I’ve met outside the homeschooling community. Sometimes it’s difficult to defend my choice without sounding as if I’m criticising them right back.

Chris April 23, 2010, 4:01 PM

Matt wrote: “If ‘the end’ is college graduate, then traditional school is probably the way to go.”

No matter what the naysayers may assert, there are many grown unschoolers who are leading happy, productive, successful lives without attending college.

And there are also many who have or do attend college after unschooling throughout their youth. My 19 year old son is finishing up his freshman year in college and has plans to double major in history and political science. He didn’t go to high school nor get his GED yet he finds himself, now, on the same path many of his schooled friends are on.

The main difference is that every step he’s taken to get to where he is now has been his choice. We didn’t start out with an “end in mind.” But we did provided him a rich environment and the means and encouragement to pursue his interests.

I’m grateful to Sandra and her family, whom I’ve met in real life, for their leadership and example in how to parent with peace and be a partner to our children rather than their adversary.

Back to top >>