Getting Rid of Your Unschooling Fears

by ChristinaPilkington on September 10, 2011 · 20 comments

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I strongly believe in giving children freedom to learn the things they’re passionate about in their own time and in their own way.  But even those families who have been unschooling for awhile can be swayed by the mainstream way of thinking about education. During those “back to school” months, it’s even more difficult to escape from thoughts that maybe you’re not doing quite enough or that your children are “behind” in certain areas.

 Here are a few ideas for getting rid of those unschooling fears.

Take a look at your state’s educational standards- and not just for your child’s “grade.”  I think you’ll be in for a surprise.  If you can get past all the “educational” terminology, you’ll understand that most of the standards are pretty general and usually carry across several grade levels.  You might read that in 3rd grade your child would have learned about say, American Indian history, and start to worry because you haven’t discussed that topic much,  but if you skip up a few grades you might notice that in 6th graders learn all about invertebrates and he’s an expert in that topic. Remember, you’re child is on his own unique developmental timetable. So are the children that go to school, too. It’s just that their timetables are usually not respected.

Talk with parents who have children older than yours and are using a natural learning approach.  I love to talk with other unschooling families who have children in their teens. I’m constantly amazed at the variety of work they do, the knowledge they have and the lives they lead. Obviously, not all unschooling families are the same, but I’ve noticed that in families where the children are used to self-direction and have lots of time to focus on their unique talents and skills, they are years ahead of other kids their age in maturity and taking responsibility for their learning and future goals.

Keep a notebook where you record the activities and interests of your children.  I keep a family blog (you can find it at or click on the link in the nav bar on the home page of this site).  It’s my way of recording what we’re up to, what we’ve been learning and all of our adventures. I also keep a notebook for each of my children where I list the different things they’ve done over the past week, questions they’ve had and ideas they want to explore further. I don’t have to do this, but I love looking back over the months and years to see all the things they have learned from their own interests.

Do research on the history of childhood.  In October I’m going to start a series of posts on the history of childhood. It’s been a topic that has interested me for a long time. How have children learned for most of history?  How do they prepare to take on adult responsibility?  When did school first become compulsory?  If you’ve never read John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education you need to do so.  You can even read it for free here.  It’s a fascinating, and frankly, scary book to read, but it also gives a lot of insight into why we’ve changed the way children have always learned and transitioned into adulthood. 

Tape a list to your refrigerator of all the opportunities your child has because they don’t go to school. Yes, the schools may have a nice gym the kids can play in (for about twenty minutes a day if they’re lucky) and expensive lab equipment to use (by following specific directions, usually not by experimenting on their own). But you don’t have to stay in the same building all day. Some of the things on my family’s list include: playing outside as long as we want, going to a different museum each day of the week, travelling to Europe during September, taking an hour to eat lunch, spending an entire day reading all the books we want, having hour long discussions, and finding new and fascinating places to explore.

Keep track for a week of all the things your children are learning outside of normal “school” hours. Yes, I know that kids who go to school learn outside of school hours, too. No one can stop from learning all the time. The difference is that kids who go to school often have hours of homework to do when they get home. Most of it is busy work that teachers need to give a grade or because it’s a school policy to give a certain amount of homework every night. I know; I was a teacher once. But kids who don’t go to school may be up at 10:00 at night learning about horses, or the moon or building a robot. Instead of working on a research paper all weekend long that no one but the teacher will read, they might be writing their own novel, or helping to build homes for those in need, or just hanging out with the family.

Make a list of all the things you have learned since you left school.  When I sat down and did this I was amazed at how much I’ve learned since leaving school- even graduate school.  I’ve learned parts of other languages, more about physics, Egypt, art history, writing, creating websites, cooking and so much more. And I’ve retained it, too, because I’ve had my own reason for wanting to know those things. If your child doesn’t know a lot about a particular topic most kids learn about in school, why can’t he learn it when he’s 18 or 30, or 72?  We can’t learn all there is to know in this world. We just need to know those things that are helping us achieve the goals we have right now.  

Review the list of goals you have for your child. I don’t mean goals like wanting them to learn how to read or learning geography. I’m talking about big life goals.  For example, I want my kids to always be curious and imaginative. I want them to be interested in those things that fascinate them, even if other people don’t care that much. I want them to love God and become loving, responsible and dependable people. I want them to love learning and take charge of their own lives by self-directing, knowing how to plan and set goals, and reach for their dreams. 

Will living a large chunk of their lives spent in the same building, with the same people, and doing the same things prepare them for the life you dream for them?  That’s what you have to decide.

Photo Credit: Greg Westfall

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below or send me an e-mail at  Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter, too!

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  • Michelle

    What a small world! As an unschooling parent of older kids (14 and 11) I am always grateful to find resources and encouragement from within the community of self-directed learners. I find great inspiration from the wisdom of those who are on this same journey and those who have forged it before me. I just found your blog and have enjoyed reading every single thing you have shared. When I finally thought, “She is my tribe, I need to read her story…” Turns out when I saw your picture I could not believe my eyes, we went to the same small school for most of our elementary years. I am so thrilled to see you here, to read your incredible heart for instilling the love of learning in your children, and to see your same sweet smile all grown up and sans uniform!

    • christinapilkington

      Michelle!!!!!! This is crazy that you’ve read this post! I’ve been absent from this blog for about a year now, and am just now trying to get back into the swing of regular blog posts. I’ve missed sharing what we have been doing and the things that I have been learning in my life. I hope you are doing good. It would be fun to get together some time. Look me up on FB :) .

  • andrea

    THANK YOU. I needed this. I’m going to start keeping better track of their learnings and enlightenments, I think by quantifying in tangible locations the amount of knowledge my kids (10, 10 and 12) are actually acquiring daily, I wont be so fretful about unschooling. thank you.

    • christinapilkington

      You’re welcome. I hope you find a system that works well for you. I know several other moms who have recently started doing this, and they’ve been amazed at how much they really do. It’s also a read way to see patterns in what your children gravitate towards and things they might enjoy.

  • Jen Youst

    Christina, I LOVE this post. It put so much into perspective to me (I’m a mom new to unschooling a 4 and 2 year old). This is one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard, and it came from you, ” We can’t learn all there is to know in this world. We just need to know those things that are helping us achieve the goals we have right now.” Wow. For someone who cannot focus all the time, this one really helped me see things differently. Thanks for the post!

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks so much! I’m so happy you’ve chosen to unschool your kids. It’s the most amazing lifestyle there is!

  • Monica Vandeventer

    I do have a question…I know it is different for every family, but I am trying to figure out how I should organize my life. I am not sure I read it here or on another blog, but I loved the comment about how just because we do a child-led learning doesn’t mean they run our lives. I find myself overwhelmed at times with the amount of time and energy my kids need. I guess I am asking how do you organize your life schedule to handle chores, household responsibilities like cooking and still make sure that you don’t just push off your kids? Do you have specific times like every morning you do laundry? At a certain time you start dinner? I know all these are opportunities for teaching, but my kids aren’t always very excited or interested in learning those things. (sorry to ramble!)

    • christinapilkington

      I’m so sorry it’s taken a while to get back to your comment. You’ve given me a lot to think about! I’ll share some things briefly here, but you’ve inspired me to write a couple of longer posts so I can share my answers with everyone. Plus, I’d love for others to share, too, so I can get some inspriation as well. I’ll probably put up these posts sometime in April.

      I struggle a lot with the huge amount of time my kids want me to do things with them. I know I should really enjoy it as much as I can right now because it might not be like that when they’re older, but it gets so exhausting sometimes! Between doing things with them, finding new resources and planning trips, trying to spend time with Steve, keeping up with this site and doing a little writing on the side and maintaining some order in the house, I’m really exhausted most days!

      I’ve started a stop watch system for house work that has been working pretty well. I’ll write more about it in a few weeks, but basically I decide how much time I want to spend on house work (I’ve timed it enough to know how much time I need to have things be somewhat organized and clean) and then I keep track of the time during the week. I don’t have certain chores on certain days. There are days when I won’t do anything at all besides the dishes and make meals. We have some routines, too, but there are very, very flexible. Dinner can be anywhere from 5:30-7:30 depending on the day. The kids go to sleep basically when they’re tired, which is anywhere between 9:00 and 10:30. They’re usually up between 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning. It really depends on what we have going in the house. Wow! Now that I think about it, I’ll probablly have to write two or three posts about this since there’s so much to say :) I do include the kids in a lot of what I do, so it makes it a little easier. I’ll write more about how to make that a little easier, too. I know I’m not giving you much now, but this might take a little time to get my thoughts together in an organized fashion. The good thing is now you’ve given me three new post ideas! Thanks!

  • Monica Vandeventer

    I love this post. I just reread it and it is so encouraging. It takes constant attention for me to not fall into the trap of analyzing my kids like the rest of the world does. I especially like the goals point. What is the actual end goal of our education? Where are we trying to get our kids to? Once I focus on that the rest seems so easy. Thanks again!

    • christinapilkington

      Isn’t it a hard thing not to compare? It seems almost impossible not to do when it’s pushed so much in our society! But we really are moving towards work that will be valued will be something that is unique and only something a unique individual can do.

  • Samantha Burns

    Thanks for this post Christina! I wish parents of the mainstream understood the wonderful nature of the unschooling lifestyle, but I think it’s really hard for them to think outside the box like that, and–personally–I don’t always have the patience or inclination to help them grasp the concept. I look forward to your up-coming posts regarding the history of childhood; that sounds like a fascinating concept. Warmest regards!

    • Anonymous

      It is really hard to put into words what the unschooling lifestyle is like. I think part of the reason is because it looks different for each family. Some families have strong musical or artistic interests; some families are more interested in travel, or reading, or theater or a hundred other things. One unschooling family may look more “academic” on the outside making it easier to understand their lifestyles, while another unschooling family might have interests way off the mainstream grid. What we all have at the core is a deep respect and trust of our children. We know learning is joyful and doesn’t have to be foreced. We understand that children learn all the time and will want to learn all they can to succeed in the ways they choose.

  • Natalie F

    You make unschooling sound very glamorous. I am not considering it, since I am a full time working mom, but I always felt that children have to learn that sometimes they have to do things that they might not feel like doing. I wonder how unschooling parents instill discipline of this kind in their children?

    • Anonymous


      I guess if it sounds like I’m making unschooling glamorous, it’s because I’ve seen what a rich, joyous life it can be, not only for my family but for many, many other families I know. I think when all people find something so rich in their lives they want to share it with others. I’ve been around children for a long time and have seen the difference it makes in their lives when they are respected and trusted to learn at their own pace and at their own time. I’ve seen what their lives are like when they can pursue with all their passions those things that make them unique people.

      As far as children having to do things they don’t feel like doing at times, I’m in complete agreement with you. Little children get told no much more than yes, even in families that are very respectful and trusting of their children. They have to learn not to run in the street, not to pull the cat’s tail, not to tear things off the shelves in the store. They have to learn to take turns, to not hit to get their own way and hundreds of other things. When they are little, their job is to explore the world and learn as much as they can. Being forced to complete math problems and read when they’re not ready won’t teach them discipline. It will teach them that learning is difficult and something to avoid.

      My kids also help out around the house. They do real things that help our family function. We give them lots of choices in how they help and the times they help, but they know that they do need to help as a member of the family. They don’t always want to do this. They don’t always want to go grocery shopping when it needs to get done. But these are things they can come to understand. There’s a real purpose to cleaning the toilet or preparing food. There is no good purpose in completing math worksheets. There’s more of a purpose in creating change at a garage sale, or doubling a recipe, or saving up for a new toy.

      When kids get older, they understand that doing things they might not want to do in the present will lead them to where they want to be in the future. If they want to go to college and find it’s necessary to have a certain skill level in math, even if they don’t feel like studying it that much, they are very motivated to do so, and to do well, in order to reach their ultimate goal. When they’re older, they have a good idea of what they want to do in their lives. They are completely willing to work very hard when it comes to working towards their own goals. When kids can see the reason and purpose behind something, and they can see how it fits in with their own goals, they can have incredible amounts of discipline and perseverance. It’s the busy work and time wasters, the classes that are not connected with their life work and the unnecessary and arbitrary requirements that leave them hating anything the schools have decided is important to learn.

      • Renee

        Christina,you are amazing.As a new homeschooling mom to a daughter with terrible school anxiety and chronic illness/pain conditions/learning disabilities I have learned the HARD WAY that kids do come to believe that learning is something diffficult and something to avoid.You are DEAD ON.My daughter was doing well at home for about 3 months with a tutor coming in for 2 hours a day(mon-fri).Problem is,that was a homebound tutor, hired through the school to keep up to date because her doctor sent a note specifying she needed to be at home resting.Christina, she became SO FRIED even on a modified schedule because the tutor was teaching the common core.My girl FELL APART after 3 good months.Her condition had flared up and now it’s like pulling teeth to get her to work AT ALL!She is just starting to feel better and as were now into a month of actual HOMESCHOOLING with the school hired tutor agreeing to stay on.Trouble is ,the teacher is so used to this vigorous teaching that when I asked her to help me to write/develop the IHIP,she filled it with grade level mind bending math,and much more reading than my daughter can handle but I submitted this grueling IHIP because I thought I’d be in trouble for not making it common core-equivalent.I’m thinking of stopping the tutoring sessions altogether as my daughter’s sick of the difficult math and being PUSHED into reading and comprehending much more than she’s capable of. Do I start teaching to my child’s level,teaching her concepts so necessary to life as time and money- below 7th grade level).Imagine schools pushing our kids this cookie cutter curriculum when some are in 7th grade and dont t even know TIME or MONEY??? Shame on Governor Cuomo.I’m among those pushing for him to drop the common core.I see the damage of what school did to MY child.Now, this isnt to say school is bad for ALL kids,i have one at a very competitive private college with a 3.4 grade point average and one holding his own in 6th grade…I’d love to UNSCHOOL my daughter who has the anxiety and chronic illness and take the strain and pressure away but a month ago I locked us into a few months of difficult common core curriculum on that darn IHIP!Christina,sorry this is such a long post,but I hope you will give some input as I’m a bit lost and really trying to help my girl have a happy, productive life.” Brick and mortar” school truly destroyed her self esteem.

        • christinapilkington

          Renee, I’m so sorry it’s taken a few weeks to respond to your question! I’ve been staying away from my computer as much as possible to prepare for an overseas trip, plus there has been sickness in the family as well.

          I really feel for your situation. It’s hard for me to offer concrete advice unless I knew more specifics of your situation, but I’ll do my best! I’d first ask what are the current obstacles in the way of you unschooling your daughter. You mentioned getting locked into a few more months of her IHIP. What would happen if you just dropped it? Would there be any permanent damage? I’d look into that. If you can get out of it, I’d start there.

          If not, start with having a discussion with your daughter and ask her how she could help you and the tutor shape the next few months into something that might be a little easier for her to handle. I’ve learned very quickly that when you involve kids in the decision making process, they often are more willing to tackle difficult things.

          Once you can be in a position to have her step away from compiling with common core requirements, I’d sit down with your daughter and work together with her on a curriculum that would make you both happy. And I’d definitely focus on those skills like learning time and money that are very practical over obscure math that she might never need. I’d make sure her days are mostly filled with learning those things that interest her. If your state requires that she learn all “core” type subjects, there is often quite a bit of wiggle room where she can approach those subjects in a way that interests her the most.

          I’d also have a check up time at the end of each month where you discuss with her how she sees her learning so far, what excites her about what she’s learning, things she doesn’t like, and how you both can help improve her learning journey. Check-ins are so important to this process so you can step back and make adjustments before things get off track.

          If you have more specific questions, I’d love to help you more. Just send me a note or comment any time! I really hop this helps you some.

  • Kelleigh

    Christina, this is a much-needed post, especially this time of year. When the “norm” (unfortunately) is for all the kiddos to be getting into school buses and sitting in a classroom all day, it is easy to question the decision to homeschool or unschool. However, you have provided a very helpful and affirming list of ways to alleviate this thinking. And I love that your goals are big goals about living and learning in general! Hey, are you thinking of starting learning portfolios with the kids as they get older?

    I can’t wait for October and your history of childhood posts! I need to read Gatto…Thanks!

    • Anonymous


      I think when the kids get older, probably between the ages of 11-13, I’ll work with them on setting more formal goals for themselves. As they get older, I’m sure their interests will narrow (they pretty much like most of the things I show them now), and they’ll have a better idea of what their unique talents, skills and interests are and how they want to use them to make a difference in the world and to support themselves financially.

      I see sitting down with them every three to six months and helping them set three to five big goals they want to complete over that time period. This could be anything from a big project like writing a book or designing a website, or to studying a topic they’re interested in, or taking an outside workshop, class or course. Then we’d brainstorm the things they will need to do to achieve that goal.

      I believe that planning and goal setting skills are so important, and I want to make sure my kids have a good grasp on those skills before they become adults. The goals will always come from the kids. I will pretty much be a facilitator and mentor in helping them achieve their dreams.

      I do keep a binder now for each child where I put in their drawings, any writing they do, brochures, pictures and any other physical items they’ve done.

  • Susan

    Another fantastic post, which I will be sharing :) I SO agree with everything you said here! I keep a journal on my computer, as well as post the highlights on our blog, of things my girls do every day of the week, all year long. Partly I do this because I have to submit reports to our school district (NY state law), but beyond that, I love to read through all that we’ve accomplished!!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks so much for passing this along. I love looking over our blog and reading our journals. I was just thinking what a great gift this will be for the kids one day – to look over the stories and adventures of their lives and see all they have learned and how they have grown into their unique gifts and talents.

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