Unschooling, Christianity, and Other Misconceptions


I don’t pay too much attention to anti-unschooling articles.   For one thing, unschoolers make up a small percentage of homeschoolers, which are already just a tiny (but growing) fraction of the general population.  It’s not for everyone.  It’s not for most people.  I get that.  It’s also difficult for a lot of people to understand, and people tend to fear or mock what they don’t understand.

I’m happy with my decision to unschool.  I’m confident in my decision to unschool.  I don’t read a lot of negatively slanted unschooling pieces because I don’t want to give it my energy…. energy that could be much better spent making my life – and that of my kids – full and fun and interesting and happy.

Every now and then though, one slides under my radar.  One that’s so full of both its own self-importance and myriads of misconceptions that it nearly begs me to ignore it.  I wrestle with indecision.  “I really shouldn’t.   I shouldn’t.  Oh… but I’m gonna.”

I don’t like it when people who don’t understand unschooling try to tell others why they shouldn’t unschool.  And I really don’t like it when people who don’t understand unschooling specifically tell Christians that they shouldn’t unschool.  Understand it FIRST, and then write about it.

I could sit here and talk to some experts and write an article about, say, the wrong way to reconcile a 941.   Don’t know what that is?  Oh don’t worry.  I’ll explain it to you, in broad strokes and with sweeping generalizations.  But until I understand it (beyond the fact that it has something to do with quarterly taxes) I will be first one to tell you that I’m not in a position to be advising on its procedure.  I will send you right to my husband who will tell you everything you need to know, without disparaging anyone in the process.

And so it is with unschooling.  It’s one thing to say, “You know what?  I’ve done the research, and unschooling isn’t for me.  This is why.”  It’s another thing entirely to warn of unschooling’s dangers when you haven’t yet grasped what unschooling means.

This article, written by Grace Howard, starts out by telling us how us Christian parents should be “concerned” by unschooling.  (Emphasis is mine)

But unschooling’s philosophy of education differs substantially from traditional homeschooling, and should pose some concerns for Christian parents.

Now, I’m not a fan of being told what to do as it is. But being told what to feel?  What to be concerned about?   All parents, Christian and otherwise, will have concerns.  Absolutely.  I’m concerned about hate.  I’m concerned about prejudice.  I am NOT concerned about when or why or how little Suzy learns long division.  Unschooling is not concerning.

Unschooling is a “radical” version of homeschooling; it gives children complete control over their subjects, schedule, and interests. If children do not want to learn science, they do not have to. If they enjoy art, literature, or computer programming, they can spend all their time pursuing that subject

If you are new to the idea of unschooling, please do not give this definition any weight.  Unschooling does not “give children complete control over their subjects, schedule, and interests.”  To understand unschooling is to recognize that life is not divided into subjects in the first place.  And having control over their own interests?  Who else but you should have control over your own interests??  Children who “do not want to learn science” or math or history or whatever the case may be, are children who have learned – most likely through school – that learning is a chore.  That learning is something that is forced upon us, rather than something that organically happens inside each one of us.  That something that is momentarily hard or uninteresting or not useful is something to be feared and avoided.  But it doesn’t work that way for unschoolers.   Unschoolers know that learning is everywhere.  Unschoolers know that they can (and will) learn science as easily and naturally as anything else.   Science, math, history, social studies… they’re all intertwined, and they’re all around us.  Unschoolers know that they learn everything they need to know, when they need to know it, as it makes sense for them in the life that’s unfolding around them.

In the most radical forms of unschooling, this freedom permeates children’s entire life: they control their bedtimes, meals, and chores

That’s fair enough I guess, for a rudimentary definition, in terms of the way most people view radical unschooling.  My children don’t have parent-imposed bedtimes… but they get plenty of sleep, are well-attuned to their own bodies, and know when they need to rest.  My children are not required to follow a parent-imposed schedule of meals… but they are healthy and strong, have a good relationship with food, and eat a cleaner and more varied diet than just about any other kids I know.  My children do not have sticker charts or compulsory chores they must attend to every day… but they all pitch in as much as the next whenever they are asked, with everything from dishes to laundry to taking out the trash, because we’re a family and we all work together.

Christian unschoolers try to meld the limit-free teaching methods of unschooling with structured biblical parenting.

They do?  This is the part that makes lots of people all kinds of uneasy, but… biblical parenting is not all that “structured.”  It’s just not.  Biblical parenting is about raising children in love.  Raising children in a way that demonstrates both your love and God’s love… love for them, and love for each other.  It’s about treating children how you’d like to be treated, and about behaving in the same truthful, authentic, honest and kind manner that you would want to pass down to the next generation.   And yes, it’s about freedom.  It is NOT about control, harsh discipline, and being in bed by 7:00 PM.

Elissa Wahl, co-author of Christian Unschooling: Growing Your Children in the Freedom of Christ, writes on her site, Christian-Unschooling.blogspot.com, that “Unschooling in my house is not unparenting….Although I am pretty radical in my educational beliefs, they do not carry over to letting the children do whatever they want, whenever, with no consequences. That would be unbiblical.”

That quote makes me sad.   I have read that book (I think it’s even on my bookshelf somewhere) and I enjoyed it.  I am absolutely certain that Ms Wahl is a lovely person, and has no doubt done good things for the unschooling community.  But when even “experts” in the unschooling community are perpetuating these misconceptions, is it any wonder that people are so confused?  Radical unschooling, whether Christian or otherwise, does not mean “letting the children do whatever they want, whenever, with no consequences.”  It’s just not a fair definition, nor is it accurate, nor is it kind.  It lends itself to the supposition that unschooled children are ignored, that they are just wildly flinging about the house, with nary a parent in sight.   Unschooling parents work with their children…. as partners, facilitators, and friends.  At its heart, unschooling is about respect.  Respect for the children, yes, but also respect for yourselves as parents.  Respect for the family. Respect for the process of living and learning together in freedom.  It is not unbiblical.  You can read my series on Christian Unschooling for more.

Combining unschooling and biblical understanding of child raising is hard, though, because unschooling grew out of the work of author John Holt, an atheist who argued that parents who exercise discipline “probably destroy as many good qualities as we develop, do at least as much harm as good.”

The more my “biblical understanding of child raising” has increased, so has my realization that it is VERY much aligned with unschooling, not opposed to it.  As for John Holt… I have been reading his books for over 15 years now, and I didn’t even know that he was an atheist until I read the above quote a week ago.  So to say that it’s hard to combine biblical parenting with his teachings on unschooling – simply because he’s an atheist – is unfair.  And interestingly, the Holt quote from above, cited as a reason NOT to unschool as a Christian sounds an awful like a verse from the Bible itself:  “Parents, don’t come down too hard on your children or you’ll crush their spirits.”  (Colossians 3:21, The Message)

Author and Patrick Henry College provost Gene Edward Veith, a proponent of classical liberal arts education, fears that unschooling’s narrow scope could make a person “very narrow and brittle….The beauty of a liberal arts education is that [students] try a bunch of different things, and see what they’re good at. In the course of that, they find what they most want to focus on, but they still have a foundation and basic understanding of a lot of different things.”

A “narrow scope”?  I almost couldn’t respond to this because I was laughing so hard.  A “narrow scope” would serve as an excellent antithesis for unschooling.   Unschoolers have the entire world as their “classroom!”  Unschoolers are living and breathing and experiencing life OUTSIDE of the narrow scope that is compulsory schooling.  As for trying a bunch of different things to see what they’re good at… my youngest son, at 7, has already tried a countless number of things that I wasn’t even exposed to until high school (or ever), despite the wonder and the beauty of my liberal arts education.

Veith believes that unschooling follows Rousseau’s philosophy of a naturally innocent and good child. Rousseau never advocated the unschooling method: He believed in removing children from their parents and placing them in the care of a tutor. But Veith says that both Rousseau and Holt defined freedom as meaning, “I’ll do whatever I want.” Veith says, “That’s not Christian freedom, that’s license and slavery. A child who is following his own impulses is not free. He’s a slave to those impulses. Freedom comes from teaching [children] “to develop self-control, self-discipline, to develop their mind and their conscience….That’s real freedom.”

Whew.  Let me first say that I believe wholeheartedly in freedom.  If you take nothing else from my blog, please take that.  I believe in freedom.  Freedom for myself, and freedom for my kids.  Freedom, by most any definition, is something to aspire to for sure:

FREEDOM:  The quality or state of being free, as in:  a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action b:liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another :independencec: the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous <freedom from care> d:ease, facility <spoke the language with freedom> e: the quality of being frank, open, or outspoken <answered with freedom> f: improper familiarity g: boldness of conception or execution h: unrestricted use <gave him the freedom of their home>

If you’re going to define “freedom” using the slightly negative sounding, “I’ll do whatever I want,” then you’re likely to assume it means doing anything you want regardless of effect or consequence on yourself or on those around you.  And if you’re continually making poor choices and doing things that are harmful to yourself or others, then I agree with Mr Veith.  That’s not really freedom, or at least not a healthy freedom.

But to Veith, and to everyone else who is harboring this misconception:

That’s not unschooling!

Unschooling isn’t about ignoring your children while they become “slaves to their impulses”.  Unschooling is about respecting your children, and nurturing their individuality, and yes, giving them the freedom to explore and learn from and experience the world in a safe and healthy way, according to their own interests and their own timetable and their own unique path in life.   If I am imposing my will on my children, then I’m not giving them freedom.

I’m not teaching my children to develop self-control… but because they are loved and cared for by people who practice it, they are learning it.  I’m not teaching my children self-discipline, but because they are given trust and respect, because their interests are valued and taken seriously, they are learning it.  I’m not teaching my children to develop their mind and their conscience, but because they’re honored for the unique individuals that they are, because they are self-confident and feel good about themselves, because they respect themselves, respect others, and respect the process of life and learning in general… they are developing.    My job as a Christian parent isn’t to mold my children, to shape them into something of my – or even God’s – choosing.  He’s done that already.   They were each individually and uniquely and perfectly created exactly as they were for a reason.   My job is to honor that.  My job is to love them, to nurture them, and to protect them.  My job is ensure that they are happy, healthy, and learning, and that they have all the space and the resources and the support they need to follow their own individual paths.  That is freedom.

Christianity and radical unschooling do not have to be – nor should they be – mutually exclusive, despite the morass of articles such as this one that tell us otherwise.  So I’ll continue to write about it, even while recognizing that this gross misinterpretation is still so widely accepted.

It’s a shame too, because it’s a pretty great way to live.

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Filed under christian unschooling, Uncategorized, unschooling

40 Responses to Unschooling, Christianity, and Other Misconceptions

  1. As usual you are awesome! Yes a little long for this ADOS person. I starting skimming but I got the gist! You ROCK!

  2. Koni Gould

    I wholeheartedly agree with your arguments – and Grace Howard’s article is narrow minded and off base. However, I don’t think that Elissa Wahl is perpetuating the belief that unschoolers are about “letting the children do whatever they want, whenever, with no consequences.” That is already the leading misconception. I believe she is combatting that line of thought, yet giving parents permission to be parents. Often, when I am on unschooling chat boards, there seems to be a fear among unschoolers that if they step in and set broad limits or healthy boundaries of any kind, in general, then they are not being “good unschoolers”. As with ANY philosophy, there are always those few who lack common sense or wisdom – and they make everyone else look bad.

    • jen

      I will have to read it again. 🙂 I interpreted it the way I did mainly because she seems to be saying that freedom is okay when it comes to education, but not when it comes to other areas of their life. She says that in her house unschooling doesn’t mean unparenting, and I admittedly always bristle when people say that. Letting that freedom permeate into your parenting too does NOT mean unparenting. I want people to understand that you can give kids freedom not just in how they learn, but in every other area of their lives (bedtimes, etc etc) …. and still be a great parent. 🙂

      • jen

        Oh and, I know exactly what you mean about those few people lacking common sense, and being afraid to be a parent!

  3. I would suggest that the great majority of those who ‘unparent’ are those whose children are being raised by the school system. It is so obvious to me that many parents let the schools set the values and standards that their children will grow up with.

  4. I also get tired of people who don’t understand unschooling- or anything else- deciding they have the authority to tell people what it is. It’s a COMMON occurrence, not just on this topic.
    Of all the parts that people don’t get, the one that makes me the saddest is the whole “they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do” bugaboo. On the face of it, without any context, that can be a VERY scary concept for people. What they are missing, though, is the other part of it, the part that is the biggest advantage of unschooling: we are living outside the common paradigm of people not wanting to learn or do things.
    While it is true that my kids “don’t have to learn science if they don’t want to,” I can’t really imagine such a thing happening. As they’ve grown up, we haven’t generally studied science (or anything) as a separate and distinct subject, but it is so much a part of everything we do that we don’t NEED to study it separately. On any given day, we are free-ranging through nearly any subject anyone could name, if they cared to. Our lives are full of questions of what, why, how, when, etc. We constantly look things up, ask about them, discuss them, try them.
    Whenever one of us has decided to study something in particular, in depth, it is exactly that- a desire to learn more about something we’ve touched on. Not something we “have to do,” but something we WANT to do. There is so MUCH wanting to learn, wanting to do, around here that that big old scary “they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do” simply doesn’t come up.
    And yes, it carries over into other things than education. All the things people worry so much about kids “not wanting to do” depends so much on context, on environment. There has not been nearly as much resistance here as I’ve heard about happening in families that attempt to require certain things, or that make lots of rules. We have very few rules- because we don’t need them. Believe it or not, everyone doing what they “want” includes wanting to function as a family unit, and take care of each other.

  5. I thought this was great! Very well stated, and I agree with your points. Some very good discussion going on in the comments, too 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. Jen, EXCELLENT article as usual! Especially loved the “I’m not teaching … but they’re learning …” section.

    I would agree that what Elissa Wahl said could be taken either way. The misperception is that unschoolers, especially radical unschoolers, totally “unparent” meaning let the kids run wild with no supervision. As a radical unschooler who IS a very good parent, you are not unparenting.

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this article and I agree. I am not a Christian (although I used to be), but I can understand why some Christians put what they believe are 2+2 and assume unschooling and Christianity is not compatible. The center of the faith is that there is something intrinsically wrong with a human when they are born and it needs to get fixed; essentially the original sin concept. I personally do not agree with this, and if I still claimed the faith, I still would not agree with this theology. But it’s maybe helpful to know where some people are coming from on this point. Perhaps it is difficult for them to reconcile the uschooling philosophy with what the Bible seems to be saying on certain things. Again, great article.

  8. Excellent post! I will be sharing this!

  9. I’m not homeschooling myself, but I think there’s a good deal of wisdom in what you’ve written here. Nice post.

  10. Jenny Patterson

    Yes! This post reminds me of an article on the Unschooling *school* back East, and the comments on that article, most of them deriding unschooling as turning out a bunch of uneducated, hippie, unemployable freaks. I had wondered if the same article had been read by all because the article stated how several of these *kids* were headed for college to pursue engineering, pre-med, and a science degree… Part of the problem, for me, is the name Unschooling. I would prefer to come up with a better name that describes WHAT we are doing, opposed to what we are NOT doing.
    Here in Central Oregon, there is a group that was started called: Central Oregon Open Learners (Yes, it is COOL’s for short), I like that idea, and also Organic Learners. When my husband and I adopted, friends would ask what parenting style I was going to use? (basically what manual I expected to follow) I smiled and said “I’m going to be an intuitive mom” I actually had a couple of moms say that they hadn’t read that book! LOL! So, maybe, I will start using Intuitive Learning.
    Jen, I am with you on not giving a lot of energy to those who oppose just to oppose, but one does need to keep an eye out and address the outright misinformation as it ends up affecting our community.
    Really appreciate your blogging!

    • Jo

      I love your “intuitive mom” answer. And I love “COOL.” I, too, have a real issue with the word “school” in general. I don’t like to glorify (bring attention to) it by using it, as it is already perched high on an crumbling throne. The “Open Learners” description fits right in with John Taylor Gatto’s description: “open-source learning.”

  11. Megan

    I think it’s so funny – I use many of these same defenses against people who don’t understand the Montessori philosophy. They make the exact same claims – and they don’t understand that what they’re afraid of would only be a concern with children who have had all the love of learning whipped out of them by harsh methods or boring busy work. I think it boils down to a lack of trust in the fundamental human spirit, and it makes me sad for them (and their families!) that they are so afraid of their children.

    • jen

      Yes, very sad. It makes me think of the John Holt quote: “Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

  12. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I love this post. Yeah! I will definitely be sharing it. Thank you.

  13. Jools

    1. Thanks so much! As a ‘christian’ parent considering unschooling this was great.
    2. That quote by John Holt about trusting kids sums up exactly what I needed to learn over the past couple of days.
    3. I love the word nary and think you rock it 🙂

  14. Fantastic! What a great post! I’ve never been here before but I’ll certainly be back.

    I’m a radical unschooler and a christian. I live by grace. His Grace. That is the reason I parent the way I do. We are all sinners and struggle with sin from birth to the time we die. I’m the biggest sinner I know. How could I possibly treat my child in any other way other than with grace and love and kindness and empathy? I love that about unschooling and respectful parenting. It’s grace manifest.

    I did want to add though, that true freedom – the only real freedom that we have in this world is in Christ. It’s not in this world and it’s not in the decisions we make about learning or work or anything else. It’s purely in Christ. If I ever talk about freedom to choose in regards to my child it’s only ever in context to day-to-day learning and living. I make sure that he understands that true freedom can only be found in Him. Just wanted to add that as, to me, it’s the most important thing ever.
    Thanks again for a great post.

    I’ll be back to

  15. Thanks so much for writing this article.

  16. Well-said! Love the John Holt quote above! I have been using the term “needs-based education” to describe what we do and never the word unschooling because of its negative connotation. You explained the misconceptions well thanks to that article. Just last week this was on my mind too as I read the front page of the Sonlight newsletter which I never do, but the headline “Do Academics Really Matter?” by Sarita (the owner of Sonlight) caught my eye. It was a scathing essay full of false assumptions, judgement and condemnation with a little manipulation thrown in for fun. This is a company I used before fully embracing my ‘needs-based’ approach and their latest newsletter with Sarita’s essay just turned me off completely from this company.

  17. Holly

    Let me start out by saying I am a mother of 13, and even though I had homeschooled a few of my children very early on, most of my kids are in public school (for now), and I had never heard of unschooling until this school year, when I decided to pull some of them out of public schools and give it another try. I had posted somewhere, seeking advice on how to teach the “unteachables”. The three children that I pulled out this year (ages 14, 13, and 6) all hate learning. They don’t want to learn. The youngest one flat out refuses to do anything that even remotely seems like he may learn from it! If anything seems like schoolwork, or something they may learn from, they absolutely hate it. This breaks my heart. Knowing how excited I was before I went to school, eager to learn about anything and everything. I would sit and look through an old encyclopedia set my mother had, and just absorb anything I could get my hands on. I learned the concept of reading before kindergarten, because I wanted to read all the books we had. After learning some basic words and phonics, I ran with it and taught myself! I was reading high school level books, and encyclopedias in kindergarten! But because I hated to read aloud in a classroom full of kids, I was always put in the lower reading levels, and made to feel stupid. This is what years of public school has done for them. Public school has made them feel like they are failures, and they have lost their love for learning. Someone suggested I try unschooling for a while. I’m praying that maybe through unschooling, I can help them find a love for learning again, not to mention some self-worth and self-confidence that has been sucked out of them from always being told that they “failed” in public schools. I am catching alot of grief and criticism from friends and family that do not understand the concept of unschooling. I really do not even know how to defend myself with them. I feel like I am still learning about the concept myself. I will definitely be sharing this post, and I will probably be looking back over a few more times, just to soak it all in!

    • Jo

      God bless you, Holly! I think you are on the absolute right path. Your kids need time to recover and heal from the damage that has been done, and there is no better place to do it than in the comfort and loving environment of home. I hope you find/get all the encouragement you need along the way!

    • Holly, it may be beneficial for you to lok into deschooling. There is a period of time that kids (and adults) need to go through to get past that feeling that learning must be forced. Depending on how long your kids were in school, it could take awhile, but eventually the love of learning will return, especially if they are allowed to love and learn whatever is most fulfilling for them. 

  18. Stacie

    I honestly know nothing about “unschooling”. What is it exactly? Are you legally allowed to not cover and be tested on certain subjects in each grade, or am I misunderstanding? Also, don’t most states require occasional standard testing by the state, even for home-schooled children (to make sure they are actually being educated)? If so, how do you prepare them for all subjects, if they might not have gravitated towards one or two yet? How do you register an unschooled child? How do you teach advanced math subjects that are required for college entry, if they aren’t naturally interested in Algebra (who is, lol…)? I ask these questions, because I was home-schooled and it involved a lot of strict state requirements, in regards to regular testing at a local school and registration with a private school or home school group that met state standards… T enter college, you need proof of high school graduation and credits in certain subjects. I’m not judging, truly, just want to find out what the definition is of unschooling 🙂 Thank you!

    • jen

      Hi Stacie, have you read my FAQ page? That will answer a lot of your questions. 🙂 https://www.jennifermcgrail.com/faq/ Every state has its own laws in terms of testing/record-keeping, etc, but yes, it is legal in all 50 states. I don’t know if “most” states require standardized testing, but mine doesn’t 🙂 IF my children wanted to go to a college that required certain subjects such as advanced math (at this point, my two oldest have plans that do not involve college – and have our total support), then we would help them learn whatever they needed to know, however they wanted to learn it…. whether through a class, a tutor, self-taught through a book, by a friend, on the internet, etc. It’s really that simple. 🙂

  19. Stacie

    …I love your blog btw, it’s incredibly helpful and I’ve enjoyed going over past articles. I just finally had the time to ask about unschooling, which I had been curious about.

  20. Maria

    This is a really great post! Very well articulated!

    I just wanted to comment on the “unparenting” and radical unschooling.

    I think it is, sadly, not so strange that people can make this link in their mind. We have probably all met these parents who obviously confuse “unschooling” with “child-centeredness”. Infact, I have been one of these parents myself 😉

    When we weren’t ourselves raised that way, we really do not know what this means or should look like. So to begin with, we mess up an awful lot. We think that if we ever have to say the dreaded word “no” then out goes our unschooling-parent-label ;-). We think that if our child is ever discontent or even downright unhappy about a given decision, we aren’t honoring his/her “freedom”…..sigh – and it is no secret, that it really IS tiring to be around small people who have learned that the world evolves around them and that they NEED to have it their way to exist (see Naomi Aldort’s excellent book for more on this).

    In brief, I made these mistakes with my first daughter. She was a real challenge to be around at times, at age 3-5. That’s when I discovered the concept of “consensual living” – and oh lightbulb moment – in all my zele for giving her the freedom I never had (ha!) I had completely missed that unschooling was not about HER wants and needs becoming more important than my own (or anyone elses in the family), that is just conventional thinking turned upside-down. No, unschooling is about my childs wants and needs being given THE SAME importance and value as my own (and anyone elses in the family)! Small word difference – but SOOOOO essential.

    I guess that when someone feels a need to specify that unschooling does not equal unparenting, it could be an attempt to clarify that he or she is aware of that difference and its importance. Often unschoolers can be very passionate about stressing the freedom, the respect of the child etc, and they forget to underline this highly important thing!

  21. Awesome post. You summed up so many things that make being a Christian Unschooler so frustrating. I would really like those who are against it to tell me where in the bible it says that our children need formal education, or regimented learning. I read my bible regularly, and there is a lot in there about letting our children walk along beside us and teaching them about God from sun up to sun down. It has always seemed silly to me to sit my kids down and teach them from textbooks, make them do worksheets and drills, and give them grades. If we want to learn about something, we go out into the world and learn about it, and it’s never a forced experience. The worst thing I could do to my children is make them hate learning, to squash their naturally curiosity of life.

    • pathlesstaken

      I have challenged people to bring me the scriptures that they say support the idea that children must have formal education or regimented learning (as well as those that say that Jesus would ever spank).  Strangely, no one has ever taken me up on it.  😉

  22. Kate

    Amazing post, as usual!! THANKS!!

  23. Well said, Jen. I see unschooling as mentoring..walking alongside them as they question and grow. Enjoying life with them as they pursue knowledge from their own curiosity. I think people who try to give their own definition for things they know nothing about are showing their own ignorance.