Unschooling, According to the Kids

Yesterday, I took the opportunity to have a chat with all four of the kids about unschooling.  I wanted to be able to share their words, their thoughts, and their perspectives.  What follows is just a portion of the awesome conversation that unfolded.  Bold words are mine, and responses are from Spencer (16), Paxton (12), Everett (almost 9) and Tegan (5)

What is unschooling?

Everett:  It’s learning what you want, in the way that you want to learn it.

Paxton:  It’s hard to explain.  Being autodidactic.  That’s unschooling.

Spencer:  Unschoolers can learn what they want, when they want.

Paxton:  They’re not forced to go with the “system”

What is the best part of unschooling?

Tegan:  Playing, and playing tag, and playing dolls, and all sorts of fun stuff.  Okay… Playing.

Everett:  I like all of it.

Paxton:  Having the freedom to be able to do what you want, when you want.

Spencer:  Being able to set your own schedule.

Are there any negatives to unschooling?

Paxton:  Not that I can think of, no.

Everett:  No.  I like everything about it.

Spencer:  Nope.

Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on anything by not going to school?

Tegan:  I do!  Like story time.

Paxton:  Well I might be missing out on opportunities to make a few friends…

Everett:  Yeah

Paxton:  But I’m okay with that because I’m an introvert, and that’s what homeschooling groups are for anyway.

Spencer:  Absolutely not

Which leads me to my next question.  Do you feel like you have enough opportunities to be around other kids/make friends?

Paxton:  Yes

Spencer:  Yes

Everett:  Yeah

Tegan:  Mmm hmmm.

How do you know you’re learning if you’re not tested?

Tegan:  Well, I know I’m learning because everybody tells me that I’m learning every day

Paxton:  Because it’s a fact.  You learn something new every day whether you realize it or not.

Spencer:  Just because I know more stuff than I used to know

Paxton:  Over time, you just realize that you know more and can do better

Everett:  Even in school, the teachers can’t really know if you’re learning, because they’re not inside your head

Spencer:  Yeah, that’s a good point.  You could get an A on one test, or you could get an F, even if you know the answers.

Right, some people just don’t test well.

Everett:  So the teachers can’t always know, because they’re not you

Some people think that unschoolers will only learn things that are easy for them, and will not ever challenge themselves.  So do you learn things that are difficult, or do you just go for easy things that you know you’ll do well?

Spencer:  I like a challenge!

Paxton:  Yeah, if it’s too easy, it’s no fun.  If it’s too hard, it’s no fun.

Everett:  And if at school, if you were doing something hard that you didn’t want to do and were forced to do it… you couldn’t take a break and do something easy for awhile when you wanted to.  With unschooling, you can put the harder thing down for awhile, and do an easier thing.

Paxton:  Absolutely.  I’m going into programming games in Python, and that’s learning like millions and millions of lines of code.  It’s not exactly an easy thing to do.

But you have the motivation to do it because…

Paxton:  Because that’s something I want to do for a career.

Do you think you’ll ever want to try to go to traditional school?

Spencer:  No

Paxton:  Unless it’s necessary for what I want to do with my coding, no.

Everett:  I might eventually want to go, just to try it out to see, but I’m happy being unschooled.

Spencer:  There’s so many advantages to unschooling.

Do you think unschooling would work for any child?

Paxton:  Not necessarily… some people might be more inclined to want to go to school.

Everett:  Yeah

What would you say to a parent who says, “Unschooling would never work for us because my kid would just sit and watch TV all day, and would never learn anything?”

Paxton:  You learn something new every day

Everett:  You might think they’re not learning, but they really do learn something, whether you see it or not

Paxton:  What if they’re watching shows about something they want to do as a career?

Spencer:  Exactly

Paxton:  Then being able to sit and watch TV all day would be a huge bonus

Paxton:  I watch Mythbusters because I want to blow stuff up.  Blowing stuff up is cool.

Everett:  I totally agree with that

Paxton:  But the science on Mythbusters is really cool

Some people that with unschooling, the kids run the house.  Agree or disagree?  Who do you think runs our house?

Spencer:  You and Dad.

Tegan:  Spencer took my answer!

Everett:  I think we all run the house

Paxton:  Disagree.  Obviously you as the parents get the final say if an issue comes up, but it’s really pretty much a family deal around here.

Tegan:  Mommy and Daddy, and everyone except the pets

Some people say that unschooling equals unparenting… that there’s no guidance, and that the kids just run around all willy nilly.

Paxton:  No.  Just, no.

Paxton:  I mean, to an extent.  You’re not strict like other parents, but there’s still guidance.

Spencer:  And there’s rules…

Paxton:  Not so much rules, but just general.. what’s the word…


Paxton:  Principles, yes, but something else.  Just general… The word’s on the tip of my tongue.  It’s two words… (he’ll think of it later)

Okay, we’ll come back to that.  How do you learn to do math if you never have a math lesson?

Spencer:  Just doing it in our daily life

Paxton:  I use math on a daily basis… sometimes for fun, and sometimes just to figure something out.

Everett:  I taught myself.

But how did you learn it?

Paxton:  By doing it.

Everett:  You just do it, and then you do it more, and practice and you get better…

How did you learn to read?

Spencer:  Books

Everett:  The same as math

Paxton:  Self-taught.  Autodidactic.

Spencer:  Playing games, doing things on the computer…

Do you feel like you’re being sheltered from the real world?

In unison:  No

You guys are giving really short answers..

Paxton:  Do you want a novel for each question?

Yes  (laughter)  Okay, what do you think is the biggest misconception about unschooling?

Everett:  That kids don’t learn anything, that they are just running around doing what they do.

Paxton:  I agree with what Everett said, and also that the kids run the house.  That’s not true.  So not learning anything, the kids running the house deal.  I’m still looking for the two words from that other question…

Do you feel like you’ll be prepared for a future career?

Spencer:  Yes, because I’m already working on what I want to do for a career right now (working on small engines)

Paxton:  Yes, that’s why I’m starting that Python class next week.

When you have kids, do you think you’ll send them to school or will you unschool?

Tegan:  Well, I’m not going to send them to school when they’re little, but I might send them to school when they’re big

Everett:  I would do what they wanted to do.  If they wanted to go school, I’d let them go to school.  If they wanted to be unschooled, I’d unschool

Tegan:  I want to change my answer.  I’d let them choose.

Paxton:  I’d let them do what they want to do too, but I’d definitely try to urge unschooling

Spencer:  I’d unschool


Paxton:  Common sense!!!  Common.  Sense.  Those were the two words.  I don’t even remember what the question was, but common sense.

Was it the question about not having any guidance?

Paxton:  Maybe… In the context of knowing what to do, and what not to do.  Common sense.

Ooooh, okay, you mean you don’t have to have rules, because how you act in a household is just common sense?

Paxton:  Yes!

So how did you learn to have this common sense if you didn’t have rules, weren’t punished….

Paxton:  Because it’s common sense…. Like if you do something once and something bad happens, you say to yourself, “Oh I probably shouldn’t do that again.”

Let’s go back to the question about kids just watching TV or playing video games all day, because that’s a real concern for some people.  Do you think that it’s an actual thing that happens, or do you think it’s a misconception?

Paxton:  I think it just depends on the kid.  It can happen, but it’s not a bad thing.  If you think about it, a kid that’s free to choose isn’t going to play a video game or watch a TV show all day unless it’s something that they’re really interested in or passionate about.

Everett:  Yesterday, I was watching a video about how educational video games could be

Do you think you get a well-rounded education being able to follow your own interests? 

Everett:  Well with unschooling, you’re not forced to learn about any one thing.  You can learn about other things if you want to

Paxton:  But do you want to?  When you’re following an interest, do you learn a variety of things, or do you just learn about that one thing?

For example, basic skills…. reading, writing, math… do you feel that you get all those basic skills just by following your own interests?

Spencer:  Yes

Everett:  It kind of depends on what your interest is, but yes

Paxton:  I definitely got my math brain from my father, but even just by learning about what I’m passionate about, I’m definitely learning a lot about math and numbers and words… how to put this together and that together and try this… engineering….

If you want to learn about something, what do you do?   What tools do you use? Who helps you?

Tegan:  Well, you help me.  I want to learn about going on the green slide, and driving and stuff.   You help me.  You’re my person.

Paxton:  You’re her person

Spencer:  Well, right now I’m interested in getting better at small engines, so your uncle’s been really helpful

Paxton:  If I want to learn about something, my first instinct is to go to YouTube

Everett:  Yeah

Paxton:  Or, you know, find a book or something.  Or find somebody that I know who has an interest or knowledge of that subject

Oh!  Here’s a question.  Some people think that unschoolers don’t use books.  True?

Spencer:  Wrong!

Everett:  That’s totally not true

Paxton:  I for one, don’t particularly enjoy doing my reading from books.  But I will do a lot of research online… find articles, forums, everything on the subject that I want to learn about

Spencer:   I like books.  You got me that whole set of books on engine repair, and they’ve been a good resource.

Paxton:  Yeah, you’re very supportive of what we want to learn about, and help us find what we need to learn more about it, and to follow the interest.

Spencer:  Yes, you are

Everett:  But you don’t force us to do it

Paxton:  No, you just help us when we need it

So you don’t feel like I’m “hands off”, or that you’re learning on your own?

Paxton:  Not at all

Everett:  Because if we have an interest, you support it, and you help us research it.  And even if we want to do something, and can’t figure out, “how do I do this?”  we can ask you.

Do you ever feel like you’re overly encouraged?  Like do you think that you’re being pushed to take certain paths?

Spencer:  No

Paxton:  You’re encouraging us in the areas we want to pursue.

Everett:  Right, you’re not encouraging us to go into chemistry if we want to go into math.

Paxton:  I feel like any job we chose would be supported

So, Spencer you want to go into engine repair and landscaping;  Paxton you want to be a computer programmer.  Everett, do you know what you want to do when you grow up?

Everett:  Making games would be fun

Paxton:  He’s said he’d like to go into sound effects

Everett:  Yeah that’d be really fun job to do

Some people think that since we don’t really have rules in the house, and since the parents aren’t really the “boss”, that you’ll never learn how to respect authority.  What do you think about that?

Everett:  That’s not true.  We learn to respect others.

Paxton:  Again, it’s just common sense.  There are rules everywhere, and we learn to follow them if we want to be part of… Part of…


Paxton:  Yes, society.  We’re respectful members of society, just not the system.

Okay, let’s talk socialization.

Paxton:  I’m socially awkward


Paxton:  No, I’m not that socially awkward.  I’m not Sheldon.  I know how to introduce myself, say hello, shake people’s hands….

Spencer:  In school,  you’re mostly just around other kids

Paxton:  In the same room, all day

Everett:  With kids that you might not even choose to be around.  Or be friends with.

Paxton:  And being out of school, we’re around people of all ages.  I like being able to make friends with other people who have similar lifestyles, but if we don’t, I can adapt and still say hi and be friendly and become friends with one another.

Here’s one someone asked me the other day.  How do you know that you prefer unschooling to school, if you’ve never been to school for comparison?

Spencer:  We can just talk to friends that have gone to regular schools.

Paxton:  Well I’ll find out next week, even though I’m not actually going to school.

Right, but it’s one class that you chose, and something that you’re interested in.

Paxton:  That’s true.  It’s really different than going to school for what, 7 hours a day?  Being forced to learn something and do things that you may not want to do just doesn’t sound like a fun concept.

Everett:  And even if there is something you do want to learn about, you can only learn about it at certain times.

Paxton:  And you’re forced to learn it whether you want to at that time or not.  You don’t have the freedom to do what you want, for how long you want.

Do you think that unschooling is a good option for someone who is considered “special ed”, has ADHD, etc?

Everett:  I think unschooling is better than regular schooling, because they can learn at their own pace, instead of being forced to learn things in a certain way.

Paxton:  I think everyone would have some sort of label if we went to school.

Spencer:  I think unschooling would be the best choice, because something might be harder for them to learn in the traditional ways.

Everett:  And with unschooling, you can focus on strengths

Does it bother you – or maybe this hasn’t happened to you – if someone says for example, “You’re in sixth grade, you should know this by now?” 

Paxton:  It doesn’t bother me, but it’s annoying.

Spencer:  Yeah, when someone says that it’s like they’re boasting and rubbing it in your face

Paxton:  Exactly.  They’re being kind of rude.

Spencer:  Like, “Ha ha, we know more than you.”

Paxton:  It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m “behind” where the public schools think I should be, because everyone learns at their own pace, but I’d be pretty irritated if someone actually walked up to me and said something like that.

Okay, to expand on that… Do you think there is a certain group of things that kids should know at certain ages?  Or do you think everyone should just learn at their own pace?

Spencer: Everyone should be able to learn at their own pace.

Everett:  I’d say, if they want to learn it they will, no matter what age they are

Paxton:  Everyone learns at their own pace, but there will be some things that will be necessary in life sooner than others.   Like reading, math… that kind of thing

So do you think unschooling has provided you the environment to learn those things?  Or the tools to know how to learn them when you need them? 

Everett:  Definitely

Paxton:  Yes.  It’s provided me what I need to know, what I already know… AND has given me the tools to learn more when I want to or need to.

How about this… do you think it’s important for kids to learn for example, all the state capitals, or who was president when, or the dates when certain things happened…

Spencer:  It just depends on the person

Paxton:  For some people, it’s really cool for them to learn about stuff like that, and for others, it’s just really frustrating and hard to remember.  And if they don’t need it…

Everett:  No one’s going to want to be forced to learn it

Paxton:  And they’re not going to remember it anyway, if it’s not something they’re interested in

Okay, upper level math.  Necessary?  Not necessary?

Spencer:  Not

Paxton:  Yeah, unless you’re going to go into a field that requires it, you’re probably not going to need more than the basics in day to day life.

Some people worry that if kids are given too much freedom, they’re not going to make good choices.  What are your thoughts on that?

Spencer:  I think most kids would make good choices if they’re trusted

Paxton:  I agree

Tegan:  Ask me the question!

Tegan, do you know what are some good choices, and what are some not-very-good choices?

Tegan:  Hitting and punching aren’t very good choices.  Saying bad words isn’t a good choice.

Paxton:  Oh, are we going to talk about swearing?

Did you want to?

Spencer:  It’s just about knowing when

Paxton:  When, where, time and place, being aware of and respectful about who’s around you

Tegan:  Spanking someone isn’t a good choice.

Oh!   Let’s talk about spanking.  How did you learn to stay out of the street if you were never spanked?

Everett:  Because you told us to.  You talked to us.

Paxton:  There’s no need to cause physical harm to teach someone to be safe.

Spencer:  You can just say, “Don’t go in the street.”  It’s pretty obvious.

Everett:  Or you can say, “That wasn’t very safe.  Please don’t do it again.”

Paxton:  And again, it’s common sense.  If you do it once, and are told not to, you don’t do it again.  And then you get to a point where it’s like, “Hmm, that car is coming pretty fast.  Maybe I shouldn’t jump in front of it.”

Here’s a question.  We don’t require any of you to do chores, but you all pitch in when we ask anyway.  Spencer, earlier I asked you to bring out the recyclables, and you did.  You didn’t have to, but you did anyway.  Why?

Spencer:  Because the bin was overflowing, and we all use it.  It needed to be done.

Everett:  And it’s just the nice thing to do

Spencer:  Yes!

Paxton:  That’s exactly what I was going to say

Tegan, why do you brush your teeth when I ask you to, even though it’s never been something I’ve made you do?

Tegan:  Because I want to keep my teeth clean and healthy.

So how have you learned to do things if they were never a requirement?

Everett:  We just choose to do them

Paxton:  Yeah, choose to do them, then learn from the outcome.  Learn from the outcome, and decide whether or not it would be a good idea to do whatever it was again.

Along those same lines… you’re all able to set your own schedule in terms of sleep, etc.  How will you adjust to having a job and having to get up early/be somewhere at a certain time?

Paxton:  I’d just set an alarm, and get it done.  Eventually you get into a routine, and you’d get used to it.

Everett:  Yeah, you just keep doing it, and it gets easier.

Spencer:  What I do when I want to adjust my schedule is just start going to bed an hour earlier each night until I get on the schedule I want.

Paxton:  Yeah I’d rather just set my alarm.  I’d have to force myself to do it the first few times, but then it would become a habit, and get easier.  Just do it, and get it done.

At this point, I tried to ask them what they’d learned from video games, but it rabbit trailed into a very long discussion about the zombie apocalypse.  They did eventually tell me that in addition to learning what to do in case of zombies, that they’d learned (and are continuing to learn) things like reading, physics, problem solving, grammar, spelling, math, cooperative play…

Paxton:  If you’re exposed to anything enough, you learn from it.

Everett: In the video I was watching yesterday, the guy was talking about Minecraft and about how many different things kid can learn from it… even just from how big the blocks are, how they fall…

Paxton:  Portal II is also a great game to figure out physics, puzzles, how things fit together, how to think outside the box….

Here’s something that has been pretty hotly debated lately.  Do you think it’s possible to unschool part-time?  For example, saying, “We unschool except for math and english?”

Paxton:  That’s not unschooling.  That’s homeschooling.  If you’re forcing them to do it, even if it’s just one or two subjects, that’s homeschooling, not unschooling.

Everett:  With unschooling, you should be learning what you want to learn.

Spencer:  Yeah, I think if you’re going to unschool, you should unschool.    Traditional homeschooling is pretty much the same as going to school, you’re just doing it at home.

So you think that you’re either an unschooler or you’re not?

Paxton:  Yes, there’s not really an in-between.

What would be your response to somebody who said something like, “Oh I like the idea of unschooling, but I’d be worried that my child wouldn’t learn everything he’d need to know.” ?

Paxton:  If they truly need to know something, they will learn it.

Everett:  Yeah.  If they really needed it, they would know it, and they would learn it.

Paxton:  If something is truly a NEED to learn, the child would learn it… on his or her own, at his or her own pace, with no force.

And finally, are you going to grow up to be murderers and drug addicts and criminals?

Spencer:  No

Paxton:  Yes

Everett:  Well, not those things. But I might be a hippie.

Paxton:  HIPPIES!!

Everett:  Hippies rule!!

Thank you, to the four most awesome kids I know.



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Filed under Everett, family, Paxton, Spencer, Tegan, unschooling

20 Responses to Unschooling, According to the Kids

  1. Cass

    Absolutely loved this post! Thank your kids for sharing their ideas.

  2. I have a question for your kids, that I don’t think was really answered. Sometimes in school, while you’re being forced to learn things you may not want to learn, you might be introduced to something you wouldn’t otherwise have come across. Do you, Jen, worry there are things they might miss out on, and do your children ever wonder if they might miss an opportunity to explore interests they may not come across in their day-to-day lives?
    Maybe it goes back to providing a rich learning environment at home, but growing up I feel like there were a lot of experiences I did have at school that I couldn’t have gotten at home, and it was nice to be able to try out different things.
    I am one of those people that “loves the idea of unschooling” but I think it comes down to a matter of trust in what will be, and I worry my children’s interests will be narrow and they’ll grow up and wish they had been forced to learn something young because they realized they needed it later. I didn’t pursue math very far in highschool, and it really hurt me when I got to college because I ended up not being able to afford the time and money to play catch up to meet the math requirements for different majors. That’s just one example.
    I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on this 🙂 Thank you for writing such an awesome blog!

    • “Do you, Jen, worry there are things they might miss out on”

      My short answer is no, I don’t. Ever. 🙂 This post goes into it a bit more, if you haven’t read it yet: https://www.jennifermcgrail.com/2012/03/unschooling-dont-you-worry-that-theyll-miss-something/

      “and do your
      children ever wonder if they might miss an opportunity to explore
      interests they may not come across in their day-to-day lives”

      I asked Spencer what he thought (because he’s the only one around at the moment) and he said he couldn’t think of anything that he might be exposed to at school that he couldn’t also be exposed to outside of school, and that if he DID get to a later point in his life and he thought, “Wow, I wished I’d learned about this,” that he’d simply learn it then. It’s never to late to learn something.

      • Jen

        I agree…I think at school (at least for me), it was RARE to come across something that interested me enough to pursue it further. That was the exception, not the rule. I got giddy when that happened. I can see how at home, these moments would come faster and harder because the kids are exposed to SO MUCH MORE outside of the building walls each and every day (even if it is just YouTube, a documentary or a book. New things are everywhere in the world — coming across something interesting in school here and there would never be enough for me to send my kids to school. That’s like sending someone to the grocery store for shoes…if you happen to find them, awesome…but most likely you will not. My kids are young…4, 2 and 3 months. This blog posting has truly inspired me, thank you!

  3. This post is very inspiring, not about (or solely about) unschooling, but about when you trust your kids and let them free, how conscious individuals they can become. I am awed at the level of awareness your kids carry about themselves and their surroundings. I don’t think this is only unschooling, it’s more of your parenting in general as well. Maybe most of the kids are like this, then we herd them and debilitate their awareness and cripple their ability to think for themselves and make choices for the right reason.

    • Thank you! And I agree that it’s just as much about parenting (if not more so) than about unschooling. Parenting is such an intrinsic part of unschooling that it’s impossible to separate the two.

  4. What a wonderful idea to hear from these four young people! Thank you for sharing their inspiring words : )

  5. very interesting 🙂 I just started hearing about unschooling a couple of months ago… what about the legalities of it? I don’t know much about it, but when I was homeschooled I had to take the standardized tests and submit them to the town school board so they “knew” I was learning… my mom also had to submit report cards… when I went to college, it was required to have my records from high school (which my mom made up, along with letters from the town superintendent), as well as SATs, etc. Something like computer programming (which my husband is – a programmer), most of the jobs he applied for required a Bachelor’s degree (if not a Master’s) in order to be considered for the position. How could that happen if they didn’t have school records? I’m just trying to understand how this all works and the legalities of it… 🙂 thanks!

    • Hi Anna, thanks for the comment. 🙂 For the first part of your question – the legalities of unschooling itself – it just depends on the individual state. Some states have very stringent laws, and others such as Texas don’t require *anything* from the homeschooling parent. Where I live, Arizona, all that we’re required to do by law is notify the school district of our intent to homeschool. That’s it… no records, no tests, no evaluations.

      As for college, neither of my two older boys are interested in college at this time. Lots of unschoolers pursue paths that don’t involve college such as doing their own independent research, starting their own businesses, finding a mentor in their chosen field, taking an unpaid internship, learning through experience, etc. If they do change their mind and find that they want or need a college degree, there are lots of ways to go about it. A lot of their homeschooling peers take classes at the college level as teens, through the community college … and then once they have some credits under their belts, it’s just a matter of transferring to their chosen school. They’d find out the requirements of the schools they were interested in, learn what they need to do, and do it 🙂 whether it’s studying for and taking the SAT, placement exams, putting together a portfolio, etc.

    • just found your FAQ page 🙂 thanks!

  6. Aza Donnelly

    I loved this conversation! As I was reading it I started asking Finn ( 7) some of the questions. He had many of the same answers. I really enjoyed reading the perspective of your oldest son. It is so encouraging!

  7. Hi Jen! I can always count on you to uplift, inspire and encourage me from off the beaten path. Thank your kids for me 🙂

  8. Pingback: The Hard Things » The Path Less Taken

  9. Pingback: Unschooling Reads | Schooling Simon

  10. Jessica Voigts

    LOVE. yes!

  11. Pingback: In a child’s hand (part 2) | Learning 2 Teach 4 Home

  12. Debby

    If these questions to your children would have been asked by an unknown interviewer instead of their own mother, do you think they would have given the same answers? I’ve used the same principles with my children with different results. They will not take showers, brush teeth, or chores with out being told. The answers from your children would have been more convincing if other Unschooling friends children would have commented on the same questions without knowing their parents were going to read the answers and possibly be embarrassed at their children’s answers! Just being honest not judging!

    • jen

      I know you don’t know me or my children so take it for what it’s worth to you… but knowing my own children: YES, I absolutely 100% think that they would have given the same answers even if someone else asked them. 🙂

  13. tersh

    so beautiful

  14. Maria

    Hi Jen,

    I’m wondering about what you mean exactly by common sense.

    Many things that unschoolers do would normally fall under the category of “not using common sense”, for example free us of technology, or no fixed bedtime, food freedom, etc.

    Thanks <3