Why I’m Passionate about Unschooling

6 Nov 2013

My name is Melissa, and I’m an unschooler. I will admit that I’m more comfortable saying that now than I ever have been. These days nobody blinks at the idea of homeschooling. But I usually get some sort of reaction to telling people that we unschool. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity. (Really? What is unschooling?) Sometimes, it’s confusion. (How will your kids learn to speak if you don’t teach them grammar?) Sometimes, it’s good-hearted teasing by family members who think I’m just a little bit nuts. (I think she even unschools her dogs!) However it comes up, I’m always willing and happy to talk about it!

There are five in our family: my husband, Doug, and me, our seventeen-year-old son, Jackson, our fifteen-year-old son, Nathan, and our nine-year-old daughter, Gianna. We started homeschooling Jackson in kindergarten just to see and have never looked back. The first few years, we followed a curriculum. Actually, we were never very good at following a curriculum, but the first few years, we tried.

We started moving toward unschooling after reading Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto. It was great for me because it got me thinking about education beyond the institution of school. Then I read a few books by John Holt. I had never read books that so resonated with me. The idea of unschooling really made sense to Doug, too. It was a gradual transition toward unschooling. Letting go of formal academics is not easy when it is all you’ve ever known. But now, we are full-fledged unschoolers.

There are about as many different ways to unschool as there are families who unschool. We focus mostly on interests, natural strengths and relationships. More than just trying to encourage our kids to learn, though, Doug and I model curiosity and daily learning. We mostly learn by just living life: going for walks, watching TV, playing games, having conversations with a wide variety of people, going places, discussing ideas, going to the store, volunteering, looking at magazines, hanging out with friends, listening to music, asking our dear friend, Google, lots of questions, doing nothing and yes, sometimes we even learn by reading a book!

I heard a fellow unschooler say that when she is asked when they do school, her answer is “always and never.” I love that! Learning in our life isn’t compartmentalized at all. We fundamentally trust that our kids will learn what they need to know to function in life and to be lifelong learners without coercion from us, but as we have an open mind and a willingness to help them succeed.

I recently read this quote by Robert Brault and my heart leapt. Yes! This is how I want to be with our kids! "Do not ask that your kids live up to your expectations. Let your kids be who they are, and your expectations will be in breathless pursuit." With that, let me tell you a little about the kids that my expectations are pursuing.

Jackson is our oldest child. He is a kind, bright, devoted, funny and sometimes rigid guy who loves music, video games, Minecraft, physics and astronomy. He is one of the most loyal and considerate people I know. He has taken Latin with his best friends for the past four years. With minimal preparation and a relatively small amount of formal academics in his lifetime, Jackson passed the GED and has begun taking classes at Grand Canyon University.

Nathan is incredibly fun, funny and quick-witted, sensitive, creative and boisterous. Nathan is amazing with people. I remember when he was about eight or nine, a new family had moved in next door. One afternoon he said to me, “Mom. I’ll be right back. I’m going to go meet the new neighbors.” That’s just Nathan. He also loves video games, Minecraft, music, Latin and Legos. He is just as happy playing music with Jackson as he is playing spies with his younger sister.

Gianna is spirited, creative, shy and has a laugh that is absolutely contagious. Gianna chooses her friends very carefully. She has a great sense of style. She loves learning about the US presidents, animals (especially baby animals) and China. Gianna is a spelling whiz and the only one of our kids who has always been unschooled. She knows more geography than I do!

I think the best thing unschooling has done for our family is that it's taken the power struggle out of our day. What has been so cool for me, personally, is seeing how learning really can happen without coercion. Because they get to choose most of what they do throughout the day, the kids are usually happy to help out or change directions when I ask them to.

The way Doug and I see things is that it is very important to help our kids know who they are and what they are good at. We want them to love learning, know how to think, know how to develop close relationships, to love and serve God, be tolerant of others, etc.

We have discovered a lot through our unschooling journey—a journey that we are still on. One thing is that this lifestyle really works for us. I know it isn't for everyone, just like I know homeschooling isn't for everyone. It works well with our parenting style. I have actually been amazed at how much school stuff my kids have learned on their own or with my help, but at their request. They remember just about everything they learn, and they do what they do well.

I’m passionate about unschooling because it’s just who we are.

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Heather Ward's picture

You and your family are amazing. I'm a new mom to a new toddler (he just turned one). I want to homeschool our son, so it's exciting to me to hear your story. Though we aren't technically homeschooling yet since he's just a lil guy, I'm still amazed at how he learns so many new things every single day through play and interaction. At first, I took great delight in watching him copy my actions. Now, I'm in awe when I see him do something totally new that he's never seen me do! He's just naturally learning!! Love it! Thank you for sharing your story and being an inspiration!

Melissa Jennings Lake's picture


Thanks for your kind words. I love hearing your observations about your son! It's really amazing to see what such little people are capable of learning without direct instruction. Best of luck with homeschooling!

Dorcas Cecil's picture

My youngest is 17, will be turning 18 in January. We have been homeschooling for 16 years now. My oldest two are 26 and 23 and have graduated from community college and are working. Our homeschool journey went through different curriculums, my oldest son's struggles with math, my youngest son's struggles with reading, etc. I have grown weary of trying to help Jonathan "catch up" to where he is suppose to be in order to graduate next spring. It will probably be next fall before he is able to graduate. But he is interested in being a mechanic. Our local mechanic has agreed to apprentice him. He has been going in a few hours each week after his schooling is completed. He is wanting to hire him part-time after he turns 18. I wanted to ask if you could tell me how you handle the high school transcript with your "unschooling". We have been plugging away w/ algebra and he still has not finished the course from last spring. We dropped out of a homeschool co-op we were part of as he aged out and we also just did not fit in with others in an "all academics" frame of mind towards homeschooling. I noticed that you had your son do the GED. Did you also give him a high school diploma? I am thinking of just forgetting all the worksbooks and just let him enjoy learning his car mechanics and guitar that he loves. Could you offer any advice about "unschooling" the final year or two. Thanks. Dorcas Cecil

Melissa Jennings Lake's picture

Hi Dorcas,

If I were in your situation, I would absolutely drop the schoolwork and let your son focus on what he loves - mechanics and music. In our situation, we needed the GED for our son to start at the university. But, when he took the GED, he did receive a diploma. You can issue your son a diploma and transcript, though, without him taking the GED. It takes some creativity, but it's definitely doable. Just a little disclaimer: I only know the homeschool laws in my state, so you definitely want to proceed with the laws in your state in mind. If you need help, I would seek out an online unschooling group and ask how to create a transcript and issue a diploma in your state.

Becky Workman's picture

Thank you for sharing! Would you mind sharing how you taught Latin and made it fun? So encouraging that both of you boys like it. :) I would like to teach my boys but I admit I am a bit chicken about it. I had a text book years ago that totally overwhelmed me. My boys are 11 and 14.

Crystal's picture

How wonderful this article is! We have taken the same approach with our children.Honestly I have not been open with people about our methods because we have faced a lot of resistance from family members. But this read has really encouraged me! Is there a group of homeschoolers that unschool? I would love to talk to more parents who share our points of view.I would love to talk with you more and get some advice for our journey.Was it hard for your son to achieve his GED?