Confessions of an Accidental Unschooler

In the efforts of full disclosure, I wrote this many moons ago. Since then, my kids have unschooled, homeschooled, dual schooled (charter high homeschool program mixed with college), Waldorf schooled, and … um, I think that’s it.


Back in 2011 or so, this was my headspace. Perhaps you relate.

Unconventional Unschooling

I have a confession to make.  I think I am an…



I pretend not to be.

I pretend I’m one of those hyper scheduled homeschooling moms whose fully clothed children sit at their assigned desks each morning by eight, eating wholesome flaxseed bread, their shiny, freshly washed hair in perfect Laura Ingalls Wilder plaits, Mozart playing softly in the background, while they work on workbooks that are two or three grades above where they should be.

I pretend to be one of those moms who get up at 5 am to sling my reuseable shopping bag over my shoulder, head to the gym for Pilates and then to Trader Joe’s for organic produce my children will beg to eat, and of course be back in time to teach Philosophy and Calculus to my third grader.

I imagine myself to be one of those moms who faithfully test their children each and every year and delight to find them college material by kindergarten, and whose teenagers are bright, funny, not weird, socialized, attractive young humans who can discuss religion and foreign affairs with equal aplomb. 

I am not that mom.

Unschooling by Undesign

I’ve never even been to a Trader Joe’s. I was in a gym once but it was to drop off my daughter at the pool and I had a coconut mocha with whipped cream in hand, so I don’t think it counts.

While I much prefer having a homeschooling schedule, no one seems to stick to it for long. Sometimes – like, right this very minute – I don’t have the heart to interrupt my children to ‘start school’ when they’re playing. I justify this by listening in on their imaginings and if they’re remotely educational I feel better. At the moment, they’re playing a game they entitled Zombie Vegetables That Haunt the Picnic Basket. That sounds like health and nutrition to me.

They don’t get dressed until noon some days. Actually, the four year old rarely gets dressed at all. We’re talking once, twice a week. He is madly addicted to pajama pants, and really, who can blame him? I figure he has a few more years of extreme fashion laziness before the What Not To Wear crew jump out from behind his train set and turn him into something from GQ. When my daughter, Anna, does get dressed, she looks like something between Punky Brewster and Anne of Green Gables.

Unschooling with Undiagnosed ADD

Sometimes I get bored with their school books (I think I have undiagnosed adult onset Academic ADD). So there are plenty of days when, instead of doing math, we play lots of games and cards and have the kids keep score.

I haven’t gone through and graded anything in longer than I will admit in a national magazine, so for all I know, they’re writing things like “who knows?” in the margins and doodling where they should be converting fractions.

They both finished their science books but since I skip oh, I don’t know, 98% of the experiments and crafts (*shudder*), we don’t really have anything to show for it.

That reminds me: they’re signed up for the Homeschool Science Fair and we have nothing to contribute.

I can see me now, as I explain our Science Fair table colleagues,

“Yes, this is our crystal experiment… learning to grow crystals from everyday kitchen ingredients and some toxic, store bought chemicals… yes… as you can see, nothing happened and they didn’t um, grow. This is the pot though; that we completely ruined in our efforts… that might be some crystal sediment in the bottom if you look closely. Oh, wait, no, that’s salt.

“And over here we have the volcano that didn’t explode… ahem. Yes. Well, it’s old enough now that there’s a bit of interesting mold on the side here… did you know mold has a fascinating history? No?

“This is the Emergency Kit we put together from our week of learning about natural disasters and such. Yes… there are some Band-Aids here… oh, and a flashlight, but we were out of batteries, so, well, yes. Umm. Didn’t really have any cotton gauze, so um, there are a couple cotton balls. There should be a flare, you know for emergencies, but um, yeah, we haven’t looked into getting one of those yet. There was a granola bar, but… we had this long shopping trip and we got hungry, so um, yeah. Oh, this is cool! Look at this! It’s an EpiPen for an allergic reaction! Yes, see, I’ll just take it out and show you… oh, hmm. It expired two years ago… well, I guess I should dispose of this.”

I’m not really a science girl.

Unschooling with Uncannily Smart Kids

That being said, I do think I have smart cookies for my descendants. They are able to look people in the eye and hold conversations. That has to count for something.

The Eldest retains absolutely everything she has ever heard about zoology. She can really spank you at animal science trivia. 

The Middler… well, did I mention she knows the entire score to Les Miserables? I’d rather go see her on an off-Broadway play than visit her while she is performing brain surgery anyway. That would be icky.

And the pajama clad toddler? Well, despite his insatiable cravings for all things mechanical and video gamey, he is a smart little kick in the pants. At the store the other day he leaned out of the cart and asked the woman passing by,

“Are you my mom?”

Laughing, she declined the proposition. 

Slapping his knee and chuckling like some dirty old man, he said, “I was just joking, lady! Wasn’t that funny?”

OK, you’re right. I need to get this boy some education.

Unintentional Unschooling

But my point was, I try not to admit I am an unschooler. It’s bad enough admitting to being a homeschooler. You practically have to apologize for that.

You don’t want to somehow insult the other parent’s choice of education, God forbid. There’s no nice way of saying public school is a lovely option for YOU, but I’d never in five billion years send my own kids to that germ infested, bully run, standardized tested, gun-toting institution.

It’s a tricky dance, two-stepping around THAT conversation.

So now you’re homeschooling. You’re already fighting the stereotype that your kids have never seen a television, wear thrift store rejects, sport homemade bowl cut haircuts, can’t catch a ball to save their lives, read classic literature for fun, have pocket protectors and calculators on their Star Trek shirts, and snort when they laugh at everyone else’s non-existent grasp of physics and theology.

They assault you in the streets with random, odd facts of history. They won’t stop talking to you in the grocery store check-out line and make you nervous. They don’t know how to turn on a computer; either that or they know so much about computers they could single-handedly take over Dell.

They earn their own money from birth, helping out with their family’s business or starting one of their own, and yet never spend their money. They have lots of brothers and sisters and they all own guns and live in the boonies, leaving everyone to wonder if they are starting their own militia and we will see them on the five o’clock news someday soon.

Those are just the regular homeschoolers.

Unschoolers make homeschoolers look normal.

Unschoolers don’t DO school. They learn by living life.

They find their passions and follow them. They become experts in underwater basket weaving and ancient sock knitting, tapestry weaving and harp playing, ear wax sculptures and the history of pepper.

OK, maybe not the ear wax thing.

If they were at the Science Fair – which they probably wouldn’t be – their table would be spur of the moment, whatever they felt excited about that very morning. They have art class in the garden, math when they’re playing poker with elderly gentlemen in the park, science when they decide to backpack Europe at the age of 14.

Books by Melyssa Williams

They don’t do textbooks. They don’t take tests. They grow up to be the geniuses of our times. The crazily beautiful minds who invent the things we can’t live without, the cures no one else could discover, the theories that stretch our imaginations.

Mothers who let their children go like this … they’re kind of beautiful. It takes spirit. Faith. Imagination.

Although I am not one!

I am too busy writing that schedule we’re not going to ever get to and planning those lessons that we’ll start but never finish.

I have to wrestle one child out of his pajama pants and take a weed whacker to the eldest daughter’s hair.

I have to go to homeschool co-op and remove ourselves from the Science Fair signup.

I have to drink more coffee.

I have to shout at the girls to do some math, for the love of Moses, and then promptly forget to grade it.

But if I were one of those moms – one of those gorgeously-put-together School At Home Moms or one of those Tree Hugging Granola Unschooling Moms…

That would be sweet.

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Confessions of an Accidental Unschooler