Is Unschooling Lazy?

I was thinking tonight about the presumption that unschooling is a lazy option for parents, and an easy option for kids. It would seem, the logic goes, that if parents are not preparing a curriculum or forcing their kids to complete homework assignments, they are doing nothing. And, doing nothing, is incredibly easy. As for the kids, if they are not forced to do something (i.e. schoolwork), they will end up doing nothing. And, again, doing nothing is incredibly easy.

I will not, in this post be addressing the fallacy that doing nothing is easy. A lot has been written on that, and perhaps I will tackle that at a different time. But, what I do want to address is the assumption that unschoolers have it easy.

A metaphor came to mind, and the more I think about it, the more apt it seems.  Let me ask you, what’s easier: going to a restaurant with a set menu or making your own meal? Of course, a restaurant where all of the thinking, planning, preparing and work has been done for you is much easier than coming up with your own meal idea, shopping for the ingredients, and prepping and cooking the food. Restaurants are lovely and nice, and a major part of the reason is that they are easier. But, what if you go to a restaurant and don’t like anything on the menu? It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, I’m bitterly disappointed. I’d much rather be able to choose something else.

Just as with restaurants, there is an array of educational philosophies out there that allow varying levels of choice. Perhaps a Montessori school would be like a buffet, or a Waldorf school like a “cook your own steak” place. But, they are all still limited to the choices that the restaurant itself deems to offer. If you want to choose from anything in the world to eat, you end up making your own food. The choices are limitless, but it will take some work to get where you want to go.  Unschoolers and kids in free schools are like home cooks.  Following your interest is actually incredibly difficult work, much harder than just sitting in a class and doing what you are told. But, it’s also much more rewarding.

As for the parents of unschoolers, supporting the education of a self-directed learner is a constant task. Parents are always on the look out for books, videos, workshops, websites, toys, museums, experiences, and whatever else may be interesting to their child. They have to constantly keep their own agenda in check (a monumental task for anyone who was raised with a more traditional viewpoint), and always ask themselves if they are valuing each pursuit equally.  We cannot just open a book and tell our child to do the worksheet on page 58. There is no manual to this. We have to figure it out as we go along.  It would be so much easier to just stick our kids in the public school system, or even to order a bunch of curriculum and blame the writers of said curriculum if our kids hate it.

But, most unschooling (or free schooling) parents have ended up here because we refuse to stop challenging ourselves and our basic assumptions.  I believe that, upon actually seeing the activity of an unschooling parent, you would be hard-pressed to call them lazy.

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18 Comments on "Is Unschooling Lazy?"

  1. craig
    22/08/2012 at 1:43 pm Permalink

    Unschooling is of course not lazy. As Ivan Illich said, schools substitute activity for real learning, so as to create the impression and perception of productive work in the absence of anything productive being accomplished at all. Activity is not necessarily learning any more than reflective thought is necessarily sloth. And this gets to the heart of what’s wrong with society in general, namely that it places too much focus on process (and the appearance of accomplishment) and not enough on actual results. I think it gets back to the colonial puritan view that idleness is somehow a bad thing, so we endeavour to stay busy at all costs throughout our busy days, irrespective of whether we accomplish anything of value or not.

    To me real school is learning how to solve the problems we encounter during the normal course of our lives. If no problems are currently active in our lives, they why may we not pursue activities that give us pleasure?

    In my own life, I did what society told me to do. I got an engineering degree and spent 36 years working in the aerospace industry – for an employer who made sure to keep me poor and enslaved to the military industrial complex. I am teaching my own son to be smarter than I was, to have his own business and work to live – not live to work as I did. I think the failure of corporate America and the Walmartization of modern corporations (keeping wages down while eliminating pensions and medical benefits) along with the expense of a university education (and the resulting enslavement to loans which that expense produces) is percolating back down to the primary and secondary school level so that more and more people now see a university education as merely the first step to a lifetime of enslavement to the corporate structure.

    So the popularity of the unschooling movement comes at the same time as the failure of corporate America and both phenomena are leading the next generation toward the concept of lifelong learning – which is now possible thanks to the rise of the internet (and YouTube in particular). In fact, I have learned far more from YouTube that I ever did from 12 years in Los Angeles public schools – and I suspect many ohers can also say the same thing.

  2. Angie
    22/08/2012 at 7:09 pm Permalink

    I’m glad I saw this on Twitter. I liked this post, and really needed to hear your message. We are new to hs-us after the kids going to public school, and me working in public school, for 6+ years. So for me, our unschoolish new life FEELS lazy at times, because we are sleeping in instead of using alarms (most days). We are relaxed in our get-ready schedule. Some days we don’t go outside. At all. So I struggle with our choice thinking, am I just doing this because I’m a lazy parent? But what you say with the menu analogy really rings true to me. Now that I can’t “blame anyone else” if my kids grow up to be bums (trying to be silly, hopefully not being offensive here), I find that I am always on the lookout for what they need and want. I am working MUCH harder now as an unschoolish mom than I was as a public school special education worker! That’s saying something! I’m constantly plugged in, always questioning my actions, challenging my points of view, and my kids are doing the same. Being OUTSIDE the box is definitely more difficult than being in it, in my opinion.

  3. Cassi
    22/08/2012 at 9:51 pm Permalink

    Angie– Well said. Thanks for your specific examples of the work you do. Keep questioning yourself, and don’t worry about those stinking alarms. 🙂


  4. Emily
    24/08/2012 at 6:37 pm Permalink

    I along with my younger brother were unschooled our whole lives. It is not SO easy for the kids or a promation of lazy behavior for parents.It is the natrual learning process that promotes independance and self disocvery.I am a piano teacher and my brother works for the state archives.I doubt either of us could have found our passions(music and teaching for me,history for him0so easily if it was not for unschooling. Good Luck on your unschooling adventure!

  5. The Sleepy Time Gal
    04/09/2012 at 11:45 am Permalink

    I’m happy to have found an unschooling blog, and a nice one at that. We unschool our four girls and it can be a lonely thing to not be understood. Thanks for the post!

  6. Janet
    05/09/2012 at 6:05 am Permalink

    It is certainly not the lazy option! My youngest went to college today for the first time, leaving me no longer a home educator after 27 years, and although sad, I am looking forward to having a rest!

    When children are allowed the freedom to choose their own learning, it knows no bounds except the parents willingness to facilitate. Those who think children will play on video games for days on end are correct to a degree, but with mine, they got bored with it after about 3 months solid and never went back to it, except now and then when an exciting new game appeared, but never with the intensity of the first sessions. Allowed the freedom to choose to watch television as they wanted, they pretty much didn’t turn it on after a while, so we had to keep their active and enquiring minds sated by doing activities they chose, and studying the things they wanted to learn. My son was once asked by a stranger what he wanted to learn about and he very seriously answered “everything”.

    Over the years we have spent hours each day following their interests, for my son that meant joining a natural history society, going on walks looking for fungi, joining a microscopy group, going to young ornithologists meetings, walking with park rangers, joining the Nature detectives group, learning how to photograph insects, pond dipping, visiting museums, visiting mines when he got into minerals and gems, making jewellery from tumbled stones, music, martial arts, etc etc, far too much to list. My son is now working as a Post Doctoral Research Associate, researching skin cells and aging, science was always part of his being. My role was making the things he wanted to learn available to him, when his interest was there, so that he didn’t run up against brick walls in his search to learn everything there is to know. I also had the role of introducing things to him that he might conceivably be interested in, as he couldn’t be expected to know everything that was available in the world. This was not a part time job!

    For my daughter, a completely different set of interests had to be accommodated, she loved reading, languages, drama, dancing, wanting to be around other people a lot more than my son, so involving us in a lot more running around to groups and activities than before. Again, bringing to her notice things she might be interested in, or paying for her to try out activities that she might enjoy is a big part of my role. Although she is very self directed, I have still had a role in finding out courses she might want to do, talking to authorities, getting them to accept her onto such courses, arguing for funding for her to be able to do exams, helping with the administrative details on her Open University course, getting transport arranged etc etc.

    She now is at college with the plan of being either a linguist or a book editor in her future career. I can rest a little bit, but I think I will still be needed for transport, encouragement and facilitating her hectic social life for a while yet 🙂 I would love the chance to be a lazy parent, but unschooling certainly isn’t such a chance!

  7. Cassi
    10/09/2012 at 10:26 pm Permalink


    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I love these wonderful stories of adults who know who they are because their parents were brave enough to trust them. Thank you for your hard work.


  8. Emily
    14/09/2012 at 9:41 am Permalink

    Thanks for writing this! We are just beginning with homeschooling, and I am trying to “make” my son do worksheets and explicit lessons on different things because that’s what feels “right” (i.e. that’s how I was taught!!). He hates it!!! But he LOVES math (for example) and is so good at it when allowed to explore it himself. This post gives me the courage to let that go and just relax a bit. I LOVE your analogy!!!! So do you have advice for letting a kid explore math? Any resources that your kids loved? Or games that you played??? Thanks!!

  9. Cassi
    14/09/2012 at 3:49 pm Permalink


    Glad you found me. What age is your son? Honestly, the best advice is to follow his interests. There is math in almost everything. Cooking, building, video games, card games, Legos, and the list goes on. I want to warn you against what Naomi Aldort calls “teacheria.” This is the tendency we all have to turn everything into a “learning experience.” So, say you are making cookies together, and decide to tell him all about fractions by using the measuring cups. This is a surefire way to make sure he doesn’t ask about fractions again, or maybe he’ll just avoid cooking with you in the future. Instead, answer his questions simply, but don’t launch into a lecture about the topic he asked about.

    If he really enjoys doing math problems (I know that when I was a kid, I liked those worksheets), you can go to a teacher supply store and find workbooks. There are also some good free math games online. But, only if he actually likes doing the problems. Other than that, just let him explore the world and you’ll be amazed to see how frequently he’ll learn math concepts without separating them out into a separate (constructed) subject.


  10. Beth
    29/09/2012 at 1:30 pm Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. I am new to homeschooling with my two little boys, ages 4 and 6. This is our first year homeschooling, and I realize that I am leaning more toward an unschooling model. I love your blog, and I will be visiting often. My boys are still tending to want to play games a lot- but you have reminded me of my original philosophy, which is to trust them and trust that the learning will come. My oldest son is dyslexic, and we are working with him on learning the way that is best for him- beyond that, we are doing a lot of math and biology because that is what he is curious about at this time. I love having the freedom to follow his lead!

  11. Eliotn
    10/10/2012 at 11:05 am Permalink

    Hello. I was reading this blog and I am interested in the whole theory homeschooling. Of course, I was mostly a public school child, with a small amount of private and extracurricular schools. While not a parent myself, I just want to say that I have been interested in alternate schooling methods since high school, having realized how much public school sucks. Even if I never become a parent myself, this is an important study for me.

    I have observed this philosophy at work in my life, when I realized that I learned more doing assignments, and sometimes tests (if I found them interesting), compared to doing lectures. This was because it was more personally meaningful for me to work on abstract problems themselves, rather than being bored by a professor lecturing impersonally to a big audience. When working on computer programming, I enjoy trying to program, learning from my mistakes, instead of listening to a professor speak about it (unless he brings up something that I could investigate!) or trying to show “learning” by answering questions that I didn’t like.

    I discovered this popular video, called “facebook parenting for the troubled teen”. Search for it on youtube if interested.
    Basically, the plot is that a parent manages to obtain a private comment that his daughter posted on facebook, telling about how she hated having to do chores, hated that her parents were trying to push her to get a job. In response, he posted a video on youtube, where he shot the computer with a gun. I was shocked to find that many of the commenters were praising the parent, with only a few considering that he might have gone too far by either posting the video publicly or shooting the computer. It really is an example of the implicit philosophy that parents should “control” their kids.

    I look forward to hear your response, as I would like to hear more about homeschooling. In particular, how could the philosophy apply to kids with disabilities, such as autism?

  12. Jackie
    21/10/2012 at 9:03 pm Permalink

    Love your restaurant and menu example…makes is so easy to understand unschooling. You post was a very good read for me. I am one who sometimes tends to think I am not doing right by my daughter by not forcing her to do “school” everyday.

    Thanks for the encouragement I got from you today.

    Jackie, who is semi unschooling her daughter all the way to college.
    My Attempt at Blogging
    Quaint Scribbles

  13. Margaret
    27/11/2012 at 12:27 pm Permalink

    Wow! Just what I needed to read. You hit the nail on the head! I am a parent of two boys, ages 10 and 7. We started homeschooling in April 2011 and have been much happier. We were so done with the public school system for so many reasons, that we decided that we give it a try on our own. I must say that there have been times that I have questioned our decision and approach, because it doesn’t really feel like “schooling”, but when my children discuss with their friends what they have learned or are currently learning, I am so happy that we made the decision. It’s only been recently that I discovered that there is a name for how we homeschool: unschool! As a result of incorporating many alternative, non-traditional approaches to our learning, my children and I have learned so much, are engaged in their learning and enjoy discovering new ideas and information. They have no desire to return to public schooling. Thank you so much for this piece.


  14. MrsElliott
    05/12/2012 at 10:18 pm Permalink

    I find the whole unschooling phenomena interesting. I have home schooled my son, and he is now in a very structured magnet program. He is a child who is distressed by a lack of routine, so this suits him down to the ground, along with the emphasis on math and science. I am a public school teacher, a former artifact restorationist, and a freelance book editor. I am also a former farm kid. My DH is a scientist, and a wonderful musician and sculptor.

    Here are my concerns with unschooling, and maybe they aren’t founded, or these issues resolve themselves. I don’t know, I really don’t know much about your program. How do you teach children to deal with unpleasant necessities? I know that they can learn voraciously of the things in which they are interested, but how do they deal with things later in life that they have no interest in at all? Also, as children who are from a young age allowed to choose what to study, does this hamper them in a workplace when they may have to do a task in which they are not as proficient or interested? How do unschooled children interact with their peers who have a more disciplined study schedule? Do they interact better with children in their own peer group, or with older or younger or does it matter at all?

    For children who hesitate to engage in new or different activities for fear of a lack of proficiency, how do you ease those fears and help them discover things they may love? (ex. My son was very hesitant about soccer, but we signed him up anyway, and then he loved it. Would he have asked to play of his own volition? NO. Does he ask to play soccer every single day now? Yes.) Also, for students who are more english language arts proficient, how do you ensure they have mathematics skills needed for college? For your more natural science oriented children, how do you supplement with mathematics? How does an engineering minded child develop his/her ELA skills? How do children, who come into this world not knowing anything, and not being aware of all the choices out there, able to choose a well rounded, and beneficial course of study? How do these children perform on the SAT or ACT when compared to their peers in rigorous college preparatory programs? Are they more or less likely or equally likely to receive academic or social scholarships? How do they perform in the more disciplined college environment?

    I am not saying unschooling parents are lazy, or that it is not as good as a more traditional school setting. I am just curious. My husband and I supplement our son’s traditional schooling with much at home activity. We explore his interests and work like mad to keep him engaged in different ways. I think that as long as we parents are constantly seeking ways to help our children learn, and our children are learning then we are doing our jobs. Good luck fellow parents!

  15. Cassi
    06/12/2012 at 12:07 am Permalink

    Hey, all–

    Thanks for all of your comments and questions. I hope to be able to address them soon, but have been swamped with work for The Open School. Mrs. Elliott, I do have responses to your questions, but don’t have the time for formulate them. If anyone else would like to jump in, please do.

    Hope to be able to start posting again soon,


  16. Morgan Hancock
    10/01/2013 at 10:37 am Permalink

    Thanks for the post! Wish you would update us on how things are! We just started unschooling this year! 🙂

  17. Cassi
    10/01/2013 at 2:35 pm Permalink

    Morgan, you’re right. I need to sit down and do that. Plus, I have a few blog posts that need to be written. I just listed out all of my roles right now and realized that I am overcommitted. I have commitments to 10 separate things and organizations, and that’s not including things like cleaning the house or being a good friend! So, I need to pare that down. Then maybe I can carve out a little time to start writing again about something I am so passionate about. Glad you started unschooling, and I hope you find support and community in your journey.


  18. I definitely agree with you. I unschool my three children as well and have had numerous judgements about taking “the easy way out”. It’s even gone as far as me being questioned about my decision by the librarians. I calmly educated her showing different examples and now we are constantly praised. That is because many people “assume” the worse. Please continue speaking out on this, as I’m sure many of us have experienced this.

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