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Are My Kids ‘Keeping Up’?


My kids are young – 7 and 9. The familial and societal pressure for them to ‘keep up’ and ‘succeed’ is great. One of the first questions I’m asked when I tell people we are life learners is, “how do you know they’re keeping up?” My children don’t go to school. They never have. We thought about it long and hard and then again. We’ve investigated every nook and cranny of our highly educated brains and it always comes back to learning through living. I’ve podcasted about our difficult and thoughtful coming to awareness of what our lives would be – are – together as our children grow. We are together. My husband and I sometimes step back and marvel at the constant learning that goes on for our children. Yes, sometimes it is validating for our ever-shrinking educationally enculturated alter EGOs to have a translation of our children’s life learning education. We giggle at a complicated, life-induced mathematical word problem they’ve solved through discussion and critical thinking. We marvel at their operational analysis of a place of business we visit and thoughtful consideration of how to improve revenue. Their intake of information isn’t boxed up nicely into compartments broken up by bells and processionals to the next segmented piece. But then I remind myself that, boxed up, it’s not really learning.

So, are they ‘keeping up’? I used to justify this with research and analysis of test taking scores of homeschoolers being consistently higher than their schooled counterparts. We can talk about colleges and universities seeking out young people who are intrinsically driven to learn through curiosity and desire; whose interests rather than expectations have fueled their collegiate aspirations. As my children grow older and maybe even as I grow a little wiser, I wonder what ‘keeping up’ means. Will my children easily fit into one of those neat little institutional boxes if they should at some point ‘need’ or desire to go to school? That is really the question, isn’t it? Will my kids grow up to feel disempowered by their lack of knowledge in a particular area? As I have relished in living and growing together with my children, these fears have dissolved into the abyss along with any concerns I once had about my own ability to fit in with cultural currents.

I love the comfortable, empowered feeling I get when I read what you’ve written here. Of course, nothing has changed since my kids were younger and not in school either. A common question I got from others was ‘how do you know they are learning everything they are supposed to learn?’ My answer varied, depending upon who I was talking to, but one I liked was ‘I don’t.’ Huh?

My early years of unschooling with my kids was mentored from afar by John Holt – an author, teacher drop-out, and proponent of taking kids out of school and keeping them out. As a keynote speaker on the topic of child-initiated education one year, he was asked by a parent in the audience, ‘what are the things every child must learn?’ John said, ‘Nothing. There is nothing every child or person needs to learn to live fulfilled and productively in this world.’ Wow, this was profoundly provoking and life changing for me at the time. Nothing. Not reading, not basic math, not grammar, not … anything. Not anything!

Over the years, I have reflected on this wisdom a great deal, as I watch my kids experiment, inquire, maneuver the world on their self-designed terms. I try to stay out of the way and help them, teach them, advise them only when they ask for my help (this is definitely worthy of a whole separate blog post). I have challenged myself to limit my need for control to controlling myself and no one else. I have committed myself to continual upgrades of my life and environment, in thought and action. I have developed a life long hobby of interviewing folks who LOVE their lives, dissecting their actions that got them to their blissful, fully alive states. I have wholeheartedly arrived at the conclusion that I agree with John Holt. There is absolutely NOTHING that every person, every child, must learn or know in order to get on this world as a happy, fulfilled individual.

“True learning – learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent action and further learning — can arise only out of the experience, interest, and concerns of the learner.”
– John Holt

And yet that answer is also ‘Everything.’ My kids know everything they need and want to know in any given moment or they know how to find out. This is truly the education that they are getting. They are learning true competence and self-confidence in knowing that they can know or do anything such that when there is some new interest, challenge, or obstacle, they can easily navigate in their desired direction. How much of what we ‘learn’ in school is actually retained? The truth of it is that it’s short-term memorization for the purposes of regurgitation. That regurgitation is then measured to a standard bell curve of how effective the memorization training and test taking skills are on the whole. These are not life skills nor are they learning or measures thereof. Ironically enough, Laura Grace Weldon points out, there has actually been shown to be no association between national test scores and determinants of ‘success’ and a positive correlation between individual test scores and shallow thinking. People who do well in school (myself included) are able to assess the objectives of the game and determine a strategy to do well at it; that is, if they have a desire to play. Many children are wise to the fruitlessness of the game and choose to preserve their efforts and some semblance of integrity.

Since the dreams, pursuits, and goals of each individual are unique, so will be their learning needs and desires. So, no, there is nothing that EVERY person must learn. The ‘fundamentals’ as they are called- reading, writing, and mathematics – also fall under this in the world of the child who is empowered to their own, individual, personal greatness. They can and will learn exactly as much of these as is necessary or desired for their lives.

So, are they ‘keeping up’? I actually feel like we’re not even playing the same game. My children are learning and thriving in a way that is so exciting, chaotic, and rich that I couldn’t begin to envision myself sweeping up the mangled, lovely knots of learning and trying to untangle and sort them into boxes for you to measure. Standard or average would be derogatory and inaccurate ways to describe my children’s experiences of learning. They’re not ‘keeping up’… they’re flying.

Well said, Sarah. I think it’s critical for one, perhaps for everyone, to remove themselves from this ‘keeping up’ game. Is it really any different at all than the much criticized ‘keeping up with the joneses’ game? Actually, it’s the same drive, the same motivation that’s behind it – one that gives the views, values, perspectives, opinions and evaluations of others more importance than one’s own self-designed, always changing view of oneself. Children are at least as capable, if not more so, of self evaluation, self direction and self education than us highly conditioned adults. As parents, we have the golden opportunity of creating environments that support this intelligence and ability to fly, as you state it, and self design in the most powerful ways imaginable. I love the magical feeling of this brave new world every single day. I am so grateful to have no desire whatsoever to compare myself or my children to another, and that includes all the high end, rich and intelligent and empowered stuff.

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28 Comments Post a comment
  1. As staunch an advocate as I’ve always been for homeschooling/unschooling, I too have suffered from intermittent fears that my kids may not be “keeping up.” Maybe this is due to pressure from family members who regard our lifestyle as an experiment or just a side effect of going against the norm.

    But I’ve been involved with large groups of homeschoolers for nearly 15 years now. I’ve watched kids who started reading late, who had enormously uneven development, who focused on one interest for a very long time. In all sorts of ways many of these young people would have been considered “failures” in school. Every one has matured into wonderfully capable, self-aware adults. Better yet, they continue to have an eagerness for learning and expanding their abilities that isn’t often seen at any age beyond 5 in our society.

    We need to expand our definition of “success” to include all the many gifts our children bring to the world. Thank goodness that Rethinking Everything isn’t just a publication and gathering, but also a term encompassing the shift going on, a shift that our kids are helping to bring forth.

    November 16, 2011
    • Thanks for sharing that Laura. I remember when my kids were young I so craved the extremely rare opportunity of meeting grown unschoolers so I could calm some of my own ongoing doubts about whether this method was going to ‘work’ or not. Now it’s easy to find them and I agree, they are in a whole league of their own. Bright, confident, capable, fearless, open minded … actually the list is quite long.

      November 16, 2011
  2. WOW – great one! thank you thank you thank you!

    November 16, 2011
    • So glad you enjoyed it, Kristine. Thanks for chiming in!

      November 16, 2011
  3. Lisa Dahlgren #

    I didn’t have the fear about my unschooler keeping up, so much as the fear about what would happen to him if I kept letting the system keep him down. You will only know it’s worked when you see your children grown, confident, happy and fearless. There is no chance that will happen if they are thrown into school, (something you’ve already committed yourself to avoiding) or, held to the same inane standards that those unfortunate children are supposed to embody. Barb’s answer of ‘I don’t.’ should work perfectly, along with my personal favorite, ‘Who cares?’ My unschooler is grown and currently pursuing his passion learning Improvisation at Second City in Chicago. I marvel at his courage, and however it turns out for him, I know he’s living his life on his own terms and there’s no wrong way to do that.

    November 16, 2011
    • Yes, the alternative provides some blazing contrast. I have definitely thought of that often and know that what we’re doing is empowering learning and confidence which I cannot say for the ‘system.’ I always love meeting and hearing about the pursuits of grown unschoolers. They’re never boring! Kudos to you and your bold, life loving son! Thanks for sharing this.

      November 16, 2011
    • Ahh Lisa, truer words were never spoken. There’s no wrong way to do that … when you are truely living life on your own terms. Yes! Powerful!

      November 16, 2011
  4. Julie #

    What a load of crap…

    November 16, 2011
    • Do you want to elaborate, Julie?

      November 16, 2011
    • Julie, I sure would appreciate some real discussion here instead of just spam. But I guess, whatever you are capable of works.

      November 16, 2011
  5. nadja #

    Ah…. 🙂 I am so appreciative of this blog ❤ this continuum of REthinking… while reading this, I thought of my almost 6 year old son… this morning he was counting chocolate chips in his cookies & asked "what is 5 plus 6, mama"? "what is it"?… Well if you give me your phone, I can tell ya" ❤

    November 16, 2011
    • Yay, Nadja! We’re having so much fun with these. So glad you’re enjoying them. The learning never ends nor does it begin! It’s a continuous flow – life.

      November 16, 2011
  6. I’m reminded of when my now 16 year old son was first out of school at the end of 2002. He’d agreed with his parents on three hours of attention to specific topics each weekday (not really lessons just focus on designated areas of knowledge), which I thought was a good idea, but he didn’t enjoy that at all and decided after about two weeks that he wasn’t going to do it. My wife and I had removed him from school because he’d become chronically unhappy during his two years there and there was no way we were going to rescue him from one unhappy situation only to replace it with another, so we decided to give our son “the year off”. After all, he was only seven and had plenty of time to “catch up”. He spent the following year mostly playing video games, his reading went from stumbling to excellent without him so much as looking at a book, and he never returned to any kind of formal education. He was far too busy learning stuff.

    But of course the point is – what on earth did that actually mean when my wife and I gave our son “the year off” because we believed he could easily “catch up”?? Turns out it didn’t mean anything at all. It was a nonsense idea that came from a cultural template in our heads that has now long since died of neglect, I’m pleased to say.

    My nine years of sharing my son’s learning adventure was a total revelation. I’m sure, in fact, that actually having the experience of these things is the perfect antidote to making a comment like “what a load of crap” that would just make me look like a dumbass.

    November 16, 2011
    • Well, dumbass aside, it’s all about the revelation! Yes! That’s what it’s all about. One day after another… as long as we re brave enough to revel in the profound mastery that each child comes into this life with. I see it every single day with each of my children, even now (even moreso), as they are full grown adults. It’s a brave new world indeed. Mmmmm…. I love it!

      November 16, 2011
    • Hi Bob!
      Thanks for sharing your story. It’s not the first time that I’ve heard kids doing ‘nothing’ or ‘taking a break’ were far too busy learning to go to school. What a statement. Brilliant. Sharing in and witnessing it is an awe-inspiring pleasure, indeed. 🙂

      November 16, 2011
  7. Eva #

    My friend posted this as an article worth reading. I have a lot of respect for my friend and other homeschoolers and un-schoolers, however…I have two children seven and nine and have been a teacher myself. I have seen the down side of public education, having left teaching after much frustration with a system that often does not support teachers or kids. Yet, I do think learning a language, which learning to read and write English is when you are a child, takes practice. Learning the language of math…not how to think or reason but just the symbol system, takes practice. It takes repetition and let’s face it, can be boring. Just like learning to play an instrument takes practice. Playing a song you love or creating a new song is exciting…would you be able to do it without knowing the notes, how to hold the instrument? Would your fingers fly across the keyboard the first time you tried? I guess I feel that some sort of basic education is providing your child with the tools to be creative later and follow their passions. How will they begin to follow their passion once they find it if they must also learn to read and write and recognize math symbols and convert decimals to fractions etc. etc. all at once? I understand the thinking is that if a child wants something badly enough they will learn what is necessary to complete it. Perhaps that is true. Yet I have known students at the high school level who were amazingly talented in art but had gone to a school that let them do whatever they wanted….these students were great artists but could barely read or write…it became a stumbling block for them when they wanted to later sell their art or get into a gallery. I just don’t see how providing a child with some basic skills can be harmful. My children happen to love school, most of the time. I see them as curious, motivated people. They are constantly creating, drawing,inventing new things…one thing they are not allowed to do is play video games. I do see that as a hindrance to creativity, but school, in my experience, it has been mostly positive. I hope it continues that way for them.

    November 16, 2011
    • There is a fundamental difference between the repetition/schooled system that you speak of and the process of organic learning. There is plenty of practice and repetition that goes on for my kids. It may not be with workbooks (or it might be!) and it may not be regimented (it’s not) but it doesn’t make it any less valuable to their learning process. The fundamental difference is that they are enjoying their learning, are confident learners, and can master these basics as needed through their individual pursuits. The school system decided there was a cart and a horse; And there is in a classroom environment where a child must be able to take in information in the designated ways in specific time periods sharing one teacher with dozens of other children. Intake of information is not magic nor is there a pre-determined order of things. This is exactly what frustrates most kids in school whether their grades are high, low, or average – an inability to learn the things that they find valuable.

      And, yes, my newly 7 year-old artist is calculating percentages to determine her net proceeds after shop commission for her art pieces that are hanging in the gallery of the show that she inspired and helped to create. They don’t teach that in second grade.

      It really comes down to raising children who feel loved and worthy (schools, more often than not, have a very detrimental effect on the self-worth of young people). In that scenario, no task is too big. Learning is natural.

      November 16, 2011
  8. margot hayes #

    My daughter refused to get on the bus three days into the school year. People I am sure think I am nuts for letting her make the choice. Lifelong learnering that is what I want for my children. They are 8 and 3 and now learning together in a way that is beautiful to watch. My 3 yr old asked me today as we were picking out yarn for his sister to knit a new project, “where are we mom” I stated the town the st etc “no mom on earth, and going really fast”. A little nugget he picked up on field trip that happened as a family. My daughter is learning division and addition and subtraction as she moves the stitches along the needle. She is able to discern if she needs a quiet day on the couch or some play time in the park. School wasn’t a positive experience and this has been a lot less stress. I look forward to seeing my children grow into themselves. The hardest part is the letting go.

    November 16, 2011
    • This sounds beautiful. What are you trying to let go of?

      November 16, 2011
      • margot hayes #

        For me letting go of the notion that we must “produce” something or force things to meet some guideline of things to know at a certain time and pace.

        November 22, 2011
        • Margot,

          Ah yes… definitely worth working and relaxing and trusting and challenging yourself to let go of children as products. !! We’re so conditioned, aren’t we. It feels so good to just observe and engage with them, wherever they are, unconditionally. Don’t you hate being compared to someone else? They do too.

          November 22, 2011
  9. Osie #

    Great post and back and forth with Barb, I love the format! My first response to the post title was, are you kidding? It’s the other kids who aren’t keeping up, and this leaves NMR feeling not smugly superior but sad. As the poster who talked about her child refusing to get on the bus said, people thought she was crazy to listen to her child, to empathize and see their pain and think, there has to be a better way to live and learn than misery. I have a complicated relationship with school because as of September, my autistic child has been in a private school for children with autism. He as come out of his shell, is no longer sad and afraid, he is hanging out eith one other kid, a therapist and another boy, and dang, they are really good at doing what I do but didn’t know how to do with him: engage him, make things fun, the right dose of encouragement and independence….these things came really naturally to me with my girls, I think because they came naturally to them. That was kind of an aside aka I am not professing to know it all or be doing anything “better” than someone else, but as my girls get older, complete eith their joy, individuality, curiosity, confidence, I see their schooled BFFs getting sadder, more eithdrawn, angrier, very resigned or ready to rebel. It is they who haven’t been allowed to keep up with where their minds, hearts and bodies want to go. They know it, too. Thei friend’s dread school, wher they are happy being free. They prove every day that (and I and so many unschooling moms I know –and jt Gatto–are former educators) it’s a waste to sit and be forced, that you learn more by doing and exploring and engaging. In fact I’d say it’s the lack of respect from society that keeps them from doing even more, it’s hard to find adults willing to allow kids their ages to come apprentice or ask questions or be regarded respectfully at all. But at least at home and in unschooling community, they do have that. Our other kids get much less. And yes, if my son, who has progressed from a pretty static few years and fear of change to a confident chance-taker in school (though teaching to a kid’s needs isn’t normal school), even so, if he hated going, if he let us know it wasn’t working for HIM, if he refused to get on the bus, I would not make him go.
    Oh, schoolers with closed minds, why are you so fearful? Your kids are suffering needlessly in public school, my kids too know how to read and write, their passions are intense and they have the confidence to tak them–dancing, reading, photography, science, history, ad far as they can, not as much as a textbook ad a period allows.
    I am thinking of two of my daughter’s bestows who are schooled. Both have said to their parents, to me, that they want to be home schooled, that they don’t want to be in school. My heart hurts for them because I was them, a bird, sad victim of bullies and mean teachers and meaningless subjects that have served no purpose in 25 years of adult life. I want to set them free, because I wished to be free. My kids have the yols, the attitude and the desire to do and learn whatever they set their minds to. Keep up? If my 11 year old test as reading at 9th grade level, if my 8 year old gets math concepts by her own means as she needs them, quickly, without hours of forced repition, if they can do all that, it’s the other kids who aren’t keeping up 😦 .

    November 17, 2011
  10. Osie #

    I apologize for iPad typos and autocorrect mistakes, iPad makes it hard to fix them.

    November 17, 2011
  11. mbh #

    I am completely new to unschooling, as I just took my 14-year-old out of 8th grade this year. But I can tell you that “keeping up” is sort of a ridiculous concept. I remember when my kid was in 4th grade and about to take the Reading TAKS test. I knew he could barely read at all and he hated reading, in general. There was no way he was going to read some long passage and then answer all the silly questions. As it turns out, he passed the Reading section with a “commended” score. Astounded, I asked him what he did. He told me that he read the questions and then looked for key words in the article that directed him to the answer. Never did he know what any passage was about. When I later visited with the principle, I told her that her test didn’t measure if my kid could read, but rather that he was smart enough to outwit a test. She shrugged and said, “That’s what really matters.” And so it seems, that “keeping up” is not about learning at all. (Well, that’s not true. It IS about learning how to work around a broken system. And in some ways, I can see some value in that. Isn’t that what we have? A broken system? Are we really interesting in teaching our kids to be cogs in THAT wheel?) The whole process taught my son that true knowledge has no intrinsic value.

    This is really unacceptable for me.

    I believe that if all parents were asked, “What do you want for your child?” most would answer, “I want her/him to be happy.” But that is not what the system is working towards. They are #1, teaching our kids a strategy to beat a broken system and, #2, teaching our kids to become cogs in the wheel of global competition.

    Seriously? Does that have anything to do with happiness?

    Are our (unschooled) kids keeping up? In terms of encouraging them and teaching them the skills to claim happiness in their own lives? Hell, Yeah! They are leaving the system in the dust.

    November 17, 2011
  12. Osie #

    I know this was a huge struggle for me, moving to unschooling, the inner fight with the schooled mind that requires “productivity” and constant “proof” that you are producing a result. It was so intense but seems like forever ago. Unschooling requires we challenge so many ideas we believed so deeply. Upon challenge, most mainstream beliefs don’t stand up. Maybe it took the time to observe, over and over, the learning going on all the time, happy kids enjoying and adding to their knowledge and skill set all the time, and all without force or worksheets. As I do have 2 at home and two in school right now, I find myself wishing school didn’t feel so much of a need to send home “product,” once you are paying attention, you know how your child is doing and developing without the need for tests and worksheets. 🙂

    November 23, 2011
    • “…most mainstream beliefs don’t stand up.” This was definitely helpful and interesting for me to consider. Having been tuned completely to living productively myself, it has been eye-opening and spurred tremendous personal awareness because of how I desired to parent my children. It has really turned everything we based our lives on upside down!

      November 28, 2011
  13. InChristAlone #

    The pressure is always to conform to what is already currently available as it is easier to go along with the flow.

    We have homeschooled our 3 boys who are 14, 12, and 10 for all but one year where they each tried the school system. I as a mum and their teacher have always found a pressure from family, mostly, as to whether my children were disadvantaged due to our choices.

    In order to prove that we could do just as good a job, or a much better job, I enrolled them in UNSW. These are tests in various subjects that are conducted once a year. See This has helped me to be more confident about teaching at home knowing where my children struggle specificly and getting help if needed beyond myself. The breakdown is very helpful for programming and learning how they fair with other peers. Remember though that these tests are offered to all schools but unlike the Naplan which all sit at certain Year levels, these tests do cost money and you do tend to have the more dedicated parents that will have their students sit them. So if they are doing well or average in these tests you are doing great. See this link to see how they set out your reports could this be helpful for your planning?

    Click to access UsingCompetitionAssessmentReports.pdf

    I know my kids are doing well just by the way they interact with others, their desire to learn and their interest in the world around them. Unfortunately the world today loves paper print outs that can tell them what they want to know before we meet face to face. For this reason as well I feel having these results will in the future help in obtaining jobs or applying for further education, if we go that road.

    I hate the paper trail that we all seem to be locked into but hopefully little bit by little bit we can prove to the system that

    The Home can be the Best Learning Environment a place where a child can be proud of whom they are and loved for it.

    November 27, 2011
    • Thank you for sharing this information. It does make me all the more grateful that I live in a place where parents are entrusted with the educational decisionmaking for their children- and that I chose to live here for this reason. I cannot imagine having to chase percentages and prove achievements in order to have our homeschooling status approved. While it is certainly doable, I find the thought of it maddening. I do feel that it would do my children’s unfettered learning process a disservice to have the awareness that they are constantly being measured to someone else’s version of ‘standard.’

      November 28, 2011

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