passions

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 36: Look Back to Your Childhood

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 36: Look Back to Your Childhood

You know how your children can get totally absorbed in what they’re doing so that the hours pass like minutes? Whether it’s making complex Lego creations or writing fan fiction or putting together cosplay ensembles or drawing pictures, they’re purely—and happily absorbed—in their work. You can borrow a little of that happiness-boosting power for yourself by remembering the obsessive activities of your own childhood.

Did you spend hours writing stories? Or exploring the woods? Or taking photographs? It’s probably not hard to think of the things that fueled your passions during childhood—you know, the things that you put aside for a sensible, career-focused college major or the more practical work of adulthood? So often, we lose track of the things we really love because the rest of life gets in the way, but going back to those joyful basics can be a key to opening up a happier now.

Take some time this week to think about what you really loved as a kid, whether it was designing fabulous fashion doll outfits, or reading every mythology book on your library’s shelves, or stargazing at night—focus on the thing that you could do for hours without even noticing the time passing, and start looking for ways to get that back in your life. My friend Liz loved photography and reignited her passion by committing to posting one photo on Instagram every day for a year. If you loved writing, start a blog or write down the bedtime stories your kids are always asking you to make up. If you loved fashion, take a sewing class or learn how to knit. If you loved building, buy your own set of Legos. Don’t worry about how these things will translate into anything else—avoid worrying about what’s useful or practical or a priority in your homeschool life, and just concentrate on how to do what you really love a couple of times a week. Chances are, your newfound passion will inspire your homeschool in ways you couldn’t have imagined, but whether it affects your homeschool or not, it will boost your personal happiness to make something you love part of your life. And trust me, a happier you means a happier homeschool for all.

Your challenge this week: Revisit your childhood to explore the things you loved to do as a kid. You may know instantly, or you may need to spend some time thumbing through old pictures and journals to remember what inspired your childhood. Once you’ve identified a childhood passion, look for ways to add it to your weekly routine—ideally, you’ll find an hour once or twice a week to focus entirely on your passion project as well as small ways to add it to your daily routine.


The Life-Changing Magic of Embracing My Kids’ Reading Choices

Love this! The best books for your child to read are the books she WANTS to read. Great literature will always be there, but they're more likely to dive into it if they've learned to love reading. #homeschool

My ten-year-old daughter plucked the book off the library shelf because she liked the look of it. It had a hot-pink spine, a cover photo of a girl’s arms protectively clutching a stack of notebooks to her chest, and a catchy title: Jessica Darling’s IT LIST: THE (totally not) GUARANTEED GUIDE to POPULARITY, PRETTINESS & PERFECTION.

“Oh, ick” was my first response, though I kept my opinion to myself. Don’t girls get enough pressure to obsess about their appearances and social status? I silently groused. Do they have to be pelted with it in books, too? 

As strong as my feelings were, I managed to stay off my soapbox and keep my mouth shut. I remember all too well the day my sophomore English teacher noticed me reading Flowers in the Attic. My teacher had always supported and encouraged my love of writing and my insatiable reading habit. But at the sight of V. C. Andrews’ notorious novel in my hands, she sighed, “Oh, you shouldn’t be reading garbage like that. It won’t do your writing any favors, reading something so poorly written.”

I know she meant well, but I felt mortified—caught in the act of gobbling down the literary equivalent of Ho-Hos cupcakes. That feeling of shame stuck with me a long time (though it didn’t stop me from sneak-reading the rest of the series). In that moment was born a vow: if I ever had kids, I wouldn’t shame them for what they liked to read. 

Throughout my kids’ early years, we hauled a little red wagon down the block to our local library just about every week and came back loaded with books for what we called “reading jamborees”—us snuggled up on our cat-clawed beige couch with a teetering stack of picture books and comics collections. Our reading jamborees ranged from Greek mythology and modern classics like the Frog and Toad books to Garfield comics. We were indiscriminate and voracious, devouring gorgeous, artfully crafted picture books alongside merchandising tie-in books starring Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Barbie, reveling in all of it—no judgment. No shame.

If I dismiss a book they love as trash, I suspect it’ll make them less likely to share with me about other things they love.

Now that my daughter is ten and my son is thirteen, I’ve continued to follow a “no-judgment” policy when it comes to what they read (though I do tend to ask them to wait if a book seems too violent or sexy for their maturity level). I really can’t know how much my kids love or value a certain book, how much of their own emerging identity is connected to what they feel about a particular book. If I dismiss a book they love as trash, I suspect it’ll make them less likely to share with me about other things they love. 

Do I want my kids to experience great literature? Of course! And perhaps in part because I’ve been open to what my kids like, they often give what I like a chance, too. Few things make me as happy as seeing my kid finish a book I admire and then declaring, “That was pretty good.” Or even better: “I’d like to read more books like that.” In turn, they sometimes recommend books to me that I never would have found on my own—and end up rocking my world.

Which brings me to Jessica Darling’s IT LIST. My daughter gulped up that first book, then discovered it was the first in a trilogy and read the other two. And then one day, she said, “I think we should read the first Jessica Darling book for our next mother-daughter read-aloud.” 

I was not prepared for how much I loved this novel.

The trilogy’s protagonist Jessica is a smart, awkward girl starting junior high. Her older sister Bethany, now in college, was once a top junior-high “IT Girl,” a cheerleader with “infinity BFFs” and all the most popular boys vying for her attention. Bethany has never paid much attention to Jessica, so Jessica is thrilled when Bethany offers her “Bethany Darling’s IT List,” a “guaranteed” four-point guide to popularity, prettiness, and perfection.

Jessica dutifully tries to follow Bethany’s pointers. Naturally, chaos ensues. 

This novel wasn’t trying to be a guide to popularity at all! It was using sly humor and great, relatable characters to demolish the idea of trying to be popular following someone else’s rules. It was about the lifelong task of letting go of worrying about how to be an “IT girl” and instead embracing who you really are. As I read, I became more and more convinced that the series’ author, a novelist named Megan McCafferty, must be a genius.

I shared a few stories of my own and saw my daughter’s eyes light up with the recognition that I really had been a girl her age once, too.

This book! It gave my daughter and me so much great fuel for discussions I wish I could have had with my mom when I was ten. Together, we mused over questions like “Why does Jessica hang out with girls she doesn’t actually enjoy or feel comfortable with?” and “Why is Jessica trying to follow her sister’s advice when it’s so clearly wrong for her?” We pondered what we’d do if we were in some of the predicaments that Jessica faces. I shared a few stories of my own and saw my daughter’s eyes light up with the recognition that I really had been a girl her age once, too. 

 We’re about to start Jessica Darling’s IT LIST 3: THE (totally not) GUARANTEED GUIDE TO STRESSING, OBSESSING, & SECOND-GUESSING. We’re also looking forward to the upcoming release of a movie based on the first book. Author Megan McCafferty has said she hopes to host some mother-daughter book club events in conjunction with the movie release. If she visits anywhere near us, I’ll definitely be there with stars in my eyes to thank her for what she does. 

When I was a tween and teen, there were two things I remember craving most of all from the adults in my life. I wanted them to show some curiosity about who I really was (as opposed to who they thought I ought to be), and I wanted to feel that they accepted the real me. My no-judgment policy about my kids’ reading has been one way to cultivate that kind of curiosity and acceptance. And whether I’m laughing with my kids over the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid installment or talking with them about why they think one author’s handling of multiple points-of-view works beautifully while another author’s, well, doesn’t, I feel grateful to have had the reading experiences I’ve had with them. And it’s all because of a vow sparked back when I was sixteen, long before I ever became a mom.


Getting the Education I Didn't Know I Craved

How homeschooling my kids is giving me the education I wish I'd had

We often write about the cool things our kids are doing as they receive a home education — an education fueled by their passions and interests yet curated by the adults who know them best.  As a parent who loves learning, I have my own ideas for what makes a great education, so while I give my children's interests a priority, I do not "unschool."

Perhaps part of the reason I don't unschool is a bit selfish. Not only are there topics (besides reading and math) that I believe every student should have a basic knowledge of — history, world religion, a foreign language, and art, just to name a few — but I want to learn more about these important topics, too. In my traditional public school education, I only skimmed the surface of some of these subjects, and others were not part of a traditional school curriculum. Now that I’m homeschooling my kids, I can give them the education I think they should have, and I can benefit from it, too.  

I should note, however, that if I introduce a topic to my kids, and they moan and groan, we just skim it too. I'm not going torture them. But I feel as we link these bits together, it will someday complete a strong chain of knowledge that will enhance their lives and personal endeavors, and they may come back to it at a later date.

There are also times I introduce something to my kids, and they want more, so we dive in! This happened when I introduced space exploration and weather science to my eldest son when he was little. We have the time and flexibility to spend as much or as little time as we want on a subject, which I treasure about homeschooling.

Whether or not my kids want to learn more about a subject, I have learned that I can have my own projects! Even if they don't join me, I can keep reading, exploring, and creating. In fact, this is a crucial part of homeschooling... I should be modeling the behavior I want them to have, right? This has been a very liberating aspect of home education that I didn't realize would happen when I started.

Perhaps even more delightful are the subjects that my children have brought me to. In them, I have found some of my passions. I think these passions were always there, but they were not fully realized. My sons were the keys who opened these doors for me.

Whether or not my kids want to learn more about a subject, I have learned that I can have my own projects! Even if they don’t join me, I can keep reading, exploring, and creating. In fact, this is a crucial part of homeschooling... I should be modeling the behavior I want them to have, right?

For example, when my eldest son was four I discovered that nature brought him alive. I accompanied him to several nature and science classes at our local nature center, and his shyness fell by the wayside as he hiked on the nature trails and listened to the naturalists. As for me, I fell in love with the whole atmosphere. I fell in love with science!

Science was my most dreaded class in school. (Perhaps second to P.E.) I never understood it. My teachers were horrible. As a result, I had huge misconceptions about science. And worst of all, I thought I was bad at it. But seeing science through my son's eyes, and being reintroduced to it through the nature center programs, I am hooked. I even developed a deep appreciation for snakes and amphibians through my son's first love.

Without my kids, I now read science articles, nature memoirs, and I began my Year of Citizen Science projects. I share these things with them, if I think they would be interested in them, but I consider these endeavors part of my own education that I'm pursuing while also home educating my children.

Here are some more examples of the endeavors I have started since I began homeschooling: 

  • My eldest son spent a long time learning about carnivorous plants when he was seven. Now he grows them, and I help him. I think they are so pretty that I'm sure I'll be cultivating these plants long after he moves out of the house.
  • My younger son has a great passion for birds, and this has been contagious for the whole family. In fact, I have a little morning ritual of observing birds out my window before my boys even wake up! (And now I have this book on my wish list.)
  • Through my younger son's love of drawing, I started a sketchbook habit that I hope I'll continue the rest of my life.
  • Recently, I began a project all of my own. That is, no one else in the house started this interest, though they’re all reaping the benefits. I am on a mission to learn how to bake bread with natural yeast, and I’m taking it little by little as I have time.

I think more than anything, homeschooling has taught me that if I want to do or learn about something, I can do it slowly and in increments. A little bit goes a long way! Reading for 15 minutes... finding a few minutes to sketch every week or month... finding a new YouTube video about bread baking every once in a while... I don't have to accomplish my goals this week or this month. 

It's about giving my interests attention on a regular basis. 

I share these things with them, if I think they would be interested in them, but I consider these endeavors part of my own education that I’m pursuing while also home educating my children.

I never realized that this is what it looks like to have discipline. While I was capable of finishing what was required of me when I was younger, I rarely finished those things that I wanted to do... those personal goals that no one was making me do. 

Sadly, I don’t think traditional school teaches children how to have self-motivated discipline. Because kids are having to work so hard to accomplish goals set by other people, they don’t have the time or energy to explore and develop their own interests. At least, I didn’t.

But in homeschooling my own children, I have learned that real learning happens slowly. I have learned to manage my time better (because I have to!), and I have learned that I can have many projects going at once. While I try to focus on just one or two at a time so that I can make progress, it is liberating to have no deadlines. Those things we do for ourselves should be joyful and stress-free, though certainly a steady progression forward is what brings happiness and fulfillment.

Watching my children work on their interests in a slow and deliberate manner — and how they do more as their capability increases — has taught me these things. I feel extremely lucky for the education I’m receiving while homeschooling my kids!


Read more from Shelli

The Music Gap That Filled Itself

We worry so much about gaps in our kids' homeschool educations, but the truth is, sometimes a gap is just a pause. Love this example of how a kid filled a learning gap on his own initiative. #homeschool

Sometimes I see articles by homeschoolers referring to “gaps” in a child’s education. That is, can we teach them everything? Can we cover all the subjects? The usual consensus is that no, we can’t possibly teach our kids everything, and we really shouldn’t worry about gaps. After all, kids going to public school have gaps in their education, and, learning does not end after twelve years of formal education.

I always thought that music would be a gap in my kid’s education. Neither my husband nor I play an instrument or read music. When my kids were younger, paying for music lessons seemed a bit pricey when they didn’t seem interested in it. Although I knew we would listen to music, and I could introduce them to the basics with a book or two, I resigned myself that further education in music would be one of our “gaps.”

But then my son expressed an interest in taking piano lessons. I should note that occasionally he’d seen people play piano live, and my husband enjoys listening to all kinds of music, so it’s not like he didn’t have any exposure to music. We also had a small, cheap digital keyboard that the boys liked to play with. But before this time, he always said no when we asked him if he’d like piano lessons. Then he changed his mind. This came at a time when we seriously wondered if we could afford it.

Ultimately, we decided that if he really wanted to try the piano, we wanted to support that, so I asked on a local homeschool list if anyone could recommend a teacher near us. Not only did we find someone who lives just ten minutes away, she gives affordable lessons. We told ourselves that if our son kept taking lessons for one year, we’d be happy because, of course, music is part of a well-rounded education. I was thrilled that he was getting some instruction in music that I couldn’t offer him at home.

Now he’s been taking lessons for nine months, and to our surprise, he is proving to have talent and a passion for it. He’s moving ahead quickly through his lesson books, practicing diligently, and he says he wants to stick with it. I don’t know what he’ll ultimately do with this, but we’re so glad we didn’t say no when he expressed an interest. We are going to have to make quite a few sacrifices to give him the tools and instruction he needs to keep moving forward, but that will be worth it to us. As a pianist recently told us, many parents say they aren’t going to make those sacrifices until their child gets “good” at the piano, but because the child doesn’t have the tools he needs to get better, he gets frustrated and loses interest.

Playing the piano has only been one aspect of this endeavor. My son has taken a keen interest in classical music, and now he will sit and watch YouTube videos of symphonies, piano concertos, and sonatas. He’s learning who’s who in the music world. He’s also learning about the classical composers, and we’ve taken him to some free classical concerts at nearby universities. Best of all, my younger son is benefiting from all the listening he’s doing, and I’m learning more than I had ever hoped to learn about music too.

All this makes me think that if parents are doing their best to educate their children, introducing them to all sorts of things and giving them a variety of experiences, the “gaps” are going to naturally fill up – at least the ones that are supposed to.

I don’t know if we are embarking on a lifetime project, a project that will last for a few years, or one that will end next season – but I wouldn’t trade the last few months for anything. Being able to dig deep into any subject over a long period of time is a perk of homeschooling: we have the time, if we have the inclination.


Raising a Young Naturalist

Really like this essay about how to encourage kids to explore nature in your homeschool.

Like most homeschooling moms, I had a lot of fears when we first started homeschooling. My four-year-old was cautious. He was quiet in big groups, and he didn’t want to participate in group games. He preferred to explore a pile of woodchips by himself on park day. He hated story hour at the library. Now I laugh at myself. He was only four.

Luckily we live within a reasonable driving distance to a nature center, where they were offering a class for 3- to 5-year-olds that would introduce them to nature. My family loves nature, so it seemed like a good class to try.

At first my son was very timid in the class, but soon I started to witness something remarkable. He blossomed. And it wasn’t just a little kid coming out of his shell. It was a little kid finding a passion.

My son leapt out of his skin every time the facilitator brought out live animals. Snakes were his favorite, and three years later, he still says he wants to be a scientist who studies snakes when he grows up.

At first I thought to myself that every kid likes nature, right? Maybe my child would have blossomed in any class I had taken him to at that age. But then the facilitator told me one day that she could tell my son had a true passion for nature. She said other kids might say, “That’s cool,” but then they would walk away. My son stayed by her side, wanting to see more. He loved helping her turn over logs on the trails.

Shelli Bond Pabis

Shelli Bond Pabis

Ever since that first class, I have continued to foster his love of nature and science. As a family, we love hiking, so that’s not hard to do. But my husband and I have also done a few other things to support him:

  • We continue to go to classes at the nature center. I call it our second home.
  • We bought our son a small camera so that he can record the natural discoveries he makes.
  • I bought my son a big notebook, and we call it his nature journal. He likes to paste his photos in there, and I label them for him. I’ve encouraged him to draw what he sees, but he prefers photography. That’s okay with me.
  • I have supported his desire to collect items from nature: We bought a medium-sized wooden box at a craft supply store, and we call it my son’s “treasure box.” He has a bird’s nest, nuts, rocks, and even a squashed baby snake in it. (We seal items like that in plastic bags!)
  • His nature collection is too big for the box, so we’ve dedicated some shelves in his room for other items. He has shells, shark teeth, ammonite fossils, small dinosaur bones, a beaver chew, a bison bone, a geode, and lots of rocks on his shelves.
  • We consider our yard a laboratory, and we continuously observe the wildlife in it. We have containers on our front porch containing pupas and cocoons, and we are eagerly waiting for them to emerge.
  • My son is participating in our state parks’ Junior Ranger program.
  • Together our whole family watches nature documentaries daily.
  • We visit natural history and science museums, attend rock and gem shows, and take advantage of any other opportunity to explore nature and science.
  • As project-based homeschoolers, we make time for our son’s own interests and projects, many of which have to do with science.
I have rid myself of the “ick reaction” to the slimy and oozy parts of nature because I see something in my child that I don’t want to lose.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle said in an interview: “A critter person. Children generally start out that way, given a chance to explore even in their own back yard. So often, the adults around them will say, oh, don’t touch that beetle or, ugh, an earthworm, or caterpillars, yuck. My parents were different….”

All children are born scientists. They explore their world, ask questions, and test their limits. I have rid myself of the “ick reaction” to the slimy and oozy parts of nature because I see something in my child that I don’t want to lose. I know from listening to other interviews with scientists that their love of exploration, nature and inquiry started at a very young age.

Ultimately, I do not know if he will chose to become a naturalist or a scientist as a career, but I do know that a love of nature can sustain him through many of life’s obstacles, and an appreciation for the Earth is something everyone should maintain. My job as his parent is to observe, listen, and foster this inquisitive mind. So here I am, exploring the world with my son. 


This column from our very first issue launched Shelli's Hands-On Science series. We're reprinting it here as part of our big web relaunch. To get Shelli's thoughtful, practical resources for everyday nature and science study in every issue of home/school/life, subscribe.

The Wonder-Full World of Homeschooling

Love, love, love Wonder Farm and this gorgeous essay on what homeschooling/unschooling is really like.

I spent three different cafe writing sessions auditioning names for this column. I considered them while washing dishes and watering tiny kale plants in my backyard. I listed the best candidates on the idea file on my computer. Life Outside the Box. (Trying too hard to prove a point.) Learning What We Want. (Weird and too long, according to the 18-year-old.) Life Lessons. (For a homeschooling column? Cliché!)

The Wonder Files came up because I have a thing for the word wonder. Six years ago I named my blog Wonder Farm, and the word still hasn’t grown stale for me. Wonder is the stuff of homeschooling. The best homeschooling days are suffused with wonder—and the most challenging ones, well, they summon it.

Wonder can be a verb, as in: The four-year-old wonders if he can make a cake out of paper. Or: My son wonders why the Greek gods are always so irrational. Or: My daughter wonders what the women did while all those men killed each other on Civil War battlefields. Thoughts like those will take you places.

Wonder can be a noun: a surprise, a phenomenon, a state of amazement. It’s been interesting to see what my kids have embraced as personal wonders over the years. A few favorites: Greek myths, Pokemon, poetry, Broadway musicals, Marvel comics, historical fashion, Alfred Hitchcock, the Periodic Table, the American diet, the Duomo in Florence, the League of Legends video game.

Such wonders can derail a homeschooling day. How can we get to math when there’s a universe of Marvel villains to sort for a chart? When research on Broadway musicals leads to an impromptu mother/daughter sing-along? So we skip the math and hack our way down the kids’ wonder trails. We break out the glue guns. We watch YouTube videos. We dance around the kitchen.

Often these wonders have lasted months; many have gone on for years. They simply morph along with the kids. My two boys each grew out of their Pokemon fascination by the time they were nine, but both applied the game’s appeal of categorizing and sorting by power to subsequent interests, everything from the Periodic Table to military history. (A Roman centurion was more ranked than a munifex, Mama!) My daughter’s adoration of Shirley Hughes’ Rhymes for Annie Rose at three was the gateway to poetry slams and Franny and Zooey and witty rap music at seventeen.

You can build a homeschooling life around this sort of wonder. What starts as a wonder can lead to a calling.

Which is all well and glorious, these homeschooling days of wonder. But there are other days wracked with a whole different sort of wonder, particularly if you are a parent. Why can’t he write a paragraph by himself if school kids his age can? Should I push her to read instead of listening to audiobooks for hours on end? Do I really need to teach long division if it makes him throw things and his mental estimates come pretty close? Does watching back-to-back episodes of MythBusters count as science? Will he always do the least amount of work necessary to get what he wants? And does that prove that he’s lazy—or incredibly smart?

Maybe this isn’t the case for you. Lots of homeschoolers latch on to a particular style of homeschooling that manages to answer all the questions for them. You might find a philosophy that comes complete with online forums aimed at making clear what you should and should not do. That keeps your wondering at a gentle simmer. To you I say, Lucky duck! To the rest of you, who question the online forums, who question the philosophies, who question how to get your kid off that video game when it’s supposed to be homeschooling time, I say Join The Wondering Club.

Every time I assumed I’d nailed it down, daily life with the kids would raise new questions. Were we unschoolers? Not exactly. Were we school-at-homers? Not really. Did I assign work for the kids? Yes, at first. Then yes, sometimes. Then no, not usually. Then no. Then yes, sometimes. Depending.

After we’d homeschooled for a couple of years, I tried writing an essay on how we did it, on (insert deep and serious voice here) Our Homeschooling Philosophy. Every Wednesday night I went out to a cafe and worked on that essay—for a year and a half! I’d finally get a draft to start coming together, and I’d find myself unraveling it. That thing I was calling Our Homeschooling Philosophy kept wriggling away from me, just as I thought I’d captured it, exactly like our rabbit Rue does when she escapes into our neighbor’s backyard. Every time I assumed I’d nailed it down, daily life with the kids would raise new questions. Were we unschoolers? Not exactly. Were we school-at-homers? Not really. Did I assign work for the kids? Yes, at first. Then yes, sometimes. Then no, not usually. Then no. Then yes, sometimes. Depending.

I finally moved on to a different essay.

I began to notice that as soon as something worked in our homeschooling life, something else would change. The morning routine that rolled so well with a six and nine-year-old got knocked off-kilter when their baby brother was born. Leisurely days of homeschooling in fits and starts got compressed for afternoons of dance class and piano lessons. The reading that came so easily to one kid was a struggle for the next. The interest-driven learning approach that was a given for years suddenly seemed questionable when we had a high school-aged kid who would eventually need a transcript for college.

Wonder, wonder, wonder.

We’ve hit on some practices that have held fast for us over the years, regardless of kid or age: Having a regular time of working together most days. Making sure the kids like how they’re learning. Letting their interests be the pulsing heart of all we do.

But mostly, seventeen years into this homeschooling gig, I still wonder plenty. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have one kid who has just graduated from college and another starting in the fall (after childhoods of homeschooling and a mix of homeschooling/high school.) It’s just the twelve-year-old and me homeschooling these days; you’d think after all this time I’d have things figured out. Nope. Still wondering constantly. Why doesn’t this kid like making things like his siblings did? How could he possibly learn so much by simply reading, watching videos, and talking? Will he want to go to high school? Should I prepare him for that—or help him enjoy his learning freedom while he still has it?

Back when I was trying to write that homeschooling essay, all my wondering made me doubt myself. It made me feel confused, inexperienced, indecisive—not good qualities for someone taking on the responsibility of another person’s education. These days I’ve embraced the wondering. If I’d found a homeschooling philosophy that answered all the questions for me, I would have stopped asking questions. I would have stopped searching for cues in my kids. I might not have considered textbooks for some subjects—although they worked for my teenage son, who wanted lots of time for making movies, and also a high school transcript for his film school applications. If I’d known what we were going to do each day, my daughter might not have stumbled on her six-month project exploring how the American diet has changed over the past hundred years. If I’d found that elusive approach I’d sought—the one that would work beautifully day after day, year after year—there might not have been room for my youngest to research and build a complete periodic table of Marvel comic characters. And if I hadn’t continued questioning what learning means, I might not have recognized the depth of what he gleaned from a seems-sorta-silly project.

Maybe I’ve finally written that essay on our homeschooling philosophy, right here. I can sum it up in three words: wonder a lot.

I plan to do lots of wondering in this column. I don’t promise any answers—actually, I aspire to refrain from offering any. I’m hoping that my wondering here will prompt your own wondering, which will lead you toward your own answers.

At least until tomorrow rolls around and you start wondering all over again.


Patricia Zaballos writes about homeschooling and writing on her blog, Wonder Farm and in every issue of home/school/life. (You should subscribe just for her column. Trust me!) She is working on a book of essays. This column is reprinted from the summer 2014 issue.

Education for a Different Version of Success

education for a different version of success

“How will they ever learn to listen to their boss if they don’t have to listen to teachers?”

“They’ll never make it in the workforce, you have to do things you don’t like to do and deal with jerks.”

“In the real world you don’t get to do what you want.”

There are a lot of ways that many people seem convinced unschoolers will fail, and most of those reasons lead back to the belief that unschoolers just have it too good. They get to be too happy, too playful, too independent, too creative. If they’re used to living such full and interesting lives, how will they ever manage to knuckle down, obey their superiors, and resign themselves to a job that’s unfulfilling at best, and nearly intolerable at worst?

I think this attitude is an indictment of the current education system (as well as the typical workplace environment and maybe even the current economic system). Unknowingly, people who express concern that unschoolers won’t be able to function in such unpleasant situations are saying just what they think schools are good at: namely, teaching people to function in unpleasant situations.

I should hope that school free learners aren’t holding up, as their greatest vision of success, that their children become good at resigning themselves to unhappiness. I’d hope, instead, that life learners are raising children who will seek to build lives that make them happy.

Is it important to be able to deal with unpleasant people and situations at times? Of course. Sometimes you’re going to have to take a job you don’t like so that you can put food on the table. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with a bully to get something you need.

I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

However, I believe that people are best prepared for challenges such as these when they have a core of self confidence and self respect instead of just being accustomed to putting up with discouraging situations on a daily basis. I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

There are certain qualities in myself that I try to cultivate and encourage.

  • A lifelong fascination and excitement about whatever catches my interest at any given time. In other words, a passion for learning that never ends.

  • A strong ethic of self care and firm boundaries, skills and practices that help me to stay healthy and grounded in a world that can often feel overwhelming.

  • Caring and empathy for other people, and a focus on educating myself about important issues, seeking with my words and actions to make the world at least a little bit better.

  • Trust in my own instincts.

  • Confidence and a feeling of self worth, no matter how much I’m struggling at any given time.

  • Striving always to keep my passions, dreams, and plans at the forefront, working to build my life based on what I truly want and think is right for me.

I share this because, when I think about my own future children and what I’d want for them, I don’t think about college acceptance or an ability to conform to the values and pressures of the dominant culture. Instead, I think about what I want for myself, and I hope that my someday children will have those qualities in even greater abundance than I’ve managed so far for myself.

Figuring out how to live a life in line with your ideals and values is hard no matter what your educational background. But I like to think that unschooling helps. It’s certainly helped me to trust myself because as I child I was never taught that I was untrustworthy. It’s taught me to value the perfection of flow in learning because having experienced it, I know I need to always seek that out in my adult life as well. It’s taught me to question the supposed “common sense” of the dominant culture, and to develop my own thoughts on various issues for myself. And it’s taught me to always follow my passions because doing so will almost always lead me in the direction of the greatest happiness in my life and the greatest contribution to the world.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
— Howard Thurman

Let’s cultivate in our life learning journey a version of success based on what makes you come alive.