School Is Not the Safe Choice
Wander into the comments section of any online article about unschooling, or even homeschooling, and you will discover many many people who are outraged by the concept. The thought that kids could live a childhood without the interference of school? Well, it just plain scares people.
They say things like…
‘The kids will never have any sort of life’
‘Without structure, they won’t know how to cope with adult life’
‘They will never have the skills to get a decent job and leave home’
‘The kids will be unemployable’
‘These kids will end up with mental health issues’
‘Children need to socialise!’
Yes, people are very very afraid.
Anyone would think school was some kind of magical wonderland where a perfect childhood and amazing prospects for adulthood were guaranteed.
Let’s take a minute to just congratulate school on pulling off that massive deception in the relatively short time since it was invented. That takes some serious effort.
Now, back to reality. As for school being a safe option, a guarantee… for most children that is just not the case.
The risks of sending a child to school are far greater than those of unschooling…
The risk of losing yourself
“We get to age 17 and we’re expected to decide on a career path or a University degree and we have no idea what we want to do. Some people take a gap year to ‘find themselves’. And I wonder, when did they lose themselves?” – Getting Educated, Losing Yourself
Childhood is a time of exploring and discovering, both the world and yourself. But what if you spend the majority of your time being told what to do, what to wear, and what to think? How can you possibly come to know yourself? Rather than helping children discover their passions, school too often leaves them feeling unsure and directionless. At the end of this ‘education’ process, you’re supposed to make choices about what you want to do with your life when up until now you have not been allowed to make choices about even the simplest things such as when to eat, or when to use the bathroom? No wonder so many people end up feeling lost and needing to ‘find themselves’ later in life.
Supporting our children to grow and learn in ways that are meaningful and unique to them seems far less risky. It’s harder to lose yourself when you’ve always been free to be truly you.
The risk of disconnection
“The age segregation in schools socializes children to look with disdain at those who are younger (much to the detriment of their relationships with siblings) and to conform themselves to whatever expectations people have for their age group.” – Rue Kream
People talk often about the amount of disconnect in modern society and the loss of the ‘village’. It begins at such a young age when children are taken off to school, as if meaningfully contributing to life and learning from the adults around them can’t possibly be enough.
Children need to feel connected to their parents, to their siblings, to their extended family, to their community. When you spend most of the day, 5 days a week, apart from each other, that’s bound to impact on your relationship. Children were not made to be routinely separated from their families at 5 years of age or younger. Connection is such an important part of parenting. If we don’t feel connected we find ourselves in many struggles with our children, leading to more and more disconnection. It’s a vicious cycle, which is perpetuated by the daily separation of school.
The risk of losing confidence
“The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.” – John Taylor Gatto
School is a tough place to try to hold onto your self-esteem. You are constantly tested, graded, and compared. You are pressured to be ‘better’ and threatened with ‘failure’. You must live up to other’s standards, not your own. How you feel is not as important as how other people feel about you.
This risk of losing confidence in yourself is high. Very high.
The risk to passion
“Because schools suffocate children’s hunger to learn, learning appears to be difficult and we assume that children must be externally motivated to do it. As a society, we must own up to the damage we do to our children…in our families and in our schools.” – Wendy Priesnitz
We have all witnessed the joy on a young child’s face when they learn something new. We marvel at their passion for learning that seems so rare to us. Children are born bursting to explore the world and find out everything they can. Nothing about this magically changes when they turn 5, except the introduction of school.
In school you are not free to learn what interests you, on your time schedule, to the level of detail you are ready for. You must now learn what you are told, when you are told, and be tested on how well you do it. It’s no wonder children begin to hate learning and actively resist anything that feels like school. Learning becomes work to be avoided. What a disservice we do to children.
The risk of bullying
One of the biggest arguments for sending children to school is that they need ‘socialisation‘. People seem to believe that humans don’t exist in the world outside of school and you won’t have any opportunities to interact with them. Clearly, that’s not true.
Let’s not pretend that school is the standard for socialisation. That it is not, in fact, failing at educating kids on how to interact civilly with each other. Every other day we hear about the ‘bullying epidemic’ on the news. Children are literally taking their lives. They don’t need to learn to ‘deal’ with this, they need to be protected from it. They need to know that it is not ok.
Bullying effects so many children every single day, never in a positive way.
“Children are not resilient; they are adaptive. In other words, they don’t simply ‘bounce-back’: they re-shape themselves.” – Robin Grille
The risk to mental health
“We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s.” – Peter Gray
The rise of mental health disorders in children should alarm anyone. This article and this video explain very well how the decline of play and freedom, and the increase in pressure and coercive schooling have contributed to our children’s suffering. Such control over children’s time and minds, such lack of autonomy and respect have consequences. Our children are paying the price.
School is not the safe option. School is a risk, in many ways.
People have no concept of what childhood looks like without school, and so they are afraid. Afraid of what might happen if they deviate from a well worn path. Better the devil you know, huh?
But the thing is, if you choose not to send your child to school, you’re not pushing them down that new and uncharted path on their own and hoping for the best. You’re walking with them. You’re there. Any problems you encounter, you encounter together. You can support them, guide them, and deal with any bumps before they become mountains.
School is not the safe choice. There is no 100% safe path or guarantees. But you can certainly minimise the risks.
“I feel ashamed that so many of us cannot imagine a better way to do things than locking children up all day in cells instead of letting them grow up knowing their families, mingling with the world, assuming real obligations, striving to be independent and self-reliant and free.” – John Taylor Gatto
An important note: I understand that for some children school is a safe haven where they are more likely to get their needs met than in the home environment. This is heartbreaking and I do not wish to take that away from those children at all. What I want is a better system of ‘schooling‘ for all children. Maybe children in these circumstances need change the most. This post is not dismissing child safety issues, but rather addresses erroneous viewpoints like those in the quotes above where people believe that all children need school because it is guaranteed to provide ‘better’ outcomes than homeschooling, even in loving and safe homes.
This is spot on for me. School, certainly in it’s current format can be a very damaging choice, but I don’t think many people think of it this way around. Your points are valid and true and I could tell you real life examples which prove each point you make sadly. I do sometimes feel guilty that my children have such freedom in their lives and I worry about those children who cannot tolerate school. School is a safe haven for some children, but we really need to think how we can improve the system so that they are supported in the best way possible. I wonder how we can do that, I think that’s the question I am most interested in.
I would love it if things changed, but am losing hope 🙁
This is such a timely post, and it is something I am struggling with SO MUCH (but not for the reasons one might think)…
I 100% agree with everything you have said here. Completely and totally. Your posts always seem to articulate exactly how I feel about school, or parenting, or children in general. If it were always up to me, I would never choose to send my daughter to school for all of the reasons you have laid out here. School as it is now, especially at the youngest ages, and especially in the US, would do so much damage to her and her spirit, that the thought of her in that environment makes my heart palpitate.
Here’s my problem: My daughter is OBSESSED with the idea of “school”. She is only 4.5, so next year is the year most kids where we live attend kindergarten, but even now nearly all local children her age and younger are in some form of organized, academic “pre-school”. Nearly all the books she reads, and all the movies/shows she watches, heavily feature kids going to school. The socialization is pervasive…”school is good, school is fun, school is where you go to learn, all good boys and girls go to school”. Now I’m not about to try to censor the books that she choses or shows that she watches to make sure they never mention school (or mention it in such an unrealistically positive light), because 1) that doesn’t feel respectful of her choices, and 2) it would be impossible…it’s unavoidable content. But she plays “school” and talks about going to school nearly all day long. She’s an incredibly bright kid, very highly sensitive, and most likely would be classified in school as “gifted”. She has independently taught herself so many things that are way beyond what a child her age would conventionally be expect to know. But she still thinks she has to go to school to learn, despite all she knows without ever having gone. She is drawn to doing things in a structured and “academic” sort of way, and I don’t think there’s anything negative about that (her father and I are academic types, as well, although we have *never* tried to force any academics on her)…so if school were just a matter of academic differences, I wouldn’t mind so much. Sure, school academics are inefficient and boring much of the time (whee! worksheets!), but if that’s what she likes, well rock-on sister, you crush those worksheets and tedious projects. It’s the OTHER stuff….the trampled autonomy, the breaking of spirits, the dismantling of bonds, and (at least in the US), the constant onslaught of absolute garbage food that undermines physical health.
It feels like my incredible, little wild and free bird is asking for a cage. And it’s breaking my heart.
Trying to communicate my worries with others has been fruitless. If they are biased against unschooling, even a little, their response is pretty much, “well, she must just know that school is actually good and necessary so you should send her”. I’m not finding real solutions to help support my daughter. Local homeschool groups are very much of the “recreate school at home” variety, and I’ve been unsuccessful is finding any other true unschooling families. We’re struggling here. Have you (or your other unschooling friends) ever had any of your children go through something like this? How do you reconcile your child’s desire to go to school with what you know to be the actual realities of a school environment?
Our nearly 5yo has been playing “school” for years. She also knows that at school you need to sit down a lot, have to do the tasks the teacher gives you and have minimal time for free play outdoors. So although she plays school she tells us it’d be boring and she doesn’t want to go. People often ask if we’d send her if she asked. My response is now to ask if they’d home ed if their kid said they didn’t want to go to school. She can decide when she’s fully able to understand what it means you go which certainly isn’t at 5yo.
I’ve talked to my daughter a lot, too, about the realities of school: having to sit down most of the time, not getting to go to the bathroom when you want, not getting to go outside and play when you want, etc. Sometimes she says that it sounds not very fun, and sometimes she says, “okay, cool, that sounds good!” Haha, 4 year olds are pretty funny and changeable. I’ll be having lots for conversations with her about this, when she brings it up, over the next few years, I’m sure!
Hi! When our oldest was 5.5 (and for about a year before that) he voiced that he would like to go to school. Mainly, he wanted to ride the school bus and do recess. We continued to talk about it, pros and cons (including that he would not ride the school bus) and eventually when he was 5.5 he was really distraught about it. We talked about school with him in more depth at that point. We told him things we had liked in school and the things we didn’t like and told him he could make the choice. He decided not to go. That was also when we jumped into unschooling. About a year after that, so the beginning of this year, I asked him about school and he said he would be too bored. I have brought it up a couple times since with the same response so I’m no longer asking. I agree that TV/movies (Harry Potter!) make school seem awesome, for the most part. I think children can make their own decisions and for our family, if any of them choose to try out school, they can. Our 5 year old boy says he never wants to go to school. Our almost 4 year old literally yesterday told me she wants to go to school. She has two years before she’d be going, so we’ll see what happens. During the school year we watch the school bus pass by each morning while we eat breakfast. We all appreciate our morning routine and “three course breakfast” as my husband calls it-that sometimes takes over an hour. 🙂
I’ve heard of people allowing their children to go to school and allowing them the choice to leave if they want. I have also had a friend whose son went to the second half of first grade and told him he decided to be in school so he needed to do as they said (homework etc) because it was unfair for the teacher and other kids for him to not make the same commitment. (She said that before he went) He agreed with that and finished the semester and decided the next year not to go to school. It was damaging socially (boys weren’t nice to him) and “academically.” Sometimes we don’t learn things until we try them for ourselves though! And any damage done can be healed. Good luck!
We have a very lengthy morning/breakfast routine, too….I can’t imagine having to rush through our time together just to get to (way too early) school. Ugh…just the though of all that rush, rush, rush just makes my stomach turn! I think recess is a big part of what my daughter likes about the idea of school, too…she currently describes school as “a place you play blocks with friends and learn things”. I wish it were, kiddo!
It’s such a hard thing: I so want to give her the freedom to make her own choices (of course). But where are we left if those choices are potentially seriously damaging? I don’t see regular school as a benign or even neutral entity…I see it as harmful (especially for sensitive and gifted kids, which are both neuro-atypical states). Long-term harmful for both those children and their other family members, too (the rushing, the stress, the physical ramifications of not enough sleep, etc, etc). Yikes!
What is it exactly she likes about school? Could you recreate those aspects for her from other sources? If she likes instruction and being in a group of kids, maybe a class (gymnastics, pottery, swim, etc). If she likes academic lessons, maybe you could do some lessons with her based on her interests. Her interest in these things might fade once she has experienced them.
Right now, I think her main interest in school is simply that she sees it represented as just something everybody her age does. So she wants to do it, too. She also just seems to have a real desire for academic, task-type work…for example, she started asking for us to give her “homework” to do after hearing the term in a book she picked out from the library. Currently her favorite type of “homework” is when I tell her a type of drawing to make, or a letter to write and she runs off to complete it. She asks for me to do this very frequently…it both makes me chuckle and makes me a little bummed. I’m all, “hey kiddo, here’s a childhood of autonomy and freedom to self-direct your learning!”…and she’s all, “nah, I’m good…I’d rather you just give me assignments”. Huh.
I like your idea of finding out more about what type of school-like things she’s drawn to and giving her opportunities for her to explore those without actually going to school. That’s a great idea and I’m going to start doing that. As academic as my background is, I tend now to want to be (or more accurately, want HER to be) very free-form with no formal, “school-like” elements. And maybe she just wants something a little different, and that’s okay. Those are my own issues to work out. Heck, if she’s an unschool kid that also has a shelf of curriculum books that *she* works through whenever *she* chooses to…that’s still unschooling as long as it’s always her own choice! Darn these kids for always going and being different than our preconceived notions tell us they should be 😉 I really appreciate your input, thank you!
That is so tough Kate!
I obviously feel the same as you, that school is incredibly harmful. Having no experience with school at all at 4 years old I really don’t think my children could have understood what it involved. I definitely would also want to protect them from it. I just never really talked like it was part of the plan.
You’ve got some great advice here! I would be doing those things
-Let her know of your plans to unschool instead and all the fabulous reasons and freedom she can have to learn whatever she wants whenever she wants and choose what she does every day.
-Find out what specifically she wants from school and see if you can meet those needs in another way
-Get involved in some unschool groups so she can see some kids don’t go to school.
My kids play school too. It’s normal because they hear about it so often. They definitely aren’t interested in going themselves though 😉
Thank you, Sara, for your response. This is such a tough spot in my mind and heart, but the conversation here has really helped me process my own feelings about it, which has been really helpful. I think it’s likely that I’m projecting some of my own fears onto my daughter: fears that she’ll choose to submit to school and that it will ruin her amazing potential, which is something that I feel like was my experience as a child (oh, what my life and mind could have been like had I had all the time in the world to freely follow my interests and passions!). And so I need to work through that myself without placing it on her. I’m hearing that playing “school” seems to be a normal thing in a very school-focused culture…and just because she’s doing that doesn’t mean that she ultimately wants to go or that our unschool life isn’t fulfilling to her. It’s her play right now, and that’s okay.
I’m going to put a lot more effort into finding some local unschool families to hang with. I think that will help tremendously. I haven’t had luck so far, but they have to be out there!! Or else I’ll just figure out a way to move where more are, lol.
Thank you for fostering a good community for discussion so that we parents can work through all our thoughts and feelings…it can be a tough gig being the odd ones out in a culture that wants us all to conform 🙂
Kate, just a few thoughts for you… You don’t necessarily need to have a huge community of unschooling friends. My kids friends are mostly kids who go to school, we know them from church, neighbors, the park, library or they are kids of parents that we were friends with before we even had kids. Usually though I had to be intentional and continue to invite to build those friendships. Most friends that are in school are jealous that my kids are wild & free!
Also my kids do like workbooks, so we use them. I get it because I love to fill out worksheets and forms, too. I find it enjoyable to fill in the blanks. As long as it’s their choice. My oldest actually grasped math concepts on her own through real life experiences (addition, substraction, multiplication, how numbers are related to each other, infinity… She surprised me with all of these without ever being taught any of it by me) but she just asked me to get her practice sheets and she loves it.
The wish for recess sounds to me like she likes the ritual that it provides. You could easily create something like this at home. A tea time where you listen to music together or something like this.
I love worksheets and filling out firms, too…. it always seemed to me like an odd thing to love, but I suppose it’s just the way my brain is wired and it probably shouldn’t surprise me that her’s is wired similarly 🙂 It’s helpful for me to hear about others free kids who still seek out more traditional academic type work/play, so thank you for sharing your experience!
My son was excited to go to school so we let him know but made sure he knew there were other options. He lasted until Christmas and then decided he wanted to be homeschooled (we are very relaxed about it..more like unschooled). Now he is deciding he doesn’t want to go back this year. It doesn’t take long for them to see through the facade. I’m pretty sure if she does go she will change her mind pretty quickly. I would hate to battle my son every morning to keep him home. I felt it was important that he have his free will respected.
When my son wanted to go to school, I asked him what he thought school looked like. He said a backpack, a lunch box, a desk, and a teacher. So I found a co-op of living parents who teach to the child’s interests and support one another. And he was allowed to pack a snack and bring a backpack. There were tables and desks available, and he got to pick a desk. He was satisfied with this once a week, half-day “school.” Your daughter’s idea of school may not necessarily be a forty hour work week. Could be much simpler. Hope this helps!
Meant to say “loving parents”
Your points certainly match our experience with school which is why we are choosing to homeschool for the first time this year. Now, I’m struggling to find our balance. There is a huge homeschool community in our area but those whom I have met so far are obsessed with curriculums and methods. I’m not sure totally unschooling would work for us at this stage but I’m planning to use some unschooling ideas. Thanks for the encouragement to find our path and not meet the goals of others.
My advice would be ask in local groups if anyone unschools and start your own group. You only need a couple of people and then it grows from there!
Deschooling takes a while, but you’re doing it! So happy for you ♥
Never a truer word spoken.
I have read your article with much interest. How I wish I could go back to my early childhood and had the option of unschooling!!! How I wish I could wake up later in the morning, having a nice breakfast with my grandpa; how I wish I could have time to pay a visit to my grandmother next door; strolling a bit before I could get to my studies….
True! often children wish to do things that seem interesting to them, they want to learn faster than the others too but they find it so boring when they have to sit silently and wait for some attention and at the end of the day, they feel they have lost their precious time!!! There are children who are hyper active or just dynamic and can learn quicker than others….there are children who need to sit silently and admire the scenery which is a form of learning and ‘socializing’ with nature.
So much time wasted!!!
My Mom was my primary teacher and I am glad that she authorised me to go to school only at 6!!! But then, I felt it was not enough. Going to school and having to mix up with all sorts of children. You cannot know how damaging or naughty the world of children can be!!! Yes, it is.
And you said something interesting: the bullying process
Well, when you are a kid, there is nothing so destructive than having to go to school and be bullied by a group of kids…..and this can mar your future for a very long time
Unschooling can be a choice if it is well organised!!!
Or else, opt for a humanistic education with a variety of choices
As the start of school draws near, I find I am really drawn to the freedom, choice and family connection in the lives of unschoolers. Is unschooling something possible for a family in which both parents work outside the home?
As long as there is someone else to watch the kids when working? Or they’re older.
Ahhh a tough read! I sent my children to school with a heavy heart believing that I could actually educate them holisitcally ‘better” follow their ‘actual’ interests, after all who could possibly know their children better?? BUT send them I did… I felt in some way I would be letting them down if they didn’t gain the qualifications society deemed necessary to get ‘their dream job’ so they could live their lives however they wanted financially viable adults with holidays, and a good standard of living… one of my children thrives and will leave with a host of qualifications worthy of any uni she chooses for any job she chooses the other has struggled and every day I have wanted to remove her….. but the cost of living requires that both of us have to work to keep their home safe offering security and consistency.. our education system HAS to change for our children we need to look to Finland where standardised tests are banned curriculum banished to the cellar depths and allowing children to explore their own interests…