I pulled my kids out of school and let them make up their own curriculum

I pulled my kids out of school and let them make up their own curriculum

When my 10-year-old was having trouble in class, I tried everything to help him. Then I discovered unschooling

(Illustration: Anastasiya Milova)

My eldest child, Joseph, had trouble fitting into a conventional classroom right from the start. He was more of everything: more sensitive, more emotional, more energetic. Playing Game Boy under his desk helped him concentrate, but it was against school rules. And though his teachers tried to accommodate his needs, there was only so much they could do. The problems intensified when he entered Grade 4. Joseph exasperated his teacher. “What am I supposed to do with him?” she asked me. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember what I thought: We’re done here.

I took a leave of absence from my job as an engineer at Ontario Hydro so that I could focus on finding a solution for Joseph. My husband, Rocco, and I transferred him from a public Catholic school to a private school with smaller classes, but he was still very unhappy. The criticism took a toll on his confidence, and he started saying he hated himself. I didn’t know how to help him.

Then I stumbled across an article that mentioned home-schooling. The more I read about it, the more it seemed like a great fit for our family. My daughter, Lissy, was seven at the time, and my younger son, Michael, was four. Rocco and I felt that all three of them would benefit from home-schooling and decided to try it out for a year. Home-schooling is legal in Ontario, and the process was surprisingly easy: we filled out a few forms, and that was that.

We treated the first couple of months like summer vacation: while Rocco was at work (he’s also an engineer), the kids and I went to the park, built forts, and played board games and Nintendo. About eight weeks in, I picked up some workbooks for the kids and coaxed them into completing a few pages per day. They resisted. I contemplated. If anything, the school work felt like a distraction. I sensed that they were learning more from their unstructured play than from the time spent writing in their books.

That idea aligned with what I’d been reading about unschooling, a branch of home-schooling that rejects the idea of forcing kids to follow a set curriculum. The premise behind unschooling is that people learn best when they’re naturally curious and engaged. Unschooled kids wake up when they’re ready, choose what to do during the day, eat when they’re hungry and go to sleep when they’re tired. The role of the parent is to support their development, not direct it. The philosophy appealed to me—I liked the idea of empowering my kids to make their own choices.

The transition took some getting used to. Joseph has a passion for video games, and he enjoyed playing for hours at a stretch. I was uncomfortable with how much time he was investing in his games, but I resisted the urge to lay down rules. Instead, I got involved. I sat next to him on the couch and cheered him on as he fought bad guys and figured out puzzles. Some of his favourite games integrated elements of Greek and Norse mythology, so we researched those subjects as they came up. He learned to type and spell by chatting with other gamers online. After a while, I realized he was learning all kinds of things.

It was like that with the other kids, too. Lissy had struggled with reading in school, but it came naturally once she discovered the Harry Potter series. When she was 13, she picked up a camera and opened a Flickr account. She spent hours learning about the art and science of photography. When Michael was eight or nine, he took a karate class and soon became hooked. He started spending all his evenings at the local dojo, eventually helping teach classes and earning his black belt at age 17. My kids were thriving—without lesson plans, schedules or homework.

Some of our friends and family members were understandably skeptical, but I didn’t give them a chance to criticize. When they inquired about the kids, I told them about all the fun stuff we were up to. If things got awkward, I just changed the subject.

Fourteen years later, I have no regrets. My children are amazing people. Rocco and I never had to deal with the typical teenage rebellion—there’s not much to rebel against when your parents are helping you achieve your goals rather than coercing you into meeting theirs. Lissy, now 21, moved to New York to launch her career as a photographer. Her work has appeared in magazines and on book covers, and she’s won awards and been part of exhibitions in Toronto, London and New York. Michael’s interest in karate grew into a passion for performance martial arts. He’s 18 now; he has done some training with a professional stunt performer, and is starting to pursue work in film and TV. Joseph, who’s 23, is more of a homebody; he spends his time writing stories, chatting with his online friends, and helping Rocco and me maintain our property in Erin, Ontario.

The thing that strikes me most about my kids is how self-aware they are. They’ve had complete control over their bodies, minds and spirits almost all their lives. As a result, they know exactly who they are and what they’re passionate about. And that’s something you don’t learn in a classroom.

Pam Laricchia is the author of Free to Learn: Five Ideas for a Joyful Unschooling Life.