Skip to main content


Setting their own limits

'Unschooling' and traditional Christian homeschooling are two very different things

Setting their own limits

(John Gaps III/Genesis Photos for WORLD)

For Bethany Drury, an Iowa State University senior, school was whatever she wanted it to be. She was "unschooled"-a homeschooled child with complete control over her education.

Drury focused her education on horses, the outdoors, and veterinary studies. She watched National Geographic specials and read library books on her favorite subjects.

When Drury began attending Iowa State, she faced new difficulties: "I got to college loving to learn, seeking information ... but there were things I didn't want to focus on when I was younger, like math and chemistry, so when I got to college, I wasn't prepared for them." Drury struggled to focus during study time. She could not sit for long, and frequently switched subjects or took breaks. But she had never learned another study method: "It never occurred to me that there was any other way to do it."

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that one-third of the 1.5-2 million homeschoolers in the United States are unschooled. But unschooling's philosophy of education differs substantially from traditional homeschooling, and should pose some concerns for Christian parents.

Unschoolers operate under the same state laws that regulate homeschoolers, but their philosophies and approaches to learning can vary significantly. Unschooling is a "radical" version of homeschooling; it gives children complete control over their subjects, schedule, and interests. If children do not want to learn science, they do not have to. If they enjoy art, literature, or computer programming, they can spend all their time pursuing that subject.

Nineteen-year-old unschooler Shane Stranahan did not learn to divide until age 12. He began attending community college philosophy and literature classes at age 16. Before he was 18, he spent a year in Canada building log cabins and learning how to farm. This fall he has backpacked across Europe and harvested grapes in France.

Shane's father, filmmaker and writer Lee Stranahan, calls it "natural learning ... organic, as opposed to arbitrary. ... In traditional school, learning is a chore you do during certain hours, during certain times of the year."

Unschooling mom Joyce Fetteroll writes on her blog, Joyfully Rejoycing, "The goals of unschooling are different than all the other methods. ... The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. ... Learning happens as a side effect."

In the most radical forms of unschooling, this freedom permeates children's entire life: they control their bedtimes, meals, and chores. On her blog, Fetteroll writes that children should sculpt their own lives and parents should give them what they want: If "they are happy and free and are making these choices because it brings them joy, then we should trust that it really is what they want or need right now. ... We need to trust that when it is enough for them, then they will stop. Their 'enough' may be different from where ours is."

The difference in discernment about "enough" is exactly what concerns some Christian parents. Blogger Cathy Koetsier explored unschooling and liked its child-directed learning philosophy, but she wondered how to reconcile unschooling with Christian motherhood. After reading Psalm 23, she wrote on her website,, that Christian unschooling should be described as a large pasture encircled by a strong boundary fence: "The pasture is the place of freedom. ... The fence is the principle and instruction of God's Word."

Christian unschoolers try to meld the limit-free teaching methods of unschooling with structured biblical parenting. Elissa Wahl, co-author of Christian Unschooling: Growing Your Children in the Freedom of Christ, writes on her site,, that "Unschooling in my house is not unparenting. ...Although I am pretty radical in my educational beliefs, they do not carry over to letting the children do whatever they want, whenever, with no consequences. That would be unbiblical."

But when it comes to school, Wahl does believe in letting her children do "whatever they want. ... If they want to learn about rockets for 5 years, or 5 minutes, that's OK with me!"

Koetsier writes, "Unschooling is the freedom to learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, how you want to learn it, where you want to learn it, and for your own reasons." She does not believe this method will nurture willful or disobedient children. She thinks that respecting her children's natural abilities to learn will result in "a rich adventure of discovery that ultimately brings us ... closer to one another and to our God, the Creator of all."

Combining unschooling and biblical understanding of child raising is hard, though, because unschooling grew out of the work of author John Holt, an atheist who argued that parents who exercise discipline "probably destroy as many good qualities as we develop, do at least as much harm as good." In his book How Children Fail, Holt says teachers should not tell children they are wrong, under any circumstances, because that undermines their self-confidence: "We adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children ... by making them afraid ... of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, of being wrong."

Unschooling father and writer Pat Farenga worked closely with Holt until his death in 1985. Although Holt was an atheist, Farenga does not believe his atheism influenced his educational philosophies. Farenga says Holt did not assume the intrinsic goodness of human nature, as some unschooling critics argue, but realized that "people can be willfully bad. ... [He] did advise people in his talks and writing to try as much as possible to think and expect the best of children and to give them second chances."

Koestier does not believe that Holt's views of discipline and teaching are incompatible with her Christian faith. She says unschooling cultivates her children's spiritual development: "We didn't want children that complied with rules on the outside while their hearts were wrong on the inside. We wanted free thinkers who chose what was right because it was right. I can control my children's actions. But it seems a better thing to coach and support them in developing self-control."

Author and Patrick Henry College provost Gene Edward Veith, a proponent of classical liberal arts education, fears that unschooling's narrow scope could make a person "very narrow and brittle. ... The beauty of a liberal arts education is that [students] try a bunch of different things, and see what they're good at. In the course of that, they find what they most want to focus on, but they still have a foundation and basic understanding of a lot of different things."

Katie Roberts, a Patrick Henry College senior, was unschooled until high school. She enjoyed her "childhood without school," but when she became a teenager, she wanted to prepare for college-and apart from her high school training, "getting into college would have been very difficult. I would probably have done some English and History of my own accord," but she wouldn't have had the "full slate of academics"-including math, science, and Spanish-that allowed her to make an easy transition to college.

Mary Hood, founder of the Association of Relaxed Christian Home Educators, has a Ph.D. in education and supports "relaxed homeschooling." By that she means a flexible curriculum and not the grade system of the public school; she sets specific goals for her children's education. As children get older, they set their own goals: "As much as possible, I like to let them enjoy the academics, but I still have goals for where they're heading. ... If they're not achieving with what I expect, then I will bring more structure to fill in the gaps."

Although Farenga believes that parents could maintain parental authority while allowing complete freedom in education, Veith wonders how parents could compartmentalize parenting and education: "If you wouldn't do that in your family, why would you do it in education? Good parenting is absolutely essential to the mental health and happiness of a child. ... Teaching right and wrong, to be self-controlled, respectful-that's education."

Veith believes that unschooling follows Rousseau's philosophy of a naturally innocent and good child. Rousseau never advocated the unschooling method: He believed in removing children from their parents and placing them in the care of a tutor. But Veith says that both Rousseau and Holt defined freedom as meaning, "I'll do whatever I want." Veith says, "That's not Christian freedom, that's license and slavery. A child who is following his own impulses is not free. He's a slave to those impulses. Freedom comes from teaching [children] "to develop self-control, self-discipline, to develop their mind and their conscience. ... That's real freedom."

- Grace Howard is a Virginia journalist

Grace Howard

Grace Howard