Is unschooling turning out different than you hoped?

I hear people say “I see all those unschoolers with kids following their passion for art, science or writing …….. and all my son wants to do is to play video games all day.”

When I began unschooling my two sons 15 years ago, I had no idea about what I was doing or what unschooling was supposed to look like. I was completely clueless, and this turned out to be a blessing. 

When you have expectations about how home education or unschooling is going to look for your family, you run a high risk of becoming frustrated, stressed and anxious when it doesn’t turn out the way you’d hoped. 

When you have expectations, you have an agenda. This can feel tight, heavy or pressured – not fun to be around. 

There is also the danger of falling into painful comparisons between your family and those families who make it all look cool and easy.

It might not be video games. It might be that your child likes to watch movies on repeat or endless YouTube videos. Or they might be a daydreamer that doesn’t stick to any interest for long. Or perhaps they really like your attention and involvement in their day and they don’t seem to be “self-directed” enough for unschooling. 

Whatever the problem seems to be, I’d like to invite you to investigate further. I’m not suggesting that you try and “fix” or change your child or your own approach to unschooling. I’d like to suggest that the problem is in the way you are thinking about the situation. 

If your child is often happy, playful and engaged in activity then chances are they are learning. Some boredom, frustration and anxiety are to be expected; they are part of the journey. Your child’s learning may not be obvious to you and it may not be the type of learning that you had in mind, but it’s almost guaranteed that your child is learning something every day. It helps if you abandon the narrow way that learning is defined and measured in schools and look more broadly at the way your child’s conversation, relationships, self-expression, skills and knowledge are changing. It helps to zoom out and take a long view: natural learning doesn’t follow a clear linear pathway or sequential grades and it doesn’t run according to a timetable.

Left to develop naturally, the focus of your child’s attention will change over time, sometimes dramatically. For example, one of my sons went from being focused on video games and YouTube to being focused on learning to play the piano and to building knowledge and skills in “school subjects” in a short space of time – when he was ready. This shift arose from within my child. It was his idea, not mine, and I got to observe the benefits of his self-motivation. I didn’t see his new interests as “better” than the earlier ones, just different. My judgements of his learning had fallen away. 

If you don’t want to be stressed and anxious about home education or caught up in a struggle with your children, I invite you to adjust your expectations and question your beliefs about what your child should be doing with their days. 

This involves questioning your fears about the harmful effects of screen-based activities or dismantling your belief that YouTube, children’s TV or the latest craze in toys is “rubbish”. I had to go through all of that myself. I started out being appalled at the type of toys and media content my children wanted to explore and even more appalled at the quantity they wanted to consume. I didn’t want to fight with my children every day or to constantly try and control their lives, so I questioned my thinking instead. 

As I questioned my beliefs, my mind opened and the blinders that had limited my perception came off. I joined my children in their world and listened to their perspective, watching TV or playing video games. I spent countless hours shopping for toys, playing with toys and tidying up after imaginative play. There were days when I was lost in a sea of Lego or challenged to duels with toy lightsabres.

As I questioned my harsh judgements I began to see the learning more clearly. The deschooling process was well underway. During all that play time and mucking around with toys we had conversations about a huge range of topics. When I got asked probing questions, we found the answers together. I saw my children develop a range of skills including problem solving, communication skills and critical thinking. I was astonished by how much maths, English, art, geography, history, science and social skills can be learned through playing video games, watching YouTube and immersion in the world of Lego. 

Over the years I made a lot of suggestions about things my sons might want to explore. I offered a lot of resources and opportunities to extend the reach of their interests and possibly spark new ones. But I made sure that I didn’t expect them to take up those suggestions or opportunities – at least not straight away. Many resources were stacked on bookshelves for years before they were finally used, and some got passed in to other families in a pristine state. 

Sure, it’s easier to meet the legal obligations of a home educating parent when your child is focused on reading books about Mediaeval History rather than playing World of Warcraft on their computer, but I discovered that it’s achievable no matter what your child is into. Putting aside my expectations of having “good students” that dutifully followed the school program and “worked at their grade level”  was an essential part of that process. Once I got my ego out of the way and documented the learning that was going on through play, conversations and living full, rich lives, things fell into place just fine. I made sure I wasn’t clueless about the school syllabus; I could tick a lot of boxes and my children met heaps of “outcomes” – just not in the same order or according to the same method or timetable as their schooled peers.

What I observed and was fully involved with over the course of 15 years was the unique learning path of two young humans. I think that’s the beauty of unschooling: it looks different in each family and for each child. Unschooling takes education out of an institutional box and makes it a wonderful adventure that a family can have together. It is so deeply satisfying to watch self-directed, natural learning in progress and to live without the weight of expectations bearing down on you. 

Being clueless about unschooling and taking life one step at a time, present in the moment, feels like peace, joy and freedom. 


  1. Hi this is such a timely thing for me to read my son has been homeschooled since May this year but he has dyslexia and innatentive ADHD so sitting in a classroom forcing him to learn was so hard for him we have watched our son turn from a happy enthusiastic boy to an angry depress boy I could watch him suffer anymore and took him out of school we tried the homeschooling thing I was so stressed because he keeps walking off with excuses as to why he can’t do it two weeks ago I gave up he is now playing xbox after 3 pm when he’s friends get home from school I have been praying with a friend as I don’t know what to do then I heard about unschooling we are in nsw Aust can I apply here Our son is bright boy watches iTube a lot knows so many things that we don’t know how he knows Thankyou so much

    • In reply to Liz vella.

      Hi Liz,
      I’m so glad to hear that your son is out of that environment that was making him so unhappy and that you have discovered that unschooling is an option for him. If you would like to know more about unschooling you will find other articles here on my website under the Interest-Led Learning category of my Articles. If you are looking for some more information on how to relax and enjoy unschooling with your son and how to get through registration, then you may find my course “The Deschooling Course” helpful. The details are here: It will be available very soon as a do-at-your-own-pace online course.

  2. I so want to just let go and not stress but my biggest issue is she is so behind in spelling and reading. I feel like if I don’t do something that she is never going to learn how to spell or read a book. On the other hand, pushing her just isn’t my style either as I hate stressing her out. She is so much happier at home due to her anxiety, ASD & ADHD, I love seeing her so settled. I think I just need to know that she will eventually pick up the reading and spelling skills, that i am not ruining her by letting it progress without me pushing it so i can stop feeling so horrible.

    • Hi Amanda,
      I understand your worries, as both of my sons were “late” readers by school standards. They also hated to be pushed or put under any sort of pressure. In fact, I found that they “pushed back” and resisted if I put pressure on them. I found that they learned best through play. There are so many ways to learn reading, writing and spelling while playing board games, video games and all sorts of “educational” games too. Also reading signs while out driving, in the supermarket, in magazines and texting to friends and relatives. Gradually they got more confident and started reading more fluently. I’ve written about our journey with reading here:

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