Unschooling means letting go of the work ethic

If you choose a path of unschooling and you let your child play and learn by following their own interests it’s almost guaranteed that you will freak out from time to time. During my 15 years of unschooling my two sons I freaked out often. One of the top causes of my stress and anxiety was that my children’s natural learning clashed with the beliefs about work that I’d picked up in my own childhood. 

Natural learning is a wonder to observe. Anyone who has children has seen it in action. It’s amazing to observe young children learn how to crawl and walk. They keep at it until they have mastered it and they care nothing about how many times they fall over or how long it takes them to get where they want to go. They learn in a playful and joyful way that is motivated from within themselves. This natural desire to learn goes on and on as it is applied to all sorts of new knowledge and skills. Until somehow learning becomes corrupted, stressful and hard work.

Did that happen to you?

Did your joy in learning get corrupted?

How is it that something that is as natural and joyful as learning can become highly stressful and even something to be avoided? 

Have you ever suffered from procrastination to the extent that it paralysed you from working on something you really wanted to do? Like put off doing an assignment until the night before it was due?

Have you ever pushed yourself to work to the point of burnout or collapse? Maybe studying for exams, finishing a degree or preparing for a competition?

Do you connect these stressful situations to beliefs you have about work? How would you describe your work ethic?

Perhaps you have a child that resists school or structured learning at home? Perhaps they refuse to do any “book work” at all? If this causes you great anxiety, that may be because it goes against the work ethic. 

The “work ethic” is a deeply entrenched pattern of thinking that is common in our society. There are many variations, based on culture and heritage, and the version in my head derives from my Australian (of British heritage) ancestry. The work ethic is so commonly believed in non-indigenous communities (this is an inheritance of the colonisers) and so taken for granted that it could be said to be part of our collective unconscious. It gets projected onto many areas of life, including learning. 

What does the work ethic mean to you? 

These are the things that come into my mind when I think about the work ethic:

1. You have to work hard: 

Working hard and putting in a lot of time and effort is valued for its own sake. If something comes easily and quickly it is not as worthwhile. Work is separate from pleasure and is more important. If you don’t work hard enough you are labelled as lazy or “good for nothing”.

2. Time pressure is important:

Things must be done within certain time constraints. There is an accepted timetable for achievement of goals and if this is not adhered to then pressure is applied to meet these time goals.

3. You have to be productive: 

It’s all about producing a result that can be easily measured and evaluated. You have to achieve something quantifiable and preferably of monetary value in order that your work is successful. 

4. There is a hierarchy of value to work:

Some work is considered worthy and some activity is a “waste of time”. If it leads to more money, status, or security for yourself, your company or your community then it’s generally more valued. The value given to work is made explicit through money, status and value labels such as “marks”, “grades” and awards. 

5. You have to do as you are told: 

Obeying the instructions given by those higher in the hierarchy is considered mandatory and desirable. Compliance with the goals, plans, rules and policies of those in authority is essential. 

6. There is constant comparison and competition: 

To beat others or “do better than them” is highly valued and a goal in itself. If you can’t compare yourself favourably to someone else, you have failed. Failure is always a possibility and is a personal disaster. You can always do better and improve. You can always work harder. Working harder and more efficiently is the key to success. 

7. There is fear of failure or punishment: 

If you don’t work hard, achieve and succeed there is always the threat of failure and punishment to keep you in line. Punishment could be physical, financial or emotional. Shame and negative judgements are used freely to get people to comply with the work ethic, stick to the rules, or follow the program. As Alfie Kohn points out in his brilliant book Punished by Rewards”, even the rewards offered for working hard become a punishment for those who don’t get them. 

My experience of the work ethic and school

The institution of school incorporates all of the elements of the work ethic outlined above. School is where most of us were indoctrinated into the work ethic, although we were taught it by our parents as well. In the context of school the work ethic is dressed up in the language of the education system, but the basic elements are the same. I call it the “school mindset”. Things start out relatively gently in the first few years of school and then the importance placed on the work ethic and the pressure to conform and perform  intensifies in the final years when young people are being prepared for the work force and higher education.,

When I was at school I was always trying to be a good girl (people pleaser) so life became an ever-harder grind of following the program and sticking to the rules.  Hours and hours of homework and study in subjects that held little interest for me was required to achieve the “high marks” that my parents and school expected. I was terrified of failure, or of simply not doing well enough to please others, and at that time in my life I never questioned the belief system I was operating in.

Following school I spent 5 years at university; I was doing more highly stressful exams and assignments that I can remember and I pushed myself to the point of illness and collapse more than once, Then, before I had children I spent 15 years as a university tutor and lecturer, in the process putting in 8 years part time to write a PhD thesis. Working long hours, meeting the high expectations of those higher up in the hierarchy and getting work done under the pressure of tight deadlines was my normal. So was the constant grading, comparisons, stress and fear of failure. 

I was so thoroughly indoctrinated into the work ethic and the school mindset that I had internalised it. I didn’t need people telling me what to do or threatening punishment, because my own thoughts told me what I SHOULD be doing and I had an active inner critic. I pushed myself everyday to work hard, improve myself and achieve more acceptance, approval, money and status and it was never enough to avoid the self-judgements and the inner voice telling me to “try harder”. . 

Then, at the age of 35 I gave birth to my first child and everything changed. My life went “off the rails” in many ways and a very different path opened up for me, especially after I had another child and my eldest reached “school age”. 

Choosing unschooling

When I chose home education for my two sons the path of unschooling (interest-led learning) was the style that best suited their personalities and temperament. From infancy they wanted to do things in their own way and in their own time. They were both very determined about this.

For us, unschooling meant a deliberate choice not to impose any of the elements of the work ethic or the school mindset to my children’s learning. We had no timetable and did not follow any curriculum. There were no set hours for learning. It happened at any time of the day or night and mostly through play, conversation and observation. There was no hierarchy of value placed on what my sons chose to do all day.

If my sons wanted to play video games or watch TV that was treated the same as if they wanted to read reference books or discuss how the legal system works.

I made peace with gaming and my sons flourished. All of their questions about any topic were encouraged and answered to the best of my ability.

There were never any marks or grading and I tried not to heap praise on them. Of course, I couldn’t help but be delighted by their learning and their creations and I expressed that as simply and honestly as I could. I never used the words “good boy” and I never punished my sons in any way. We lived without rules, rewards or discipline and thrived. You can read more about the skills I learned to support our rule-free life and how we solved our problems in a peaceful way here.

There was never any hurry to learn a specific skill or master a subject. It was made clear in our interviews for homeschool registration that my sons were learning across the whole of the primary or secondary curriculum and were free to choose the order and timing of their own learning. In fact, for most of their time as unschoolers they were oblivious to the school curriculum and went about their days learning and growing  as if school did not exist. 

It was my job to translate what they were naturally learning in their days of play and exploration into the language of the school curriculum and to “tick off” the learning outcomes as they were reached. To this extent, I acted as a buffer or interface between the school and legal system and my children’s unschooling life. Although it was somewhat time consuming, this was not a difficult job. My sons were learning all the time and there were always “learning outcomes” that they were “achieving” even if they weren’t in the exact order that the school curriculum required. The main challenge I faced in this job was dealing with my own fear of judgment and punishment by the homeschool authorities – fears that derived directly from my childhood indoctrination in the work ethic.

The backlash from my old beliefs

When I chose the path of unschooling I was following my heart and what my eldest son was asking for. It felt like the right choice for my children but I knew right from the start that there would be a mental and emotional backlash, as I was  a huge step away from the conventional approach to education that I had been indoctrinated into.

The backlash started right away, as soon as I’d made the decision not to send my eldest son to school when he was 5 years old. I was flooded with fear about telling my parents of my decision, as I was anticipating their disapproval. It actually took me six months to pluck up the courage to tell them because I was so scared of their reaction. The disapproval that I had imagined from them was expressed in full, but I felt better, at least temporarily, because I had jumped that mental and emotional hurdle.


Noticing my fears arise and learning how to deal with them became my main inner “work” for many years.

As I supported my children in their natural learning they strayed further from the conventional educational path and I had to face the fears that this stirred up in me. It was clear to me that my children were learning all the time, but they weren’t sticking to the timetable for learning mapped out by the school system.

The big clash with the school curriculum and the work ethic in my family came around the timing of learning to read.  From a young age both of my sons loved me reading out loud to them, which I did every day. We played word games and games with letters and told stories to each other and shared amazing conversations. And neither of them wanted to be taught to read, or to sit down and have any formal instruction in reading before that age of about 10 years old. In the case of my younger son, it was later than this, and in the case of my eldest son, the attempts to instruct him at age 10 were completely unsuccessful. So the timing of their learning, or apparent lack of learning. sparked anxiety in me and in many members of our extended family. It also sparked fear that we would “fail” in our homeschool registration. 

I distinctly remember the day that I realised how much I had been judging my eldest son.

I thought he was lazy and wasn’t trying hard enough to learn to read. I was putting pressure on him and he was resisting that pressure. We were coming into conflict and it felt really awful. I complained that he wasn’t learning faster. I was treating him disrespectfully, trying to control him and mentally attacking him because his natural learning was not fitting in with the accepted timetable. I was scared of being judged as a negligent parent and I was feeling very defensive and uncomfortable about that, so I was projecting that onto my son. I realised that I was judging him because I was seeing the situation through the lens of the work ethic and the school mindset.

Soon after this outbreak of judgement I finally figured out that my eldest son was dyslexic and was trying really, really hard to process information in a completely  different way to me. He wasn’t lazy at all and all of the pressure that he had felt coming from me just made it harder for him to relax into learning in his own way and his own time. My learned beliefs about learning and the work ethic had been getting in the way of his learning.

Unlearning the work ethic

Observing my two sons learn freely in an unschooling environment made me realise that the supposed benefits of teaching children a work ethic are highly overrated. What I observed in my sons was the development of their own inner motivation. When they were interested in learning a new skill or deepening their knowledge of a topic they were always highly motivated and put in whatever time and effort was required to master something to their satisfaction. Over the years they applied this inner motivation to work in a playful and dedicated way at mastering countless video games, learning to play musical instruments, learning to read, write and spell, exploring science and doing amazing things with Lego, to name just a small selection. Their determination and self-discipline often amazed me. 

In order to give my sons’ self-motivation an opportunity to develop I had to unlearn my own stressful stories about work.

I had to stop trying to control them and teach them against their will.  I had to stop and investigate my thinking every time I tried to put time pressure on them to learn something new. I had to let go of my plans for them to learn according to the school-imposed timetable for learning and question all my negative judgments of their desire to play and their choice of activities. Most of all, I had to deal with my own fears rather than project them onto my children. I made them a promise that I would never force them to do anything they didn’t want to do, and I kept that promise. I stepped back and let them follow their own learning journey rather than impose my own agenda. I also gave my sons a huge amount of support, encouragement, opportunities and access to resources. All up, I did a lot of “deschooling” which is another way of describing the process of unlearning the school mindset. If you are interested to know more, check out The Deschooling Course here.

As my sons grew up their self-motivation took them in new directions. They voluntarily chose to be taught certain topics and skills by people outside of the family and they were willing to comply with the rules and timetables  of various teachers, coaches and schools. I observed their willingness to enter the school system at ages 17 and 15 and to comply with the work ethic required by that system out of a desire for new teachers, peer relationships and new learning opportunities. The beauty of having an unschooling background was that my sons knew they had a choice to be at school. They didn’t go out of fear or because they were in the habit of conformity.

There are those that fear that if we let go of the old, imposed work ethic that laziness, ignorance and ruin will be the result. In my experience this is not true. Unlearning the old work ethic means less stress, pressure and conflict. There is space for relationships to thrive, for creativity to flourish and for families to relax into the joyful flow of life-learning.

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