unschooling & privilege

Our family unschools. I wrote an ebook about it four years ago, and the sequel comes out next week.

And yet.

I have a heart for supporting struggling public schools and the kiddos who attend them. Like a really really big heart for it. And, honestly, it’s one of the most difficult things for me to reconcile as an unschooler.

Part of my hesitancy to talk about unschooling is that my passion for social justice, for racial equality, for learning from people of color, doesn’t seem to jive with it.

Unschooling often feels like a very privileged thing I’m doing with my “blessed” white kids rather than just a choice to say no to the status quo.

In fact, when I asked friends/readers for questions about unschooling, Julie said this: When you lived at Abbey Lane, and now living in Siem Reap, a lot of your unschooling life involves helping others gain access to—or make the most of—more traditional education (whether it is tutoring, raising financial support for school fees, etc.). Does this ever lead to awkwardness or feelings of guilt or irony? How do you encourage the value of traditional education for those around you while not buying it into it yourselves?

This is one of my most favorite questions I’ve ever gotten, because it resonates with me so deeply and is something I think about constantly.

I think what it boils down to is this: my mantra for all of life is to love God and love my neighbor as myself. What does it mean to love my neighbor as myself? Well, it means that, everything I have that fills my life with comfort and health and purpose and happiness, I want my neighbors to have it too, but adapted to fit their own unique life circumstances.

Let’s take our refugee neighbor kiddos at Abbey Lane, for example. Loving them as I love myself would mean wanting for them what I want for my own kids. Except it doesn’t translate exactly.

Because: 1.) They don’t have parents who speak English. 2.) They didn’t learn to read at home when they were four, surrounded by books and a mom who read to them every day. 3.) Their parents don’t have the privilege of working from home doing skilled desk labor like web design and writing/editing. 4.) etc, etc, etc.

“Homeschooling and unschooling are obviously not solutions for the masses,” author Nikhil Goyal writes. “It isn’t very accessible for children who have both parents working long hours, something that is particularly common in low-income and minority communities.” (Schools on Trial, 182)


Helping them with their homework, sharing food if they’re hungry, offering tutoring on Tuesday nights, helping their moms learn English and fill out forms and take them to doctor’s appointments, sharing meals and laughter with them, being their friend.

Anything in my power to help them succeed and thrive in life.

Loving my neighbor as I love myself doesn’t mean making my neighbors into carbon copies of me and my family. It means meeting them where they are and helping them get what they need.

Goyal is concerned with providing kids on the margins with access to these same educational options unschooling families can provide. Others (Jonathan Kozol, A.S. Neill, John Holt) are concerned too and have written about it.

I share their desire.

We live in Cambodia now, not at Abbey Lane. How does that translate here? Well, we help send a high schooler to the best English school in our city. My husband offers free training—and jobs—to young people who want to learn photography and design. We’ve helped moms find sustainable work so they can support their families, and their kids can stay in school.

And now we’ve got the Bamboo Libraries (and the Bamboo Preschool) which are full of all kinds of unschooling potential for a community lacking in resources.

When we visit the libraries, I see illiterate mamas standing shyly outside peeking in at all the reading kiddos. I can tell they want to read. I want to tell them it’s not too late to learn. I dream of ways to help them. I remember reading about Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who taught 300 illiterate sugarcane workers how to read and write in just 45 days “by making connections and using vocabulary relevant to their lives.” (Schools on Trial, 159)

I think about Nina teaching herself how to read Khmer. I learned to read English watching Sesame Street and being read to. I’m convinced that, if these kiddos at the Bamboo Libraries get read to more often, they will learn to read. They’ll be excited about it and they’ll learn faster and want to read books on their own.

The public school system in Cambodia sucks. I can’t fix that. But I can help supplement it in lots of creative ways. I can do my part to make education—and life—more fair for all kids.

And that, to me, is what unschooling is all about.

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