We asked veteran unschoolers in our Christian unschooling groups to answer the typical “new to unschooling” questions. The following are their responses to the following question:

What do you do if your child “doesn’t want to learn”? What if they “only” want to do “non-educational” things like video games or watching television fluff or doodling pictures? What advice can you offer newcomers to unschooling who are seeing their kids doing nothing in particular all day every day?

So often there is tons going on internally when they are busy doing things that seem like nothing, seem wasteful. Put it this way- I spend a lot of time working on the computer. I run this group with the help of my awesome admins, I do website hosting and design, I write, I do bills, and so on. When my grandmother is over she sees me sitting at the computer “doing nothing” because she has no idea what all I am doing. It makes no sense to her.

My grandfather spent hours and hours each day puttering around the garden or in his workshop. Often he was just fussing about and seemed to be doing nothing, yet his garden grew better than anyone I ever met, he would get new ideas for things to create in his workshop randomly- after months of producing nothing he would start making all sorts of wooden toys, or making jewelry from found items or whatever.

I often do my best thinking when I am watching mindless tv, or playing a video game. I will play Triple Town or something while I am pondering my next painting, will watch mindless tv or something I have watched over and over while I ponder rearranging the room, or solving a problem. For many creative types it is part of how we process information, how we work things out, and come up with solutions. My best paintings take the most internal thinking time. Doodling pictures lead to me getting better and better at drawing. Playing video games, and beating them, gave me a sense of ability- that I CAN solve problems, that I am good enough, that I am capable. i often reread the same books over and over, gaining new insight each read through, same goes for tv. I watch Korean dramas repeatedly- to the outsider it looks like waste of time but I am studying the culture, cultural patterns, the language, how it is used, tones, accents, Hangul, different social patterns.

Very often the most amazing things come out of what seems like “doing nothing” to outsiders and if we respect those around us and recognize that they are not dumb, there is a reason they are doing what they are doing even if it isn’t something we would do, then we give them the freedom to continue or move on, to get what God has for them out of that thing without them feeling they have to stand up for themselves about it.

And when you are new to unschooling, still deschooling then very often it is scratching an itch, it is escapism. IT is what happened to us when we finally had summer vacation, or the weekend. When you go on vacation you want to do what you love to relax. That is what deschooling is, getting all the relaxing in because you are used to having to do it all at once and then go back to the stressful stuff. It takes a while to recognize that the stressful stuff isn’t coming back, that you can focus on what you love. With unschooling we are giving our kids the opportunity to find those things now, in a safe environment, so they aren’t suddenly 40 and wondering what they did with their lives and suddenly having to go back to school to find what they REALLY want to do.

They get to find it the first time around. They get to test and try and watch and see and learn and grow in a safe environment. They get to watch stupid fluff tv and learn how NOT to have relationships, or pick up little things about history they never would have paid attention to in history class, or maybe they are watching that cartoon over and over because they are fascinated with how the animation works or how did they get the shadows to move like that, or how did they get the jokes to be funny, or whatever.
~Heather

I usually wait it out, eventually a game will get broken or lost and they’ll move on to their next obsession! I love seeing them interested in the same things. Last summer (desert summer, too hot to do anything but sit in the air conditioning!) was spent watching My Little Pony and drawing ponies on paper & on computers. They looked online for tutorials & examples. My one son even worked out a mathematical formula for making his the right proportions when he got frustrated with not being able to draw as well as he wanted. They branched out when they discovered the amazing assortment of How-to-draw-________ books at the library and spent months drawing almost all the time! It’s often a strong interest of one of the kids that the others follow along, so I think that’s a good thing -learning how to take an interest in what’s important to others will be handy throughout life. I have also asked them from time to time to look at how their time is being spent and help them think about Is this the best way to spend my time? What are some other things that I could be doing? And try to help them come up with a plan (& remember!) if they decide to make some changes.
~Tracy

I ask them “what holes do you think are in your education” and then talk with them about options to fill in those holes. Both of mine are into online gaming so I invested in the “Mod Builder 1” class so they can learn Java and create some things for Minecraft. Both daughter have mentioned missing History so I offered to read aloud to them using books that represent the time periods they are interested in. By letting them pursue their own interests full bore they have each “come to the end of the internet” and are looking to me for guidance in their next steps.
~Brenda

My proof of my two teens and their “work efforts” from doing the seemingly endless days of nothing when they were children is I just came back from my 16 yo son’s job at a local pizza restaurant and was told that he is a rare gem because they have never seen the work ethics in someone so young before. He was the one who spent endless hours on video games till finished then afterwards, would announce how bored he was and then moved on to other adventures. He was always keeping busy because he never liked being bored. Many activities never appeared to look like school but I know he was learning and investigating life.

My 17 yo daughter was often found outside as child, staring off into nothing. I would chat with her later to find she was telling stories in her mind. She is now in college and her major is in Communications.

Trust that your child will have their own best interests in mind and will be very motivated to pursue what drives their passion.
~Anna

In addition to echoing Heather I also want to point out that this is an instance, sometimes, when the PARENTS need more deschooling. When I see someone complain that their child “doesn’t want to learn” I wonder if perhaps the kid is happily learning and pursuing their interests and those are interests that the parent doesn’t value because they don’t fit into the traditional “school subject” boxes so to the parent it looks like not learning.
~ ~Mariellen

Well for one, we don’t separate our lives into “educational” and “non educational” because we view everything in life as a learning opportunity. I don’t say “educational opportunity” because I don’t view unschooling at it’s very nature as “educating”. We use things to educate ourselves, but first must come the choice to learn something. And here’s the thing, in our house, choosing to play a video game is a choice to learn something.

Here’s the thing… unschooling is not hands off. You don’t just say “we are not going to do school anymore, and just do whatever you want.” Yes, let your kids choose, but be alongside them. Just because your kids decide to play video games, doesn’t mean you check out. It means you get to know what they are doing, you ask questions, you be available to answer questions and help them figure things out, you ENCOURAGE their pursuits. You INFORM them that if they love video games they can do other things with that love such as discuss their favorite games with other kids, make videos, play coop games, learn how to mod games, advance in their video game skills.

And I hate that video games always gets the bad rap. Because you would want to do the same with any activity your child chooses. If he wants to spend all of his time playing guitar, you would hopefully do the same.
~Vanessa

Exactly, Vanessa! And that’s why I put “non-educational” in quotes. Again, to me, that hearkens back to parents needing more deschooling because they haven’t learned yet to see that there’s “educational value” in any activity a learner chooses to pursue in the course of learning a thing, regardless of whether it fits into the schooly box or not.
~Mariellen

My answer would to the question would probably be a return question of “why would you claim to trust them and empower them to educate themselves but then keep trying to control what they do or learn until it looks like learning to you?” In our home there is very little separation for “free time”. It’s all free time. Learning doesn’t have to look like the way I learned in school, and I certainly hope it isn’t all the same outdated and irrelevant subjects. I want my kids to learn about their passions but I really more than anything hope that they find methods of learning that they love so that they are enthusiastic about learning in general.

Stop mistaking things that look schooly for things that are educational. A kid who sits in a very educational classroom listening to very educational lessons can still end up absorbing next to nothing. That same kid could watch a movie and remember every detail about the war that was going on in the story. He could watch Phineas and Ferb and add to his vocabulary and science knowledge, or be inspired to build something outside of the box. Or he could watch the most mindless cartoon all day, every day for 17 days straight, laughing like crazy, being a kid, and appreciating the fact that for once in his life there’s no parent or teacher trying to make him learn things he hates by doing things he hates. In fact, you demonstrating that you are empowering him to learn rather than forcing him might be exactly what makes him feel safe to pick up a book some day without worrying about you going back to old ways.

And don’t be foolish enough to think that we all are inspired the same way. What seems like dumb tv might inspire him. What seems like a waste of time to one person might be the lightening bolt of ideas for another. I hear people say “Pinterest is such a waste of time.” And I look around my house at the DIY projects I’ve built, knitting/crochet I’ve done, recipes I’ve made, homemade products I now use, etc… All from Pinterest ideas and tutorials. I’m a visual learner. It’s the way I learn best and if dh came in and told me I’m only allowed an hour each day to use the internet I’d think “well he obviously doesn’t want me to learn, he wants to control me.” It would not foster a desire to do other things. And it would not empower me.

And last but not least, it takes a long time for someone to deschool. One month of you hovering over him waiting for him to learn is not enough time and is not even really deschooling anyway. I am not a good reference for how long it takes for a parent and a child to forget all about school. (We never truly did school at home so deschooling really wasn’t the same for us). I do know that habits and attitudes in general take a long time to adjust though.
~Traci

The main thing I do in our house is mediate. My dh is as “deschooled” as he’s ever going to get, and his reaction to them doing nothing in particular very much depends on what kind of nothing. Playing a musical instrument all day, okay. Drawing, building things out of scrap lumber, tinkering in the shop, okay. Lying in bed, not helping out, or spending time in front of a screen at the expense of the household’s smooth functioning, not okay.

However, because he’s also role modeled an active, inquiring lifestyle, there’s almost always a reason besides “laziness” if one of the kids is being a couch potato. Sometimes emotional, sometimes physical such as PMS or such.

Because I’m home more, I try to be observant and help dh understand *why* they’re behaving the way they are. I was the child who got called “lazy” for being non-linear (not naturally adapted to step-by-step tasking), internally motivated (who cares about the gold star) and having less physical, more intellectual aptitudes. I’ve learned I’m not lazy, but environment really, really affects my motivation and even my confidence about exploring and experimenting. In high school, my grades reflected on each classroom’s social dynamics and approach to study and instruction, not the subject matter itself.

It’s a common introvert trait to not feel good about experimenting in front of an audience. Often we need a closed door, such as a video game that’s all our own, a sketch pad that’s ours, or a computer where we can rough out our creative thoughts without premature critique.
~Cathilyn

To echo Cathilyn , Some outlets have to be private. I have a “planner/thinker” here. He has intricate plans in his head and he can day-dream for hours. Sometimes he is writing stories in his mind, or thinking out blue prints for a minecraft structure, or contemplating what he wants to do when he grows up. Once I tried to give him a journal to write the stories in and he told me he wasn’t at all interested because he doesn’t do well with expressing it as words, even though he can picture it all happening like a movie. So now we all have taken to art journaling with captions. Illustrating feelings, thoughts, actions… It’s been fun. I also gave him a book of graph paper which he’ll use for blueprints now. He likes that. But honestly he has a lot in his mind.

Now to an onlooker he might look lazy, because we can’t see what’s going on in his mind and he often resists sharing. But, honestly, we as a society could use more thinking and less busyness sometimes so it doesn’t disturb me.
~Traci

We started with public school when I was a single mom. When I remarried, we started homeschooling and went from school at home to very relaxed with our oldest three. Even with the very relaxed there was still that schoolish thought and expectations at the back of our minds. Our youngest two have always been unschooled and, although schoolish thoughts pop up now and again, we don’t give them attention. It truly does interfere with real learning.

If one has never truly let go of separating educational from noneducational, if one has never long-term, like forever, removal of time limitations on gaming/computer usage, reading, building… whatever the means our kids are using to learn from/through, you can never know the amazing outcomes of it. I’m not referring to natural limitations of needing to share for example, one computer… for a season, but never leaving that season because you purposefully limit access, either by not purchasing more, or not replacing broken items, or setting time limits because you fear they will never do anything else you deem worthwhile, or educational. One will never see the transformation your child could have become through fully trusting in the process, fully trusting that your child will mature, will choose differently or add to what they are doing now.

Every human being has what appears to be “do nothing” moments. Sometimes long stretches of moments. Out of that time for the brain to process, to pull apart, to add to information already there, to mull over… can come greater understanding, new interests, completed goals. Just because we do not see the body move does mean the brain is not working, or the body is not growing and maturing. Assuming a body that is stationary, or focused on one thing for a long time is wasted time, is having a narrow view of life. Narrow view of human capacity.

No one has to have all things figured out, all things learned, the same things accomplished by 18 or 21 to become productive, worthwhile adults. Most people do not even come close to knowing what they want to do with their adult lives until they are beyond compulsory school age, beyond college age. Many adults get stuck in whatever they chose, were forced to choose, as teens/young adults and go through their lives “stuck” in jobs they do not like, careers that are not a good fits for who they are, or will become as they further gain life experience and maturity.

Let go of all preconceived ideas you hold regarding what a “good education” requires, both in subject matter and how it is achieved. Release any dreams you may have created for your child, and let them create their own dreams, follow their own passions, find their own route to what they want to achieve, or what they see as successful. Don’t see yourself as their leader to success, but as their partner on the path to their knowing what is success to them. Brings joy to them.

Trust that they will learn what they need to, when they need to. That if given opportunities to go out, do new things, build upon old interests… they will. Maybe not when you think they should, but when it really matters to them. Become comfortable with different ways of doing things that were new or that were unavailable when we were young. Be open to all the changes in the world around us, and know that the very activities (even if they seem to be non active) they are engrossed in today, may be the very needed/sought after skills of tomorrow. We live in an amazing day and age that is rapidly changing, and what seemed like improbable science fiction even 20 years ago, may be reality within our lifetime and our very children may be at on the cutting edge of amazing things.
~Pam

I want to echo the ladies above in saying that if you are having those thoughts — my child doesn’t want to learn anything, he/she spends all their time “zoned out” or doing “non-educational things” — you as a parent need to think through those value judgments. Those statements are placing value on some things and devaluing others. Why? Because those activities are not typically “educational” activities? Life learning is about ALL of life.

I also want to challenge the statement “my child doesn’t want to learn” as a fallacy. It’s basically the logical argument: My child does X all the time, and X is not educational, therefore my child doesn’t have any desire to learn. Or I think my child should be doing x, y, and z – my child in fact does a, b, and c. Therefore my child is not learning.

The problem with that fallacy is that you are defining what is “learning” and excluding real, actual learning that is going on.
~Aadel

We see the joy of learning and living in everything we do. It’s not “school” vs “everything else” Everyday is a learning day and the world is our classroom! If my DD7 wants to watch littlest pet shop videos on you tube for the entire afternoon, thats OK. I know this because I let have watched her do it, and then turn around and make her OWN videos to upload. and spend hours doing that! as well as set design, production, video editing, acting etc. AT 7!!! and she is just one example of my 5 kids ages 15-5. But if I dissected “school” vs “life” I would not have seen that it ALL counts and the most important part of it is that I have a vivacious, happy-go-lucky, SMART 7 year old who loves herself, loves learning, and most of all…has NO idea that “school” isn’t supposed to be fun!
~Leah

That sort of thing never has really bothered me until they got around 12 or 13. I don’t really put a lot of value on traditional education anyway-it never did anything for me just made me feel stupid. When my oldest started doing “nothing” I would ask her why she wasn’t seeming to be interested in reading anymore. Then one day I found a notebook in her room open on her bed. She had been making a list of character names for a short story she had been writing. I didn’t know anything about it. Then I caught her reading to her little brother! I realized that I needed to pay attention more to what she WAS doing and not so much what she wasn’t. She got over that phase and now is still writing short stories but also searching out new recipes to try. She is making cookies as I type this out. She is also currently preparing to teach a jewelry making class at our local homeschool co-op. That has been really cool for me to watch because she’s been looking up all grades of info. from history to teaching tips. I’ve watched her along with the other school age kids go from one interest to the next and they ALWAYS seem to be learning something of value from each thing. Even the time the oldest boy zoned out on SpongeBob for weeks. That stupid show sparked so many questions and I was busy explaining things to him all day long sometimes.

~Jen

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