Is unschooling / homeschooling only for the privileged?

Hey Kelly!  I think you know by now that I admire your work, and I have a great deal of respect for home/unschoolers.  One thing that concerns me is that I haven’t seen much discussion of privilege in the reading I’ve done on home/unschooling.  I realize that many people give up a LOT in terms of material items/income, “free” or “adult” time, or a career path in order to ensure that someone is home with the kids, and present for them.  But what about those who are, for example, single parents, or who are poor, and must work outside the home to keep everyone fed?  Even our family might be an example – our situation isn’t that dire, but for right now, for many reasons, it doesn’t seem like US/HS would be feasible for us.  I guess in an ideal world, there might be a solution for those kids – some sort of community-based, small- group environment, where families band together to share ideas, expertise, and time.  Do these situations exist?  At one point, we were in talks with a few other families to create a sort of shared, nurturing learning situation, but the logistics got very complicated and it fell through.  Anyway, excuse me for being all over the place here, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on this.


I am not an expert on privilege, class, or social movements. What I write here is based only from my experiences. As you know, we’ve “given up” a lot to unschool. But I am also not here to tell every human soul that they should, or that they have to, or that they can, et cetera.

Every now and then I hear the charges that home- and/or unschooling communities are only populated by the privileged classes (and therefore a “bad” thing), or that these home educators do not address privilege from within their communities. My friend Idzie agrees on this latter point, and makes the call-out for unschoolers to take these issues up more often. I find myself in agreement with Idzie’s points – all of her points, because shouting “privilege!” at a fringe movement can be a double-edged sword (more in a minute).

All home- and unschoolers who read here who operate from a place of less privilege*, and who are working your asses off, I pause to let you have an *LOLsob* moment, that is if you even have time to read this piece.

But let’s address these points, because I think they are important.

First, I’m going to write about my experiences in this field for a minute, not so much this particular comment. I find it interesting that homeschooling and unschooling get put on the moral chopping block by progressives who claim these institutions are failing social justice in some way. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around an assertion the “institution” of unschooling is failing marginalized groups more than the aggregate realities of the institution of compulsory schooling. As for the community, not that it’s a monolith, well I do not think the unschooling community takes action on privilege any less than the general population. In fact if anything I see more community involvement and passion for social justice within unschooling families, than I do in the general population (or perhaps that’s just the unschoolers I hang out with). I see a little discussion amongst home- / unschoolers about privilege, and just like discussions with the general population, they are lively, passionate, and occasionally annoying or hurtful. I don’t see these conversations as being any less enlightened than the general population’s strategies, either. Again: just my experience. Your experiences with your unschoolers may be different.

Of course, all parenting realities are influenced by privilege. Many parents with kids in school spend their energies trying to effect improvements for their children or their child’s school; most do not take on the larger cause of educational and social inequities. Notably, many of the progressives who I’ve seen voice anger or angst about unschooling or homeschooling and privilege, either don’t have children at all, or have children already privileged in terms of race, socioeconomic, health, family support, heteronormative family structure, neighborhood safety, and the school options available to them. Et cetera. “Privilege” accusations, in some cases, begin to feel like a red herring.

However, I will always support the discussion of privilege and oppression, and even more so action-based strategies, within any group I find myself allied with, a member of, or sympathetic to (this goes far beyond education and parenting, for me). On a personal note, even more than discussion at a macro level about systems and socioeconomic realities, I enjoy working with families on a one-on-one basis for them to have more of the family life they want. More on that in a minute, too.

There are a few problems with painting home education as necessarily privileged and therefore suspect and exclusionary. Claiming “unschooling=privileged folks” erases the many realities and lives of diverse unschooling families: single parents, parents with disabilities, parents battling addiction or illness, working-poor, queer parents, non-heteronormative families, trans* unschoolers, unschoolers who are women, parents without career-wage and security, unschoolers with children who have special and/or medical needs, or unschoolers of color – to throw out a few groups of dedicated unschooling communities and families.** Not only do we erase these individuals and their experiences (insulting!) – we perpetuate the problems of inequality by doing so. We  should be going to their blogs and published works and discussions and digging deep, because they can tell us more about the problems with schooling and/or unschooling than someone in a position of relative privilege can!

Eva Swindler’s article “Re-imagining School” – which I know I’ve posted here before – is one of my favorites for the unschooling or homeschooling family who is realistic about socioeconomic inequalities. If there’s anything you read, stop reading my piece and go read hers. She also, notably, addresses the cultural cry that public schools can be trusted to look after the interests of the oppressed. They can’t, and they don’t. In fact, many families who’d be supposed beneficiaries of the so-called “social equalizer” of public school have found homeschooling to be the best choice for them from the perspective of their personal values and their financial situation. From a perspective of race, schools often are inflicting grave harm on children and families of color. When white progressives claim home education is a “privileged” choice, they are erasing the heartbreaking or at the very least difficult decisions so many non-white families have had to make; they are at the very least are ignorant (willfully or no) to the realities of families of color.

Then there’s the aspect of “your social justice cause isn’t as important as other social justice causes” that just makes me, personally, very sad.

“I […] get extremely frustrated with the reaction from radical and social justice type people who are not unschoolers, which is more often than not “only privileged people can unschool, so it’s privileged and horrible and selfish to do so, and no one should do it.” I feel like this is another example of how little children and teens are valued and respected, because with most oppressed groups, at least in words if not actions, [social justice] and radical peeps are quick to talk about concrete changes that should be made, yet when it comes to kids in school, it’s just a reaction of “oh well, it kind of sucks that they’re being indoctrinated with the tenets of the dominant culture, and that’s not very good I guess.” – Idzie Desmarais, Thoughts on Unschooling and Privilege

I’ve seen what Idzie is talking about, here. Social justice proponants who claim a need for intersectionality are often ignoring the needs of the child class. Worse, they often react in a hostile fashion when called out on adultist behaviors, or they suddenly lose their passion, fervor, curiosity and interest with regards to human rights and will hand wave with a, “Well that’s too bad for kids but that’s just how it is” mindset! It can be very disheartening to observe, to say the least. That apathy for the child and teen class – that apathy regardless of whatever educational philosophies we align ourselves with – is a bigger problem for educational opportunity inequalities than the practice of home/un-schooling. Here is what I’d call a true minority, and what we need more of – social justice activists dedicated to the rights of the child class.

Now to speak on something I know only a little about, but can merely relate from my own experiences in the community I live.

The original comment here asks about options available for those who want to homeschool, but do not have significant economic privilege or who do not feel safe in doing so (how “safe” a family feels to unschool is something I’d love to talk about in great detail at some point). Frankly, our law and the cultural and institutional schooling complex are not on their side at the moment. You can take responsibility for your kids’ homeschooling in every state; organizing any formal entity gets very tricky real quick and runs the risk of government interference – although people do it successfully of course. So when you ask about community options, this obviously depends on the community. Homeschool co-ops and creative solutions are real and on the rise, but they are not available everywhere (so: start one! LOL).

Like many unschoolers, I had to find my community, and my mentorship, online. I also had to find my balls. It took time. We initially looked into private school options but there are only two here – one, economically impossible for us, and the second, Pentecostal and extremely religious. So in a very real sense, we ended up unschoolers in part due to our lack of options. Other factors of safety and opportunity were at play in how we started out, as well. At first we were cirriculum-based homeschoolers in part because I was frightened if anyone “found out what I was doing” and reported me to Child Services – a nightmare I didn’t feel equipped to handle, at my level of newbie and with the illness I was dealing with.

I am an experienced unschooler now and I write in order to give those, espeically those in difficult situations, the roadmap should they want to pursue a different path than the mainstream. Many who could afford to, with no more financial discomfort than my family, choose not to. That’s fine with me. It really is. I only write about those because there are OTHER reasons people choose not to unschool, and I wish those were discussed more often. Anecdotally, although I am not legally able to offer homeschooling services to anyone, even if I am not making a business out of it, I have offered many parents our resources – meaning our food, our home, my time and energy, our washing machine, et cetera – as a homeschooling/unschooling option. None have taken us up on this, so far – even parents with children in significant distress at school.

Economic privilege or lack thereof is not the only factor in why people don’t homeschool, although it is often framed as such.

If someone wants to unschool but find themselves a victim of circumstance and “can’t” unschool – whether the obstacles are real or imagined is not my business – my heart goes out to them. I am not going to judge them, or say they don’t love your kids as much as I love mine, or anything like that. I am not going to tell them to do without things and “make” it happen. I am not going to claim they should go without material possessions, or food security, or health insurance, or running cars, or Social Security, or a savings account, or all the things we’ve done without.

I will help anyone who writes with anything I might be able to help with – if they want my suggestions. We have worked our asses off to unschool and that’s one reason I write about it – to help those who need help. That’s it.

In the meantime, some thoughts for those who do home- or unschool.

I have come to see how hurtful it is for some parents to be told, or to believe they are being told, that they should work JUST A LITTLE HARDER, that they should sacrifice JUST A LITTLE MORE, to do what’s best for their children. It seems many parents already feel at the end of their rope, or just barely getting by – in terms of all sorts of resources, not just financial ones. No one can be shamed into anything good and long-lasting – and that includes a parenting style or a lifestyle. I want to be an oasis of kindness and compassion and assistance, not another egoic entity needing others to see things my way. This is a work in progress – meaning I can’t claim perfection – but it’s one I undertake every day.


* Seriously. Maybe as a working class (or working-poor, depending on who you believe) family of four I should write more graphically about the bounced checks, the pile of collection-center bills, the many times I’ve been dissed for having kids in public spaces during normal business hours, the times we used water out the neighbor’s hose (with her permission!), what it was like unschooling while battling alcoholism and illness. No wait I have written about that, it’s called “my blog”!

** I’d love to see more on non-custodial unschooling and step-parent-as-primary-carer unschooling. Add in the comments who YOU’D like to hear from!

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