Taking Eric out of School

Eric, age 17, three years into unschooling
The recent piece on Good Morning America featuring a mom and dad who were unschooling their two kids, and the negative, rather than inquiring tone, that it was framed with, made me recall our own decision to let our son Eric unschool, rather than go to high school. I wrote a piece about it in January of 2009, “Unschooling Instead of High Schooling”, and I have reworked that piece below, based on additional thought, more feedback from Eric, and more water under the bridge…

We pulled Eric out of school in February 2000 at age 14 because it had become clear that he hated going to school every morning and had a profound incompatibility with the conventional instructional academic environment. We had been considering doing it for a while, and Eric’s mom had done a fair amount of research on homeschooling on the Internet. After pulling Eric out, which removed the most acute of his issues, Sally and I had tried initially to build a home curriculum that included the four standard academic areas – English, social studies, science and math. Eric, as it turns out, had other ideas.

Prior to our radical decision, we researched alternative schools in our area (which were all private) but we could not afford the tuition, which was comparable to sending a kid to college. Particularly because Eric was so burnt out and at his root such an “autodidact” (self-learner), we weren’t confident any academic environment would work for him at this point, particularly not now in the condition he was in.

Not quite really understanding yet that he was truly an autodidact, I initially thought I could build a better curriculum for him in the four standard subjects than the State of California could, then get him to follow it. Now that he could set his own schedule and not have to get up early every morning (with never enough sleep) and be dragged off to school, my wise, creative and cleaver 45-year-old mind could come up with a curriculum that would entice Eric to learn the things I put in front of him.

So for English, I suggested great sci-fi books for him to read. They were all ones I had read, so we could have discussions about the story, characters, and underlying issues of the human condition they addressed. For social studies, since he had an interest in 20th Century history, I looked for historical movies to rent (like “Doctor Zhivago” and “Shindler’s List”) and scanned the TV listings for applicable History Channel shows. Again, since I was pretty knowledgeable and interested in history, we could have great discussions about the themes and great figures. For science, which I was not so into myself and not as inspired; I bought him one of those computer programs at Costco that claimed to cover all of middle-school science.

Math was the biggest challenge! I knew he had become basically “math-phobic”, evidenced by several years of not doing any math homework and in utter frustration writing “F___ Math” on his eighth-grade state math assessment test as his one and only answer on the Scantron form ready for a large number of multiple-choice answers, rather than his single, definitive “short answer”. Again, the optimist in me thought that if I got him computer software that covered the math topics of algebra and geometry, and I made myself available as a tutor (since math had been my best subject in high school), that he would somehow do it.

Well… getting Eric out of the school environment did not change the fact that he wanted to learn what he was interested in, not what the State of California or his very cleaver and “esteemed parent” (as he sometimes addressed me when he had a favor to ask) thought he should and even might like to learn. Eric basically holed up in his room all day on his computer, playing computer games. It is what most parents think that their kids are intrinsically motivated to do rather than the much more worthwhile school work, lessons and other activities programmed for them. And now here was our kid, left to his own devices, doing just that, day in and day out.

So still not getting it, I would pester him to read, watch the historical movies I rented and spend just a half-hour each day on his math and science software. “Come on Eric!” I would say to him over and over, and he would look at me with that profound look he has and roll his eyes, then tell me he would try to do some work “a little later”. I tried at first to think up rewards for doing some math and science work, but he would always choose to forgo it and grudgingly forfeit the reward, reframing the withheld reward as a punishment. It seemed he would suffer any indignity to be able to make his own choices.

It did not take too long before I felt that I was just substituting myself for his teachers and principal trying to coax, coerce and cajole him to learn things he had not chosen to learn.

This was a very frustrating and anxiety-producing period for his mom and I. Was our son just going to hole up in his room for the rest of his life? Was he doomed to working at minimum wage jobs or being dependent of us? Had we totally failed as parents by not successfully practicing “tough love” (like Bill Cosby always adeptly managed to do on his sit-com) and force him to stay in school?

That all said… he did in fact read and enjoy the sci-fi books I suggested, watched with me a lot of those epic big-screen tellings of the tumultuous wars and other 20th Century events, and we had some of those great discussions I had imagined.

After starting to fight with him again every day about doing his schoolwork, like I had done before about homework when he was still going to school, I finally decided to give it up. We had pulled him out of school to avoid this adversarial relationship (with its constant confrontations, stress and stalemate) and not just change its venue.

Luckily, Sally in her Internet research had read about an unorthodox form of learner-directed homeschooling referred to as “unschooling”. It involved giving the kid an “enriched environment”, making suggestions and being available to facilitate, but essentially letting them pursue and learn what they wanted. She and I discussed it and we both had reservations. How would he learn what he needed to learn to eventually pass the high school equivalency test? How would he ever be able to go to college, and if not, how would he make a living? But what choice did we have, short of sending him off to some sort of “boot camp” type place if he resisted every other option?

Convinced that we lacked any other viable or affordable path, we finally decided to give it up, and we told Eric he could basically use his time as he saw fit. We would suggest things that we thought would be of interest to him and facilitate his access to the information and activities that were. When we laid out this new plan to him, I can just imagine him saying to himself, “Yeah, right”.

Sally had also read in her Internet research that kids transitioning from schooling to unschooling sometimes need a year or more to “deprogram”. And sure enough, during that first year of “unschooling”, Eric spent most of his time alone in his room with the door closed playing games on his computer, decompressing and deprogramming, and testing us to make sure we didn’t have other schemes in store to get him to learn what he was supposed to. Ten years later when I talk to him about that period, his memory of it is fuzzy.

Eric got to a point, somewhere in that transitional year, where he was complaining to us that he was bored, which initially scared us that maybe we had made a big mistake, and inspired us to again try to suggest “curriculum” for him, which he again resisted. But now I see it as an important threshold, when he realized that he was ultimately responsible for his path forward. When he was still in school he actively resisted “the man”, and at home initially it was more of a passive resistance to his parents’ curriculum. Finally it was just him, and his choice.

At my suggestion, he got involved in the Unitarian-Universalist high school youth YRUU program and met a lot of wonderful unique kids like himself. He also got deeply involved in several online youth communities on the Internet, even getting on the volunteer governance “Board” of one. He wrote a virtual play that was performed online by all the avatars of the people participating in this particular Dungeons & Dragons type fantasy community. He also participated in a yearly drama camp and made a circle of friends there as well.

Within three years of “opting out” Eric had built at least three circles of community – YRUU, drama/theater, and online gaming – where he had friends all over Southern California and literally all over the world. He rediscovered (or at least his parents rediscovered) that he was a very social person who was developing very acute social skills.

Through those years of unschooling, basically through the time when he would have otherwise graduated from high school, he got his feet back under him. He recovered his self-esteem and started to morph into one of the most charming, centered, caring, and well-spoken young persons you could ever care to meet. At the same time, our relationship with him was no longer adversarial and instead becoming one of mutual trust. It all happened slowly, but in the end it was pretty shocking. We gave Eric his space, gave him love, just a little bit of advice here and there and he somehow found his own way forward to blossom.

His young adult years have been no easy path forward for him, but then it has been no less of a challenge for his friends that have stayed in school. Eric has peers who graduated from four-year colleges who are working as baristas at Starbucks. In this very difficult economy we have had for the past couple years, it has been a tough slog for all young adults entering the workforce.

For a couple years Eric managed to get jobs as a video game tester in that burgeoning industry. If he had wanted to stick with it, he could have “moved up the ladder” and become a lead tester and then a testing team manager.

Two years ago, Eric pulled three other partners together and started a business called “Techies” setting up computer systems for video editing businesses in Hollywood and also repairing Apple computers. Eric was the Chief Operating Officer, handling all the personnel, logistical and financial issues, and was depended on to be the cool head that would hold the other partners (with the more “uber-geek” technical skills) together. Though I feel their business was well conceived and executed, after two years it succumbed to the tide of the “Great Recession”.

Ten years from the date we pulled him out of school in eighth grade, it is amazing how much he has developed and how far he has come. Though he has had much love and support from parents, grandparents, an extended family and a large circle of friends, he has been responsible for charting his own course and steering his own ship. And to continue the metaphor, there have been plenty of rough seas and dangerous shoals along the way. But he has made it through, and I now think I can finally exhale, and realize that this seemingly crazy unschooling idea really worked, at least for one kid, and probably would be a good path for others as well.

The whole experience turned Eric’s mom (my partner Sally) and I into supporters of unschooling, certainly a very unorthodox educational path and not for everyone, but one that works very well, particularly for kids who like to march to their own drum beat. While our son recovered his sense of self and took full responsibility for his path forward, we saw other strongly self-directed kids like Eric who were getting brutalized and beaten down trying to fit into the standard instructional routine of school. That said… there were plenty other of Eric’s peers who navigated those same schools quite well and went off to and graduated from various colleges and universities around the country.

But that path was not the one for Eric, and his mom and I are grateful we figured it out when we did, and did what we did. It was not pretty, but it seems to have been the right thing to do.

10 replies on “Taking Eric out of School”

  1. i really enjoyed your story. I have been unschooling for 6 years now, and I think that even after all that time, it’s a leap of faith to continue into high school. My daughter will be a “9th” grader next year and is choosing to take courses at the local community college, after exploring the idea of high school. I am always amazed at how much my kids learn with just a gentle nudge, or access to things that interest them. I have a budding cardiac surgeon and a budding fashion designer. Who knows what the younger two will be interested in!

    Thanks for sharing your journey 🙂

  2. Hi Coop,

    Great piece of work. It must have been hard dredging up the memories of those traumatic years.
    I would like to have read a bit more about Eric’s impressive language and oratory skills and knowledge of topics of current interest and, if possible, the mystery of how he acquired them.


  3. Kelly… thanks for your response! I guess for me it felt like the only path still available, but yes, a leap of faith that it would somehow be okay.

  4. Wow! I feel like I was reading a story about my own son who is 15. The unschooling journey started for us last October after years of agonizing attempts to “motivate” him to achieve his potential in school (and tears, meetings, phone calls, meeting with neuropsychologists, exploring other options, etc. etc. etc). It took a statement from his pediatrician (school is not for every one) and another family in the area who isalso unschooling to really make us think seriously about not “doing school”. Now, I wish we would have started unschooling sooner. Our son, when in preschool, said he did not like school. His standarized test scores were often off the charts and he received invitations to take ACT tests, attend camps, scholarships info, often and yet his performance in school steadily declined over the years to the point where it looked like repeating 8th grade was in the cards. I was encouraged reading your story . . . one of the things I struggle with most now is did we do the right thing for his future? He spends much of his time gaming online and talking with friends from around the world. The worries are plenty. Not many parents allow their children to choose this path, so there is not a great deal of reassurance out there. Your story reassured — thank you.

  5. Cheryl… thanks for the comment and it made my day that someone else felt reassured by our experience. If you read some of the other posts I wrote you’ll see that Eric has done very well for himself, and now at age 26 has a good job, a very nice steady girlfriend and a wonderful circle of supportive friends and is a great caring person to spend time with!

  6. [Found you through the Psychology Today comments section w/Kate Fridkis]

    Your son’s slacker-to-success story is a comfort. My tween-age son spends all his free time online. I have to legislate chores and exercise or I would rarely see him off his bed/the floor.

    We don’t unschool, but we’re not strict school/testing/evaluating either. I introduce things, but there’s no testing. I worry, however, that all his brain cells are devoted to Pokemon statistics and YouTube Let’s Play videos. Reading about a teen who dropped into life even later than my son, who still made “something” from his loves, lets me release some of this anxiety that I’m doing him harm by leaving him on his own so much.

  7. Jennifer… made my day that my sharing of my son’s story gives you comfort and hope. Beyond just sharing the angst to try to release it from my own psyche, it is so inspiring to hear it has meaning to other folks. If you are interested in continuing my son’s saga, read my “interview” with him regarding his own internal transformation during that period, “Becoming Your Genuine Self”, and his (and his younger sister’s) unschooling story in “Unschooling rather than Highschooling”, and the follow-up piece, “Un-college”.

  8. This is crazy just because your kid is having troubles in school doesn’t mean that you can pull him out why dint you just move to a different city?

  9. Two big reasons among others… One, we have a whole network of family and friends in Los Angeles. Two… schools in other cities were likely to have the same approach to education that was not working for our son Eric.

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