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Homeschooling Goals – Unschooling

As I mentioned in an earlier post on homeschooling goals, many times we homeschoolers are guilty of being sluggish in our thinking, too quickly adopting goals as our own when we haven’t compared them against Scripture. Often we make goals by reading popular books or by “going with our gut,” even when God’s Word says that our hearts can very easily deceive us (Jeremiah 17:9).

Today I want to start examining some common (yet questionable) homeschooling goals, to see how well they match up with Scripture. I wanted to cover this in just one blog post, so we could get on to proposing some worthy goals to consider — but it’s just not going to happen! This is just TOO BIG of a subject! So will you bear with me over the next few weeks?

Goals are important because they help us figure out our methods. In other words, when I’ve figured out why I believe I should be teaching my children at home, I can then figure out how to teach them at home.

Many authors will tell you that how to teach your children is an individual choice, based upon your individual personality. Of course this is sometimes true. Not always, though.

I’ve been thinking about it. Choosing a math curriculum, for instance, often comes from my worldview. Do I believe my children will learn better through hands-on discovery or through memorization and drill (or maybe a combination of the two)? My beliefs about method are based on my reasons for homeschooling in the first place.

One of the most aggravating things about homeschooling is choosing curriculum (and paying a lot of money for it), only to discover that it doesn’t fit our family. Why doesn’t it fit? Sometimes it’s just a practical reason (designed for one child while I have seven children, for instance), but more often it’s a philosophical reason. It can be very liberating to finally get a handle on why I do what I do.

Let’s examine some common homeschooling approaches, realizing that these are stereotypes and won’t perfectly describe everyone who subscribes to these views. Today we’ll tackle unschooling, then in the weeks to come we’ll look at the ideas of Charlotte Mason, classical education, literature-based learning, school-at-home methods, and reformed theology. (Whew!)


“Unschooling” usually comes from the writings of John Holt, who wrote How Children Learn in 1966. Unschooling can be a dramatic lifestyle where a child is given free reign in all his choices, or it can be tempered with the guidance of loving parents as they help their children make decisions. Variations are sometimes known as delight-based learning, child-led learning, or self-directed learning. Obviously, there is a lot of variety here.

John Holt, for instance, believed that children are born with an incredible capacity for figuring things out for themselves. This is true, and it is true simply because we are created in the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:27). However, John Holt didn’t believe that we are created, so he tends to forget that children are also born with a desire to seek their own satisfaction and even evil desires. In other words, we are all sinners.

In his book, Teach Your Own, John Holt quotes from The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff (another book which blatantly ignores a Creator God) and then says,

As Liedloff shows, children so reared [according to the Continuum Concept, meaning as children have supposedly been “reared in the ‘continuum’ of the human biological experience, i.e., as ‘primitive’ mothers bear and rear their babies, and probably always have through all the millions of years of human existence”] very quickly notice what people are doing around them, and want to join in and take part as soon and as far as their powers permit. No one has to do anything in order to “socialize” the children, or make them take part in the life of the group.  They are born social, it is their nature… No continuum culture expects children to be bad as a matter of course, to misbehave, to make trouble, to refuse to help, to destroy things, and cause pain to others, and in cultures with long traditions of child-rearing these common (to us) forms of child behavior are virtually unknown…

In short, the problem children of the affluent Western world are as much a product of our culture as our automobiles (pp. 81, 82-83).

Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying that children are basically good and are only corrupted because of their environment. Note that the environment he feels is the worst for a child is an “affluent Western” environment, which is a subtle poke at Christianity, the religion of the Western world, which teaches that children are born with a sin nature.

There are grains of truth in his words. Children do have an incredible capability and desire to learn, which the Bible teaches was placed there by our Creator. Children do want to join in with what the people around them are doing, which is vitally important for us to remember as we approve of companions for our children. Children are products of their cultures, which is why it’s so important for us to provide them with a godly home and rich learning environment. Finally, Western “Christianity” has historically taught as many perversions of the truth of God’s Word as evolution has, and it’s only honest to admit this.

But the fatal flaw behind John Holt’s words is that children are somehow good and capable of amazing potential if only they are provided with a good environment. Simply provide your child with a good environment, and he will turn out fine. In fact, he’ll turn out more than fine. He’ll achieve everything that our species is capable of and possibly even advance our evolution. Sadly, this is in great conflict with what the Bible teaches.

Unschoolers have a reputation for being “rebels against society” and having wild, disorganized homes, never paying attention to time or fitting in well with culture. This doesn’t seem fair, does it? I know some families that choose to “unschool,” yet the parents are incredibly vested in the positive outcome and best interest of their children. Yet sometimes the criticism is true. The danger is that the happiness of the child can become more important than the holiness of the child.

Many of the methods that unschoolers use are perfectly legitimate and have their place. I only have argument with the underlying philosophy. I believe that God’s Word says that we are born with a sin nature and that it is the parents’ responsibility to place certain information — God’s Laws — into the hearts of our children.

Delight-based learning often gets lumped in with unschooling, yet I believe it’s perfectly fine to allow our children’s God-given abilities and personalities to thrive within our homes. If God has given your child a natural affinity for music, for instance, I believe it is good to cultivate that desire for God’s kingdom. However, I also believe that sometimes our children just don’t naturally delight in anything that is hard work or takes away from play time. Sometimes we mothers have to tell our children what to do, when to do it, and why. I don’t think that John Holt would disagree with me, by the way. Again, I don’t argue with the some of the methods but rather with the underlying philosophy.

So here’s what to watch out for when reading books about education by secular authors.

  • Does the author believe we were created by God in six literal days as Genesis 1 teaches, or does the author believe that we evolved from lower forms of animals over millions of years? This is a huge warning sign!
  • Does the author believe that children are born good and corrupted by their environment, or does the author believe that children have a sin nature?
  • Does the author believe that children will usually make wise choices or that they are naturally “wise in their own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7, Proverbs 12:15, Isaiah 5:2)?
  • Does the author believe that there is no end to what a human can achieve in his own power?

Some verses to ponder:

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles… They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:21-23, 25).

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).

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  1. Anne, I like this post, but I have to say I think you missed the point John Holt was trying to make. I don’t think he was poking at Christianity at all, but rather at our cultural lack of formal “child rearing”. If you look back at the quote you posted, he says that the unruly behavior that is so common in western culture is “virtually unknown” in cultures that have a tradition of child rearing. That evidence should actually encourage the christian home that seeks to establish the authority of God as the basis for child rearing. I know, sadly, though that my own children often fall prey to at least some of the undesirable traits Holt mentioned. I think we need to take his perspective as encouragement to re-establish and/or maintain godly discipline in our homes. Knowing the authors spiritual bias is important, but I am not sure I agree with your conclusion of what he was attacking in that particular quote. Western culture today is far removed from what I would call “Christian” anymore.

  2. Well said Sharolyn. I have always looked at John Holt as one who appreciates the Hebraic life without realizing it.

  3. Anne Elliott says

    What I’ve done poorly is communicate what the Continuum Concept is and its implications. Basically, it is a belief in the existential view of the “noble savage.” The noble savage is primitive and unhindered by the trappings of change and modernization. It is a belief that man was better off living like primitive aboriginals instead of obeying God’s command to “have dominion over and fill the earth.” They believe that the lifestyles of “cavemen” (early humans or aboriginal peoples) were more humane, less violent, and not as war-like with each other. It is culture, art, modernization, order, structure, and government that stifles the growth and goodness of our children. If we could only get rid of rules, order and structure, goodness in our children would return.

    His idea of peaceful, happy children running around, growing in their knowledge of the world while smiling, peaceful parents are looking on is a wonderful, beautiful idea. But it is a dream.

    Holt’s premise begins with a belief that a child is a blank slate. They are inherently desirous of doing good, of learning well, of seeking peace. If you leave the child alone, he will choose to do what is good, right, and for the betterment of all. John Holt writes that “no continuum culture EXPECTS children to be bad as a matter of course.” In this phrase he is saying several things:

    1. That modern culture (which has a basis in the Judeo-Christian ethic) is wrong. It “expects” children to be bad.
    2. That this view (which comes from the Bible and teaches that children have a sin nature) sets a low expectation of children, which then means they will rise no higher, and it leads to negative behavior.
    3. The continuum culture is better that what the Bible says about raising children and therefore is better than what God says about children.

    The Bible says children are born with a sin nature. Instead of trying to do good they will desire self-centeredness, pride, and personal fulfillment at the expense of others. Adam & Eve lived in a garden where everything was “very good” yet they sinned in rebellion against God. The “good” environment did nothing to keep them good. With the deception of Satan, Adam and Eve did not choose right, but chose to go against God and His rule. Since then, the Bible teaches that things have and will continue to get worse and worse, because of sin, until Jesus returns. Therefore, God gives rules, structure, and order to His world, and the institutions He has set up (marriage, parenting, church, government) help us “train” our children to be obedient to this structure.

    A lack of structure does not lead to a greater good as Holt proclaims. Instead it leads to disease, war, famine, dictatorships, and ultimately death. We do not need to look far around our world to see this.

    John Holt’s ideas can sound good, but when his premise is based on evolution, a view that opposes God, it is impossible for his ideas to lead to godliness. It seems that they often lead to a frantic search for creating just the right environment, and many moms feel very discouraged and wonder why they don’t have peace in THEIR homes, when they’ve tried from the beginning to show love, to create an excellent learning environment, and to treat their children with respect. These things are all important, but there is more to good parenting than just this.

  4. Sharolyn wrote:

    “Knowing the authors spiritual bias is important, but I am not sure I agree with your conclusion of what he was attacking in that particular quote.”


    “Western culture today is far removed from what I would call “Christian” anymore.”

    I agree with your initial thoughts regarding that John Holt was probably not intending for the words “Western Culture” to be synonymous with Christiandom. However, one thing you seemed to forget in the last sentence quoted above is that John Holt wrote those words in 1966 when Western Culture was far more “Christian” than it is today.

    Ann Elliot wrote:

    “The Bible says children are born with a sin nature. Instead of trying to do good they will desire self-centeredness, pride, and personal fulfillment at the expense of others. Adam & Eve lived in a garden where everything was “very good” yet they sinned in rebellion against God. The “good” environment did nothing to keep them good. With the deception of Satan, Adam and Eve did not choose right, but chose to go against God and His rule. Since then, the Bible teaches that things have and will continue to get worse and worse, because of sin, until Jesus returns. Therefore, God gives rules, structure, and order to His world, and the institutions He has set up (marriage, parenting, church, government) help us “train” our children to be obedient to this structure.”

    Ann, you hit the nail on the head with the above quoted paragraph. If Adam and Eve could not remain good in the perfect world that God created for them in the Garden of Eden, then certainly our children who are Adam’s descendants cannot remain good unless we instruct them in righteousness, just as the Bible tells us to do (train up a child in the way he/she should go).

    If it were possible for our children to become good just by environmental influence alone then all the Donald Trumps of the world would be inherently good because of their wealth offering them the best environment possible. If environment or wealth were the only way to reaching “goodness” then the resulting ideology would be that there would be no need for a savior in Jesus Christ. The idea that children can become good based on their own merit, or based on a nearly perfect environmental influence alone is preposterous, and according to the Bible is the message of the Antichrist.

    Read the scriptures below in your own favorite version of the Bible. These are quoted from

    1 John 2:22 (NIV):
    Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son.

    1 John 4:3 (NIV):
    …but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

    2 John 1:7 (NIV):
    Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Anne. I have never read John Holt and simply had your quote to go on. In light of the new information his quote seems contradictory to me, then. It seemed to me that he was stating that a society without rules, without a “tradition for child rearing” created a lawless child. I agree with you, Ann, that biblical principles, when applied obediently and faithfully, work. Sorry for any confusion!

  6. Re- reading the quote in the context of what you shared shed slight on it for me now. I see that he was focusing on the belief that children are inherently sinful as being the point of downfall . . . and yet he still seems to contradict himself if he is sighting culture with “child rearing traditions” not having the behavioral issues that he states are common in western culture. If he is indeed stating that those behaviors exist simply because a Judeo-Christian belief (or as he stated, expectation) that children are inherently sinful, then again he is contradicting himself . . . unless his definition of a “child rearing tradition” is simply to provide a perfect environment In which to raise them. It seemed to me that he was advocating the need for structure and rules . . . not advocating against them. It also seemed to me that he was targeting western culture, that even in the 60s would’ve been less God honoring than God truly deserves. It seems to me that John Holt is the one missing the point if he feels that the belief in original sin is the root of our problem rather than sin itself. Thanks for the clarification, Ann.

  7. Anne Elliott says

    I just wanted to thank you for being so gracious! I was really nervous before writing this blog post, that it would turn into a giant debate, yet no one would really “hear.” That’s the last thing I wanted, because arguing serves no purpose. Your questions showed me where I wasn’t making sense, and helped me try to say it a little more clearly. I really appreciate your input and especially your Christ-like attitude.
    Many hugs,

  8. Anne Elliott says

    Dee, thank you so much for your comments this weekend also. I have the best blogging friends in the world. 🙂

  9. Like a lot of books about homeschooling, Holt’s books have something to offer us, to think about, to ponder. But just because it’s “good” or “ok” doesn’t mean it’s best — only the Bible is best, though our culture doesn’t often appreciate it and seems to look for different answers in more trendy media.

    Well said anyway, Anne. Your quote in your other blog about “whatever is true, noble,” etc, can be applied here brilliantly.

    Further, it’s going to help me at the moment: God has been screaming at me to de-clutter, and using scripture as basis should make it easier to throw the Holt out!

  10. Anne, I think you are quite brave to try and address this topic. I have not thoroughly researched un-schooling because it did not appeal to me personally. So I was reading many of these ideas for the first time. In all things we must read carefully – sometimes there is just enough truth to make lies very believable. I have tried to teach my children to read carefully and study the intent and belief behind the words because often words at face value are very difficult to discern (This is often difficult for me, too). The Bible must indeed be our guiding light as we pray and seek to understand God’s plan for our lives. I am looking forward to more in this series.
    Blessings –

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