Bathrooms and trust

Bathroom business. It’s pretty basic stuff, a part of every human being’s daily life. When my eldest daughter, after years of homeschooling, enrolled in public high school, she had to deal with the restrictions placed on all students about their bathroom use.

By the time she was an upperclassman, I guess she was a little tired of it. For her video production class, her project was all about the bathroom. In it, she portrayed a student frantically raising her hand while “holding it,” being ignored by the teacher, then told by the teacher to wait, until finally being granted a hall pass. Change scene to student madly roaming the hallways in search of an unlocked bathroom, with the score from “Mission Impossible” playing tauntingly in the background. Finally, she finds an unlocked boys room, enters, and with great relief, does her business. Upon exit, she’s found out and chastised by the always-on-duty police officer, a touch my daughter particularly liked, since it was unplanned and authentic.

This piece of work didn’t make the teachers and administration rethink how young people might be feeling about they way they were controlling and regulating a basic, private human function. Instead, when the subject of her project became known, she was told not to go forward with it. She ignored that, and received a failing grade.

That story is in stark contrast with the philosophy of Shanna Peeples, a National Teacher of the Year award winner who says her most radical teaching practice had zilch to do with reading, math, history, science, or anything else resembling academics. It was all about the bathroom.

She describes it like this: “I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.”

For extending this basic respect to students, Peeples says her professional judgment, classroom management skills, and even her intelligence were questioned. Kudos to Peeples for disregarding those criticisms and going with her instinct to treat kids with compassion and respect.

Peeples also understands something fundamental about relationships. They’re built on trust. Extending respect and kindness builds trust, and trusting relationships between students and teachers can only benefit learning.

Teachers don’t need to stop at simply trusting kids with their bathroom business. Trusting their intelligence and competence would be nice, too.

It doesn’t surprise me that Peeples, as an award-winning teacher, respects her students. Other award-winning teachers I’ve read about or read writings by have the same attitude. John Taylor Gatto, Jaime Escalante, and Erin Gruwell come to mind. These teachers couldn’t be more different in their approaches, yet they have one major similarity. They all trusted, respected, and believed in their students.

Models of teachers respecting kids, paying attention to who they are, prioritizing relationship, and trusting their students are out there. The more all teachers learn from them, the better off their students will be.

‘Unschoolers’ launch day

Dear Readers,

My co-author Sophia Sayigh and I have been working on Unschoolers for a while and I’m delighted to announce that it’s available now.


Visit our website for various ways you can purchase the book in e-book and paperback formats. I hope you’ll consider spreading the word among your friends in conversation, on e-lists, or via social media.  Perhaps you’ll even feel moved to rate the book or write a review.

I welcome direct communication, too. Drop me a line and let me know what you think! Thanks, as always!

‘Good Housekeeping’ on unschooling

I grew up with Good Housekeeping. It was the one magazine my mother subscribed to, and since there wasn’t a lot of reading material around my house and I liked to read, I read it.

Perhaps my familiarity with the magazine’s style contributed to my lack of surprise about the article it just published about unschooling. The piece by Caroline Picard combines the tendency of the press to misunderstand and pass judgment on unschooling with the magazine’s smiley, Disney-like, and slightly sensational tone.

The latter is in play with the headline: My Kids Don’t “Do” School and I’m Okay With It.  The subhed is worse: Unschooling is an extreme form of homeschooling you never heard about. And yes, it’s totally legal.

Most readers of media (hopefully) know that in our digital world headlines are little more than click bait and thus are to be ignored, but “extreme”? Really?

Once we get into the text the reporter tries to educate readers about what unschooling is. “Back in 1977, educator John Holt coined the phrase to describe students who direct their own learning, whether it’s through hobbies, chores, work, travel and, yes, even TV and video games.”

Yes, gasp! Even TV and video games! Before we started homeschooling, my eldest spent a year at a public school kindergarten in a “good” school district and watched more Disney movies there than at home, where we got rid of our TV, but I digress with that irony. What strikes me about Picard’s definition is what’s missing from her list. Books were one of my children’s major learning tools, as they are for most unschoolers I know. The learning tools Picard does list are widely used by all people, not just unschoolers, but her failure to include books or anything else that society deems “educational” indicates that she, like so many others, believes that unschoolers make little use of materials that fall into that category, because the assumption, which couldn’t be further from the truth, is that kids would never choose those things.

Later in the article Picard cites a 2011 study which found that unschoolers between the ages of 5 and 10 scored below other students on academic achievement tests. I have no idea how my kids would have done on standardized tests when they were that small, nor do I care. The priorities of unschoolers are so far removed from whether they can excel on a standardized test at all, never mind when they are five to ten years old. Even the researchers acknowledge that little can be gleaned from their sample size of 12 unschoolers, and acknowledge that there is no way to know whether these kids would eventually catch up or surpass their peers in time.

Picard also trots out the old, tired beef about socialization. Schools don’t just teach “subjects,” she says. Developing social skills is important, too. Well, duh. Picard did, I assume, meet the kids she profiled in the article. She also talked to unschooled adult Nadia Sladkey, who is a nurse in a hospital, for goodness sake. She also interviewed Pat Farenga and learned that his three adult daughters all have full time jobs and earned varying levels of degrees. One would think any open-minded, inquisitive person might wonder, gee, these unschooled adults are all functioning in society, maybe socialization is something people get in lots of different ways, not just by going to school as a kid.

But, perhaps I complain too much. Picard does cite a 2014 survey revealing that 83% of unschoolers pursue higher education, and as Picard writes, “…yes, they did eventually get jobs.” Wow, what a relief. Even without a “common metric” to “judge objectively” how much they were learning, they did okay. I mean, that common metric guarantees that every kid who goes to school learns EVERYTHING they need to know to get into college, get good jobs, become contributing citizens, and be happy people, right?

Sarcasm aside, parents who choose to homeschool or unschool are just like other parents trying to do the best for their kids. The unschooling mom’s quote pulled out in big, bold letters (“I worry constantly that I’m ruining their lives”) seems damning in the article’s context, but I wager that any parent worth their salt has had the exact same thought at least once.

Which brings me to the theme of the article about unschooling I want to see, the one that, rather than harping on all the things that can go wrong because we’re so darn weird and “extreme,” finally sees us as regular people, more similar to our fellow parents who send their kids to public school, private school, charter school, or wherever than it might first appear. That’s a vantage point from which minds can open and begin to understand that differences aren’t threatening or bad, they’re just different. In a world where polarization and suspicion of the other are rampant, that would be welcome, indeed.


‘Unschoolers’ coming in March

I’ve been a homeschooler with an unschooling philosophy for 26 years. I’ve read a lot of great books on the subject, but it’s rare to encounter homeschoolers and unschoolers in fictiounschoolers-frontn. It’s even more rare to see our lives portrayed as anything other than extreme in one form or another. So, I, along with my longtime friend and colleague Sophia Sayigh, have thrown my hat into the ring. Together, we’ve written “Unschoolers,” a fictionalized portrayal of the lives of a group of homeschooling families. Release date is in March, mailing list open now at I look forward to comments and feedback!

Unschooling: they still don’t get it

Today I came across an article about homeschooling by  that lifted a quote of mine from last year’s Boston Magazine article. In talking about my kids I said:

“I wanted them to be in charge of their own education and decide what they were interested in, and not have someone else telling them what to do and what they were good at…”

My interview with the reporter was, like any good conversation, more complicated than an article could represent. I think she did a good job with the story, but conveying the complexity of homeschooling and especially unschooling is beyond the scope of a mere few pages.

I stand by my quote. It is still true, although my reasons for homeschooling, my experiences with it over almost three decades, and its meaning in the context of my life and the life of my family is ever evolving.

Yawar Baig seems to think that people, children included, can not make good choices without understanding the consequences of their actions. Consequences are a funny thing. How can one understand them when they’re only fully clear in hindsight? When I made the choice to homeschool my children, many around me warned of the dire consequences that could ensue. I alone couldn’t possibly provide my kids with a sufficient education, they might not get into college, they might become total weirdos.

The upside of fielding the concerns of others is that it can help one avoid problems that one hadn’t thought of oneself. I can’t say that was the case for me with homeschooling. Did my friends, family, and acquaintances really believe I didn’t think of these things? Conveying concerns through questions and then actually listening to the answers would have been nice, but it was rare. Mostly, it was judgments and assumptions and thinly veiled warnings along the lines of “you’re making a big mistake.”

Were there consequences to my choice to homeschool? Of course. Any action has consequences, and they’re often unforeseen, and they’re usually mixed. I, like most other parents I know, made a carefully thought-out choice about the education of my children. I continued to monitor that choice, modifying it when necessary.

But are kids capable of responsible choice? When Yawar Baig says choice can’t be left simply to subjective likes and dislikes, is there an implication that kids aren’t mature enough to make good choices about what they learn?

Unschooling, the form of homeschooling that I chose, says children can direct their own education. For unschoolers, the world is the “classroom.” Parents and other adults are guides. When they’re needed and wanted, there are teachers, because, as I wrote in another blog post, teachers are most effective when they’re chosen by the learner.

My quote from that Boston Magazine article meant that I wanted my kids to discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, and desires for themselves, rather than internalizing the idea that they were good or bad at something because a teacher said so. It meant that I wanted their sense of self worth to come more from within than without, from their own thoughts and pursuits and imagination and observations, not from the praise or grades dispensed by a standardized system.

Of course I know there are wonderful school teachers who enhance the lives of children every day. I had a few myself, but I wanted to do something different with my own family. I discovered that based on my oldest child’s experience in public kindergarten.

Like many parents, I came to homeschooling because of a dissatisfaction with school. My child wasn’t failing there; she was succeeding, and that is one of the very things that disturbed me. She was one of the smart ones, the good ones. She was without a doubt the teacher’s pet. She was proud of herself, but it was also clear that she wanted that status very badly and would do whatever it took to reach and retain it. She became, as Alfie Kohn might say, extrinsically motivated. Worse, she began adopting an attitude of superiority and looked down on other children in much the same way the teacher did, something I observed when I volunteered in the classroom.

There was the troublemaker who drove the teacher crazy, a five-year-old boy with an ADD diagnosis whose consistent punishment for being too loud and rowdy in the classroom was denial of recess. He would sit at the window, looking longingly at the other children playing, his inability to contain his disappointment often leading to more punishments that would be dispensed later.

There was the little boy who fell smack in the middle of the teacher’s intelligence rankings. Maybe that was why the teacher tried to tell him that the special object he brought in to share on show-and-tell day wasn’t what he imagined it was.

There was the little Middle Eastern girl who the teacher complained to me about for various reasons, including a bathroom accident the girl had. One day, after a gym class that parents were invited to observe, the kids were asked to line up at the drinking fountain. Being overanxious for a drink, the Middle Eastern girl ran ahead. So did my daughter. I reflexively thought to speak to my child about getting back in line, but before I could take a step, I watched as the teacher knelt down, wrapped her hands around the other girl’s shoulders, and exclaimed sternly, “You don’t do that!”, completely ignoring the fact that my daughter had also run ahead to the drinking fountain.

There was the sweet, shy, thumb-sucking girl. One day my daughter came home and said that the teacher had told that girl if she didn’t stop she would tie her hands behind her back. I approached the teacher the next day and said that although I assured my daughter her teacher would never do such a thing, my daughter had believed her. The teacher brushed it off and said she was only kidding. After I told the thumb-sucking girl’s mother about the incident, she told me she asked the teacher to refrain from mentioning her child’s thumb-sucking, but the teacher said she couldn’t do that because the thumb-sucking was disgusting. Weeks later, that same mother shrugged and said to me on the playground, “Public school. You give up so much control.”

No, I thought. I could not again leave my child every day with a person who played favorites, dispensed punishments on a regular basis, squashed a kid’s imagination, and thought a five-year-old in her care was disgusting. I would not give up that control.

Initially I thought I would move for a better public school, or somehow pay for a private school, but in the process of researching what to do, I learned about homeschooling. I read an article called “The Crisis of Compulsory Schooling” by John Taylor Gatto, and I knew that homeschooling would be my path. Although I came to it because of a dissatisfaction with my child’s school, I chose it because it made sense to me, and I wanted it for my family. In other words, it was a positive, not a negative, choice.

The unschooling part, the part that is integral to the issue of letting kids choose what they learn, that came later, although not too much later, after observing that the activities my daughter chose for herself were more fruitful and meaningful than any schoolwork I could assign.

Yawar Baig’s article isn’t the first time I’ve encountered skepticism after expressing my thoughts that children can learn and develop just fine by choosing and pursuing their own interests. Gracy Olmsted in the American Conservative referred to “my teaching philosophy (or lack thereof)” and said my comments in a Pacific Standard interview raised questions about whether children would “sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them…” She and I have radically different views of children, as I don’t believe they have predispositions toward laziness or ignorance, but her assumptions that older adults would be absent as coaches, sources of inspiration, or influencers of other kinds are just wrong.

My response to her was a post I called Unschooling: they just don’t get it. Yawar Baig’s article, although addressing homeschooling in general, gives me the same feeling. In fairness, unschooling is a pretty difficult concept to get without actually doing it, but it’s important that we keep talking so that one day, people look at homeschooling and unschooling as just another educational option.



On depriving kids of screens

“Deprive” is such a loaded word.

It came up this week in an online thread about technology, a long and winding discussion in response to a mom expressing concern about allowing her child unlimited screen time.

Many unschoolers feel that limiting screen time does not mesh with unschooling philosophy, and said so. I shared my own story, about limiting screens via lifestyle choices my husband and I made.

We don’t have a television. We made the decision to get rid of it when my son was nearly ten and my younger daughters weren’t born yet. We did have computers but back then they weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and my daughters didn’t gravitate to them.

They spent most of their time with books, music, art supplies, dress up, and the great outdoors. We read to them often, cooked together, went to the park, walked in the woods, biked around town. We took them to plays, concerts, outdoor festivals. They tagged along to our adult activities such as community meetings, my husband’s band rehearsals, and even my job.

Yesterday, under my comment describing our choice to limit screens in our lives, someone used the word “deprive.” Technology is the tool of our kids’ generation, and she wouldn’t want to deprive her child of that tool.

Did I bristle? Yes, indeed. When we are told we are depriving our children, it touches something deep in the parental psyche. Fortunately, this time it was a brief twinge. My kids are grown, and I’m past the point of caring all that much.

Despite not having been brought up with television, smart phones, or regular computer use as young children, my kids are quite comfortable with technology. By the time they were teens they acquired their own computers and smart phones, and had little trouble figuring out how to get what they wanted from them, which included, in my son’s case, building websites for his various pursuits.

When my kids were younger, it wasn’t uncommon to deal with judgment about our choice not to have television. My mother used the word “deprive.” Some unschoolers did, too. As homeschoolers, we were used to being judged. We felt good about our choices, but in a culture that scrutinizes parents and holds them responsible for how their kids “turn out,” insecurity is difficult to escape.

Which is one reason “deprive” is such a loaded word. It reeks of judgment, and goes right to vulnerabilities many parents feel, particularly those who are making unconventional choices. Homeschoolers and unschoolers tend to have strong opinions. I don’t exclude myself from that characterization, but sometimes I think the vociferous way those opinions can be expressed is, ironically, part of the defense mechanism we develop against being judged ourselves. We are, after all, “depriving” our children of one of the cornerstones of our society–school.

The result can be that homeschoolers and unschoolers spend as much time judging each other as society spends judging their choices, and that’s too bad, because what we need from each other is support.

Support is what helps empower people to create the lives they want. For us, that life was one without a plethora of screens, but our kids got other things. It wasn’t a matter of depriving–rather, to us, it was about giving. I’m sure that’s also what it’s about for the mom who wants to provide her kids with technology, and that’s just fine with me.

Unschooling is about trusting our kids’ innate ability to learn, but as anyone who’s done it knows, it’s also about finding what works for your family. The more we can support each other in that process, the better.



Unschooling: All you need is love

This week I attended a screening of Clara Bellar’s film Being and Becoming.

The movie portrays the filmmaker’s process of learning about unschooling in order to determine whether to choose it for her own family. It’s a personal journey that takes us to the United States, France, England, and Germany. One of the movie’s strengths is that it sticks to unschooling, inviting viewers to stretch their viewpoints about children and learning and entertain the possibilities unlocked by an unschooling lifestyle. Rather than turning to experts or talking heads, Bellar wisely focuses on unschoolers themselves, letting their voices, images, and stories speak. The exception is a brief but welcome appearance by John Taylor Gatto, whose passion and life force are as inspiring as ever.

We see children learning through play, engaging with the world, enmeshed in the lives of their families and communities. Among the voices is an adult unschooler talking about his childhood, his experiences as an unschooler, and his views about being in the world, which include the necessity of meaningful work. Not surprisingly, he’s fashioned an unconventional work life that allows him to pursue professional instrument making along with his other interests.

It was fun to encounter the group of British theater kids, a parallel experience with my own unschooling community, which also has a thriving Shakespeare troupe. The footage from an annual gathering of unschoolers in Europe reminded me of the camaraderie, learning, and connection that happened during our annual camping trips.

Most especially, I appreciated the film’s focus on relationships and human connection. It’s radical, indeed, to propose that children’s most vital needs beyond a roof and food are security and love within their families, and that those basic ingredients are not merely enough, but can be keys to a life in which learning is inevitable, joyful, and unstoppable.

It can also be radical to see unschooling as a feminist act, but we hear from women in the film that feel it’s so, strong women who’ve made the choice to unschool because they’ve prioritized well-being and joy. They unashamedly embrace that being with their children is a fulfilling choice. It’s also meaningful work that can exist alongside other pursuits. As we see in the movie, the unschooling lifestyle is a holistic one–families consist of individuals that live and learn together but also support each other’s individual interests. Hence, unschooled children can observe firsthand the work of their parents, much the way Bellar’s small son must have observed his mother engaging in the work of making “Being and Becoming.”

Freedom is a big buzzword when people talk about unschooling. It’s certainly mentioned often in this film, but the freedom it talks about is really a byproduct of the love shining through the whole movie–an unconditional love that acknowledges and celebrates each person’s individuality and genius, and that allows for “Being and Becoming” to happen every moment, for all of us.

On not teaching your kids to read

I was very glad the other day to discover an excellent essay by Carol Black in The Washington Post. Black is a visionary writer on education and learning, and deserves a large readership.

Black says, “…people today do not even know what children are actually like.They only know what children are like in schools.”

I remember having a similar revelation when my eldest daughter was about twelve. In response to a discussion on developmental issues, her pediatrician xeroxed a section of a book on child psychology for me to study. That night as I flipped through the pages and read all about what was “normal,” it couldn’t have been more clear to me that the “normal” that was being presented was based almost entirely on children who live the majority of their days inside a school building. Hence, it wasn’t particularly relevant for me or my children.

Black’s piece also got me thinking about my children’s experiences learning to read. My eldest spent a year in kindergarten before I decided to homeschool. As a socially oriented child, she wanted to please and impress the teacher, and was keenly aware of what would be necessary to reach a high status in the classroom (one of the many reasons, actually, I turned to homeschooling, but that’s another story).

Only one child in her class was reading, and this made him special. My daughter came home, sat herself down on the couch, and told me she wanted to read. “Okay,” I said, and proceeded to do my best to help her sound out words. She was pretty good at phonics at that point, and could sound out individual phonemes, but putting them together was another matter. We spent many painful hours in which she would try her hardest, reciting “c-uh,” “a,” “tuh,” but lacking whatever cognitive mechanism was required to merge those sounds into the word “cat.”

Eventually, of course, she learned to read. Did all the phonics hullabaloo facilitate it? I doubt it.

Not long after, my kids’ father and I got divorced, and off they went to school for a couple of years. My son entered a one/two classroom (first and second grade) in an alternative school full of earthy crunchy, liberal families. He hadn’t gone to kindergarten, and his reading ability was nonexistent.

Even in this progressive environment, the pressure the children felt to read in first grade was enormous. My son felt none of this. His teacher, who lamented the worries these six and seven year-olds already had about their abilities, would tell me what a wonderful example my son was for the rest of the class. “I can’t read, can somebody help me?” he would ask. His openness made him a target for ridicule, and his reading level, or lack thereof, made him a candidate for special time with the resource teacher.

During the summer between first and second grade, he forgot about school and played. One day in July, I walked into his room and he was reading Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

He went back to second grade, and in October his classroom teacher called to tell me he no longer needed time with the resource teacher. He had been tested, she told me, and was reading at a third grade level, with a fourth grade level of vocabulary. “What did you do?” she asked me.

What I did, of course, was nothing. The teacher didn’t believe me. It was inconceivable to her that my son could go from being so “behind” to being so “ahead” with no intervention.

But wait, some might argue, it was the hours he spent in school, and the time he had with the resource teacher, finally kicking in. Without that, maybe he wouldn’t have learned to read. Again, I doubt it (so did the teachers; the giant leap he took over the summer wasn’t something they typically saw in a child already identified as a late reader).

Later, I remarried and had two more daughters, neither of whom ever attended school. We visited the library regularly and read books to them often. They also spent many hours looking at books. Formal reading instruction? There was none. If you ask me how they learned to read, I would have to tell you honestly, I don’t know. They just did.

I know my kids are not special. I’ve observed many kids learn to read completely by themselves. As someone who’s been around children who were not subjected to forced reading instruction in school, the typical curve for reading that Black describes sounds exactly right to me. Some kids might read at age three or four, others might wait until they’re ten or eleven. When left alone to develop their reading skills naturally, the age is immaterial. In the long term, they will read equally well, and, as with walking and talking, no one will know or care how old they were when they started.

The repercussions that Black describes so eloquently of forcing children to learn to read before they’re ready, willing, and able are real.  “This is a choice,” she says. “In making it, we may be creating disabilities in kids who would have been fine if allowed to learn to read on their own developmental schedule.”

Fortunately, as homeschoolers, we have the option of choosing not to force, reward, or interfere with our children’s developmental schedule for reading.

Not back to school time, again

The nights are getting cooler, our first butternut squashes from the garden have been picked, apples are showing up at my local farmers’ market. Fall is coming, the season of mists and yellow fruitfulness, to quote John Keats.

It’s the season of the bittersweet, harvests of plenty, and the last gasps of beauty and fullness before the frost of winter. In our society, the season has been forever changed by the onset of school. Whatever we feel about school, the end of August is inextricably linked to it. As Dar Williams put it in song, The summer ends and we wonder who we are.

Who we are , is homeschoolers. For us, fall is not back to school time, as it has been for so many years.

Wait. Have I got that exactly right? My 19-year-old is going back to school, after all–to her sophomore year at college. My 17-year-old just went to the first of her three self-chosen community college classes last night, and will probably enroll in college next year, which makes this homeschooling year particularly bittersweet for me.

I’ve been involved in homeschooling for a quarter century. It was the way I chose to educate my own four children, but along the way I organized field trips, hosted potlucks, published newsletters (pre-internet), moderated my support group’s Yahoo list, helped found a statewide non-profit advocacy organization (Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts), and led writing workshops.

I still volunteer for AHEM, and I still lead writing workshops. I love working with kids in an environment with no curriculum frameworks, no grades, and no pressure to perform on standardized or other tests. Watching kids learn and grow in this way is a privilege and a blessing for which I’m ever grateful.

Homeschooling has changed radically since I first dipped my toes into the waters, in ways that make me wonder how my own homeschooling would play out if I were starting today. I hope that families are still discovering the value of that organic process of learning, and the rewards of kicking back and enjoying a slow homeschooling lifestyle.

I know I am.

Making our own kind of music

Every so often I hear people ask the question, how do you unschool music? How do you learn music without lessons or instruction?

First off, unschooling doesn’t mean you can’t have a teacher, use instructional materials, or undertake any other kind of traditional study. By the same token, those methods aren’t necessarily required to learn music. The trick is to foster appreciation for music, support whatever involvement in music your kids choose, and keep the joy and creativity in music making alive.

All four of my kids are musical in different ways. Kid one leaned toward the singer-songwriter world, number two embraces traditional folk, number three is a devoted jazz fan and vocalist, and number four likes classical best, although she also enjoys playing klezmer with her dad.

Below are some ideas for how to nurture musical intelligence in your kids.

Exposure First and foremost, expose your kids to many different kinds of music. There are plenty of excellent recordings made expressly for kids. By all means, enjoy them, but play other music, too. As young children my kids loved Bob Dylan, Beethoven, The Beatles, Queen, other more obscure bands, and many kinds of ethnic music. Don’t just listen to music around the house, go hear live music, too. I really can’t overestimate the importance of exposure to music. My daughter is a perfect example. Our kids regularly attended classical, folk, and world music concerts, but we didn’t go hear jazz very often, or listen to it much at home. That all changed when somehow, Ella Fitzgerald found her way onto the family mp3 player when my daughter was 11. She fell in immediate, absolute, obsessive love. Within months she had listened to and learned Ella’s entire canon, mostly by taking her CDs out of the library, and today is an accomplished, primarily self-taught jazz vocalist.

Modeling If you want your kids to learn about and love music, do it yourself. My husband is a musician, so our kids witnessed the joys of making music on a regular basis, as well as the necessity of practice. I’m an amateur singer and the kids listened to me practice choral music they later heard in performance. Even if you don’t want to pick up an instrument or sing, you can still model music appreciation through listening and enjoying music yourself.

Make music together Since learning to listen is one of the most important aspects of making music, this is pretty important. One of the things our family did when the kids were little was sing in an inter-generational chorus. We also performed in inter-generational theatrical productions. If those kinds of commitments are more than you can handle, try seeking out (or organizing) low-key events like sing-a-longs, or folk, blues, or jazz jams. If classical music appeals, there’s plenty of simple chamber music your kids can try with you or some friends. Ditto for rock and roll.

Find mentors No matter the undertaking, whenever my kids felt passionate about something, they found a mentor. With music, there’s no reason that person can’t be a teacher, especially if your child asks for lessons. All our kids took lessons on various instruments at one point or another, and were free to quit if their interest waned. Sometimes mentors are more like idols–masters your kids might never meet but nevertheless become huge influences, much like Ella Fitzgerald was for my daughter. My son found some of his musical heroes on YouTube, mandolin players like Chris Thiele and singers like Tony Cuffe.

A word about practice This is a controversial subject, especially for unschoolers who might feel that “making” their kids practice is anathema. Because our family takes financial commitments like music lessons seriously, and because my husband, as a musician and music teacher himself, understands the vital role of practice in playing music, we did require our kids to practice as long as we were paying for music lessons they wanted. This doesn’t have to be a rigid endeavor. Since the lessons were chosen by the kids, practicing mostly happened naturally, but if it didn’t, we discussed the issue and negotiated agreements that worked for all. How practice works is going to look different in every family, but the key thing is to not squash a love of music by forcing the issue.

Resources Make instruments readily accessible to the extent it’s possible. If you can get your hands on a piano, guitar, or any other instrument, have them in your home. Inexpensive wind instruments like recorders or penny whistles are great to have around, and easy to play. Don’t discount percussion–rhythm is a huge part of music, and real or makeshift drums can be loads of fun. Whatever instruments you collect, let your kids experiment with them freely. Make CDs, records, downloaded music, or whatever technology you use to listen to music accessible, and offer a wide variety of music. When you go to the library, check out music in addition to books. Be musically curious, open-minded, and experimental, and most likely, your kids will be, too.

Have ideas or stories about unschooling music? Please share them in the comments section!