Dagny’s speech from the NE Unschooling Conference last May has finally hit the internet. Here it is:

Leap of Faith

I’m calling this The Leap of Faith because that’s what unschooling is.

If I asked any person in this room what they thought of sky diving you would probably say it would be exciting, but you certainly couldn’t deny you’d be kind of scared. That’s how I see unschooling. It’s scary and exciting and hard to get off your butt and just do it – but once you do it’s going to be one of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have.

Parenting should be a gift to you, not a curse. Parenting should be a beautiful and scary thing. Not a wrong and stressful thing. Our perspective as unschooled teenagers is so different from that of an adult or a younger person. We are at a halfway point with a lot of confusing things to figure out and what feels like not a lot of time to do it. Fortunately it’s slightly better, though certainly no easier or harder, to go through it as an unschooler as opposed to a formally schooled person. We have a trusting family base who are always there and knowledgeable and kind and supportive of us and our needs and wants from this life. Trust comes in many forms and I’ve found my parents’ trust in unschooling to be the most necessary part of the whole unschooling process.

I have had many conversations with unschoolers about people we know saying, “I unschool, except for math” and how what we really hear is “I unschool, but I don’t trust my child to learn what he needs to know, when he needs to know it”. Unschooling, no matter how natural or not it is to you, is a constant leap of faith. It always comes back to whether or not you’re going to trust yourself, your children, and your family as a whole, to hold hands and jump. Unschooling is about constantly adapting to the understanding that although the obvious, easy, mainstream answer is to say no, you’re going to learn to say yes, to say yes to deciding to trust your children’s ability to decide on their own what they need, and when they need it, and how they are going to get it. The ability to let go of a well-trained reaction to just say no doesn’t come easy. You can jump of the first cliff, but it’s parenthood, and there’re going to be ten dozen more even scarier jumps than your first. If unschooling were a tree divided into parts trust would be the trunk. It holds everything else, all of your other ideals and wants and opinions of unschooling, up. It is sturdy and un-swaying and most of all necessary. After all, without a trunk there is no tree.

John Holt said, “To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” You need to start reversing this curse; trust yourself and show your children that they can be trusted!

You might have noticed by now that unschooling is not the easy way out. It just Can Not truly be done halfway or with except-fors like math or bedtimes or diet.I have many sane, nice friends who I call “except-fors”. The big difference between my family as unschoolers, and their family as “unschoolers except for”, is that none of them have anything like the relationship I have with my parents.

I wish I could express to you how much I want these parents to realize that they could all change that one small thing, that whole trusting thing, and there would be communication between these people who feel they are from and in different worlds.

I have a friend who I visited and ate dinner with one night. Her parents would not let any of us have dessert until she and her sister had unloaded the dishwasher.She spent the whole time stalling and saying nasty things about her parents while they were in the other room yelling at her to hurry up, eating the dessert already themselves.

This is such a disrespectful way to communicate; they would never ever have even thought to speak that way to an adult. Did they create these humans to use as slaves to do work that was important to them, and not the kids?

Do you really want to spend more than half of the short time you have with your children arguing about who has to do what? Do you want for these people to despise you and disrespect you simply because you don’t trust and respect them? Or because you didn’t spend two extra minutes just asking them if they would help with the laundry, because it does need to be done? Is this really worth it?

As surprising as it may sound, you don’t have to waste away 18 or such years of your life in a living hell, just because that’s what everyone else is doing.

I have never been made to do a chore in my life, but I know a lot of people who have to do a certain number of chores each day. I do more than these un-trusted and/or disrespected friends ever forcibly do in a day without even realizing it.

For example, any day of the week I might wake up, see the dishwasher was clean, and very reasonably think “well, we need these dishes for breakfast, so I’ll put these away before I eat.” I have never been taught that having to get this done is a chore and, because it must happen everyday in order for us to eat off plates, a menial task. It needs to happen, so it gets done. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing it and more often than not someone else will notice the other putting away dishes alone and go help out. We end up having very pleasant conversations while getting this done and no one is any angrier for having done this task that is to us, because of the way have been raised, just a necessary and not unpleasant part of life.

People are so concerned that their kids could never learn that housework needs to get done without making them do it. They absolutely just don’t trust them to figure it out on their own when it becomes necessary for them. It seems that people decided that when their children move out, if their new place gets messy and it’s bothering them, they won’t have the ability to think “oh, this is bothering me, and I need to fix it” and that once that decision is reached, they won’t know HOW. That is ridiculous. It is so often that the younger generation is underestimated in this way, without ever giving them a fair chance to prove their parents wrong. I’m going to use my opportunity to be up here at this lectern as a chance to prove them wrong on their kids’ behalf. There is a group of questions commonly asked of unschooled teens such as myself that I’d like to answer today:

· What do you want to do with your life?

· What’s it like growing up unschooled?

· Do you have friends?

· What do you do all day?

The answers to these questions are as follows:

What do I want to do with my life? First of all, I have to back-sass this question and say that I’m doing it right now! I’m not waiting around for school to be over to have a life and/or go to college. However, that’s just not the answer people are really asking for with this question. If I were to answer it their way I would have to say that very honestly I just don’t know for sure, and I’m certainly not comfortable committing to something that I’m not over one hundred and ten percent positive of, just for the sake of going to college like everyone else.

I am constantly made aware by my parents that they will help me find resources for whatever I feel the urge to be doing at the time. I find that very important. For example, for the past few years my interests have been drawn to photography, so we asked around and met an unschooling mom – Hi, Karen! – who is also a professional photographer. She jumped on the idea of me following her around on shoots and I’ve been able to go on quite a few with her. I’ve learned so much already from Karen, from the technical aspects to how to make the people in front of the camera more relaxed, and I am incredibly grateful that she’s put the effort into helping me. I’ve considered this and am still considering this as a job option.

I am also very interested in dance of most every kind.I’ve been taking hip-hop for two years and I am currently looking into taking it more seriously with competitions and hopefully eventually becoming at least a semi-professional hip-hop or break dancer.

I am very interested in running a small business. I sell handmade bags and other accessories online and at these conferences.It feels really good to have made something that people will actually buy from me. I never get over the happiness it gives me to make someone else happy with something I made.

I really don’t know if I’ll ever be okay with committing to one thing, and that’s alright with me. I mean who really honestly wants to do the same thing day in and day out? I feel really lucky that I have the time and resources to really think about and carry out what I genuinely want to be doing. Knowing that has made me a more content human being. All of the things I have learned would not have been possible if my parents did not trust that I can and will figure out what I want and need to be doing when I need to do it. The fact that they have made it possible for me to find what I really truly love doing is in my eyes a huge advantage. If I love what I do, I’m going to be better at it than the people who are doing it just to work.

A friend and I were having a discussion about unschooling, and she said to me “But do you feel fulfilled? Because that’s what is most important.”

This well-schooled, college graduate, intelligent person went on to say that she’s got two steady jobs and a pretty good life but when she gets home every night she can’t really say to herself that she feels she’s getting anywhere, or that she is fulfilled. It felt really good to be able to confidently say that I do.

What’s it like growing up unschooled? Obviously, I’m still working on growing up some more…however, currently it’s been amazing, and confusing, and angering, and beautiful and inspiring to say the least.

Every day is an adventure. Every day I learn something new, or develop a better understanding for something else. I feel intelligent! I feel free and content and happy. I am confident that the way I am being raised is going to get me somewhere great in life, that I am already somewhere great.

I could go to college – it’s really not any harder for me than a traditionally schooled person. But I could also NOT go to college and still be fulfilled and live comfortably. I have so many options being unschooled and I’m so aware of them all, it’s so gratifying. This is true for me and for most every other unschooler I know. I certainly went through and still go through phases of self-doubt. But so does the rest of the world! It’s not because I’m unschooled, it’s because that’s life.

It’s really important that you understand that my family is not perfect. I really have never met a perfect family, unschooled or homeschooled or schooled. I know for a fact that a lot of people, having read my mom’s book, proceed to email her saying, “Well, that’s nice for you and all, but you just got lucky. My kid would never learn his multiplication tables if I didn’t make him! You got ‘easy’ kids.” I’m not sure how she answers these, but I do know everyone in my family’s initial reaction if we happen to hear about these emails. Generally it’s a very dignified snort or lots of giggles. I really don’t understand what people mean when they say your kids must be easy. What’s an easy kid? I’m pretty sure I’m not one.

I can promise you without a doubt that my family fights. We drive each other crazy just as much as you can expect of four people living under the same roof. Being unschooled and writing a book about it doesn’t mean that we find ourselves to be perfect in the slightest. That’s also not to say that we have the same sort of issues as your average family – but it’s all relative.

The good news is that the good stuff has always outweighed the bad. For example going to ice rinks during school hours is like owning your own rink. Doing errands without pushing through crowds of people is lovely. Having a consistent, and understanding, and trusting family is inspiring and wonderful.

Do I have friends? Not only do I have a huge community of friends who know and respect and love each other and me, they are all different than most school-peoples’ friends in a very important way – I know I’m going to have them forever. They aren’t going to betray my trust or go off and gossip about me. I can’t possibly explain to you what a nice feeling that is.To have a constant and ever growing open group of people full of love and respect for each other is a gift I certainly would not have if not for being unschooled and if not for these conferences, and Not Back to School Camp. In one whole school year of kindergarten, I made one good friend. In three days of a conference, I have many, many more than that. I may not have the mainstream’s idea of a friend, with the drama associated with school – but I have my idea of a friend, and many of them. My family likes and knows my friends. They trust me to pick good people to hang out with and I think I can say that they agree with my choices, whether or not it makes a difference to me what they think. In fact, though, it does make a difference. I trust their judgment of people just like they trust mine and because of this I would take into account anything they have to say about the people I hang out with.

A lot of my closest friends are here right now – mostly just to cause me embarrassment – I mean, to “SUPPORT” me -, but most of them helped make this speech what it is, and it would probably be super awful if not for their criticism. There is a lot of concern about unschoolers and a lack of socialization. Unless for some horrific reason the parent is keeping the child indoors against his or her will all of the time, this is near impossible.

We are out in the real world constantly. There are unschooling groups, classes, conferences, camps, neighbors…we meet people of every background and age and are respected by them, whether we’re 12 and our best friend is 16 or we’re both the same age. Age no longer matters, personality and maturity level matters. When I was 12 I came to this very hotel and met my best friends in the whole world. Only one of them is my age and the rest are all 3 or 4 years older than me. They treated me just as they would someone their own age because that was how old I acted. I was myself and myself just so happened to act 14 or 15. I’m chronologically 15 now and have 12 year old friends. Honestly I forget sometimes how old anyone is, and usually I don’t even know how old they are in the first place for a few months after I meet them. This is only possible because my parents were open-minded. They didn’t hear about these 16 year olds their daughter was with and think, “But they’re 16 and she’s 12 and that is not okay, and she can not hang out with them”, they wanted to meet them. They wanted to know who their daughter was with, reasonably enough, but they trusted my judgment. They knew from the start that I acted older than I was and these people made me happy and I am safe with them, and that was all that mattered.

What do I DO all day? The problem with answering this question is it changes everyday. I don’t have a curriculum. I live my life.

I do whatever I want would be the simplest answer, but most people respond by saying “If my child could do whatever she wanted all day, she wouldn’t even get dressed in the morning! My kid needs direction.”

We can and do make our own direction. Just because our idea of direction might not match up with what is “right” doesn’t mean it is “wrong”! People should do what makes them happy! If sitting with their computer on their lap all day writing a speech, makes them happy … then it’s right.

If running 5 miles a day, or taking a nap makes them happy … then it’s right.

If learning math, and having a curriculum makes THEM happy … it is right. But you have to leave that decision to them.

My days vary, from being on the computer on and off all day, looking up something in particular that I’m interested in or surfing random sites, to going into the city for a show with some friends, to doing errands and creating and just hanging out with people who make me happy. I do what I want. But from anything I do I learn something new, no matter how small. My parents know to trust that and I can hardly imagine what our relationship together would be like without their trusting me the way that they do.

A lot of people have said to me that I must be a special case. If I ask them, “Do you think I’m well-rounded?” their answer is generally, “Yes, but you got lucky.” They’re right! I did get lucky, but only in the sense that I’m lucky to be unschooled.

Every other unschooled child is lucky too and I am no better or worse than them. I also get, “But everyone else can’t be like you. What about the kids with ADD? Or dyslexia?” They say that people with these labels or the like need structure, and are incapable of determining that for themselves. My opinion is that those kids can benefit just as much from an unschooling environment as anyone else…..If anything, even more.

I’m certainly not trying to say that having a formal education is bad. Structure is good and fine, if that is what the person wants. It is not okay in the slightest to force another human being, no matter how much smaller they are than you, to go day in and day out to a place they do not want to be, to learn things they do not want to know. A big part of unschooling is whether or not you would “let” your child go to school if they so chose. If you still think that decision is yours to make, you’re not unschooling. Unschoolers do decide sometimes that that is what they want for them to be happy. Not often, but it does happen. Some people like it, or feel that they need it, and it’s important to understand that that’s okay. School, any sort of class or more formal education, is a perfectly fine thing when it’s in a safe, happy environment and the person going wants with all of their own heart to be there, without any guilt or peer pressure. Trusting your child when they want to go to school is just as important as trusting your child to want to be unschooled.

It is a common misconception that children just aren’t smart enough to decide they want to be smarter. I’m positive when people send their children to school they only think they are doing the right thing, and that the kids will thank them for it later. And maybe they will, but they’ve never been given a chance to know anything else, any other way of learning, so how can they be so sure? Unless they’re informed of their options it just plain isn’t possible. Many young people are completely unaware that they do not have to go to school. This is unfair. It’s crucial that the world learns to trust kids enough to let us decide what we want from this life and how we are going to get it. Children are second-class citizens and that has to change.

Recently I heard someone say that it’s all about the choices we make. This is a very true point, but who decided that parents were right to make them for another human being without any thought to their consent or opinion? Mainstream’s opinion of children, teenagers included, is that we are not human yet. We are un-trustable. No one asks why.

Once while renting paddle boats with my family and waiting for our boat, we were exploring the building and discovered a sign with boat rental prices posted on it. The sign stated something to the effect of “two PEOPLE and one CHILD – twenty dollars” We were stunned to discover people did not, in fact, become people until they were 13 and up. Who woulda guessed?

In the words of Janusz Korczak, “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals.” However, most of the world tends to disagree.

We are not people.

We are not capable of decision making, ideas worth having, being trusted.

A 7 year old is not capable of a maturity level beyond that which the system has deemed reasonable.

Teenagers are reckless, children are too innocent.

So much of society relies on these “facts” given to them by the experts, who decided they were the experts?

Who decided being an expert made you a trustable human being, suitable for making decisions based on a random (and non-existent) “average”?

If anything shouldn’t we think that the untainted mind of a child is more open and all knowing than anyone else’s? To me it is a truly sick thing for someone to decide the innocence of a child makes them a child, not a person.

A 13 year old trusted, respected teen, who is not afraid of his parents, who does not see them as authoritative figures but human beings just like him, is likely to get into less trouble – I myself am proof of this, this conference is proof of this – than a 13 year old teen with unreasonable rules and boundaries, authoritarian parents who are not open and understanding and trusting with them. Kindness, and trust, in action leads to love…love for each other and love for their world.

In the end, you’ve got one decision left for you and you alone to make. What is the meaning of life?

To rule over your children in a constant battle for power?


Or to trust, however crazy it may seem, in the judgment and equality of the people you put on this world?



8 thoughts on “

  1. Wow… it seems everyone has already beat me to the punch in saying this, but that was incredible! I so wish I could have heard it, but I’m extremely grateful to at least read it.Dagny, you are such a talented writer. I’m blown away.

  2. ohmigosh. wonderful. loverly!!i got the “that’s why i had kids” response from my mom when it came to cleaning…so i totally get that. and i think in a way i’m thankful for it because it’s one of the many things i had to rebel against on my list of things i would never do to my kids. LOL!it’s so exciting to watch/know unschooled kids! i love seeing so many amazing things that i know would be smooshed down if their parents were different/made different choices. samuel recently was talking to a lady that came knocking on our door, when she found out he liked to draw comics, she asked if he was going to be an artist when he grew up (bwaaaha). he just looked at her and smiled and said ‘i already am!’ oh how i love that confidence and self awareness. something i’m still trying to find as a ‘grown up.’thanks dagny for all your words!! thanks rue for sharing them!!

  3. WOW!! I wish I’d been there to hear this. I already thought you were amazing, Dagny…but this certainly reaffirmed it! Sending this off to Brenna to see. Can’t wait to see you all again!

  4. I’m so glad I found this! As an unschooling teen myself, I know just how wonderful unschooling can be, and this speech was written just beautifully! I would have loved to hear it, but as I’m in an isolated from other unschoolers areas, I’ve never been to a conference…Idzie

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