By the time my eldest son, Fin, turned six, the age at which he might reasonably have been expected to enter the public-education system, my wife, Penny, and I had long since determined that neither of our children (Fin’s brother, Rye, is three years younger) would darken a schoolhouse doorway. As if this wasn’t recalcitrant enough, we’d also decided to pursue a self-directed, curriculum-free educational style known as unschooling. This meant that at the age when most American children are busy memorizing the alphabet, our sons were running wild in the fields and forests surrounding our rural Vermont home, belt knives and bow drills at the ready. Like many of our contemporaries in the unschooling movement, we placed our faith in the freedom and trust that more-formal learning institutions are ill-equipped to provide. The result, we assumed, would be a degree of curiosity and resourcefulness that no school could equal.
I wrote about my family’s educational path in a 2014 essay for Outside called “We Don’t Need No Education,” and then in my book Home Grown. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the publication of our story, but I know I didn’t expect what I got. My inbox was flooded with e-mail from readers in at least as many countries as I have fingers, and I fielded calls from producers at the BBC, the National Geographic Channel, and CBS’s 60 Minutes, to name a few.
Obviously, I’d hit a nerve, one rubbed raw by a growing but still largely unspoken dissatisfaction with compulsory standardized learning, accompanied by a collective groping toward a satisfactory alternative. Could my family’s grand experiment be the answer, or at least part of it? Could my free-ranging sons really learn all they needed to survive and even thrive in an increasing complex and technology-driven world? Should Penny and I be revered or brought up on charges of negligence? I soon realized I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and quick as we could, we returned to living the quiet life we’d led before our brush with mainstream notoriety. This included the running of our small farm, the continuation of my freelance writing career, and yes, the unschooling of our two sons, by then 12 and 9.
Over the intervening years, I’ve been asked repeatedly for updates, and mostly demurred or answered in only the vaguest of terms. Partly this was due to an increased sense of protectionism around our boys during their blossoming adolescence, and partly it was rooted in my feeling that people were hungry for a particular type of affirmation that I could not provide: the assurance that despite their atypical education, my sons would prosper in the modern world.
I still cannot (nor do I care to) offer such affirmation. They are now only 16 and 13, still kids after all, albeit of an age when the oncoming headlights of adulthood loom large and the awareness of those new responsibilities can feel overwhelming. But then this is true of any child. Come to think of it, it’s true of most adults I know, including myself. As children, we tend to view adulthood as some sort of self-actualized plateau; as adults, we tend to view it as a double-loop roller coaster operated by a drunken carny.
I’ve learned a lot over the past four years, much of it informed by my sons. I’ve watched as Fin’s interest in music has become a driving force in his life, leading him to seek out an apprenticeship with a master guitar builder and, ultimately, to part-time enrollment in a public school with a unique student-led program that has them composing songs, booking gigs, touring, and recording. Fin loves the social opportunities school provides, along with the chance to immerse himself even more completely in music. And while it was initially difficult for Penny and me to see him walk through those doors, there is no denying that the life of my unschooled son is richer for the public-education system. Many times I have had to remind myself that just as I encourage others to challenge their assumptions regarding education, so too is it healthy to challenge my own.
Rye continues to be mostly unschooled, with just a bit of sit-down math thrown into the mix. He still spends the majority of his days in the woods. He remains a committed practitioner of traditional skills, as well as an avid hunter and trapper. (Indeed, the very morning I sat down to write this piece, I awoke at 3:30 A.M. to drive him to the field where he’d scouted wild turkeys the week before; four hours later, I picked him up, along with tomorrow night’s dinner.) His skills have evolved to the point where he now mentors younger children. He is saving for a truck, working part-time at dairy and vegetable farms and at a maple-sugaring operation down the road. I suspect that once he turns 16 and is granted a driver’s license, it won’t be long before we watch his taillights disappearing down our driveway. He talks of big-game hunting in Alaska and the allure of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range.
I want to make one thing clear: we never set out to rewild our children, at least to the extent that I understand rewilding to mean an emergence of body, mind, and spirit within the natural world. Truthfully, we sought only to provide them the opportunity to fully inhabit their childhoods and their learning, in whatever ways felt most enriching. The fact that much of this occurred in the woods had at least as much to do with geographic circumstances as it did with philosophy. This is not to say that we didn’t have hopes and aspirations for our sons; of course we did. And still do. They’re our children, after all.
But I’ve come to believe that modern parents too often do a poor job of distinguishing between responsibility and control. Which is to say, it is our responsibility to provide a base level of material, intellectual, and emotional support for our children, along with experiences that will enrich their lives. But we cannot control the outcome. Perhaps our children will develop into the capable, compassionate, and successful (however we define success) people we fervently want them to be. And perhaps, in ways that may be disappointing or flat-out painful, they will not. Almost certainly, their interests and lives will evolve in surprising and delightful ways.
With the passage of time, I have become increasingly aware of a particular sort of irony that runs rampant in the unschooling and rewilding communities, which are joined at the hip by an ethos of freedom and self-reliance. We choose a more liberated approach to our children’s upbringing at least partially out of a well-intentioned desire to ensure the development of specific qualities: curiosity and courage, resilience and resourcefulness. We want to instill a strong sense of place and a connection to something larger than themselves, something that helps them understand the world is not solely the domain of humankind.
In and of itself, this desire is not problematic; I doubt there’s a parent alive who doesn’t want their child to develop specific qualities. It’s when we link these qualities to a particular outcome that we begin to lose our way, that we conflate responsibility with control. I know that Penny and I have been guilty of this. Perhaps, in ways I don’t yet fully understand, we still are.
You can want all the freedom in the world for your children, and you can do your best to provide it. But what they do with it? That, my friend, is simply not up to you.
Ben Hewitt (@lazymillhillfarm) is the author of Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World.