Defending Unschooling: 'It's Not Anything Goes'

Parents say radical education method is about principles and personal growth.

April 18, 2010, 11:43 PM

April 20, 2010— -- A couple who practice "radical unschooling" said their hands-off approach to education and child-rearing is about exploring the world and living on principles, and is not "anything goes."

Christine Yablonski and Phil Biegler appeared live on "Good Morning America" today to defend their controversial education method, which prompted an overwhelming response from viewers.

"There's a huge difference between having no rules and having arbitrary rules," Yablonski said. "We live in a world of principles. The principles of trust, honesty and respect. That's how we make all of our decisions. It's not anything goes. We are instilling proper values, good values in our children."

Yablonski and Biegler, from Westford, Mass., describe unschooling as living as if the school system doesn't exist. They don't homeschool their children -- they allow their teen daughter and son to decide what they want to learn, and when they want to learn it. There are no textbooks, no tests and no formal instruction.

After their story was featured on "GMA" Monday, viewers wrote in expressing everything from outrage to confusion to support, raising questions about the differences between homeschooling and unschooling, and how unschooled children could be prepared to function as adults.

Tarra from California wrote into the "GMA" Facebook page asking, "So who is going to hire these kids without a high school diploma or a GED? What are they going to do for income when they are adults?"

"There are already unschoolers who are already in college, graduated, in the working world," Yablonski responded. "This might be a new concept for a lot of people …[ but] it has been in existence for a while."

She also said that her children's "pursuit of whatever kind of higher education they want is going to be based on what their specific goals are in life."

Indeed, one viewer wrote that because of unschooling, her children were free to pursue and finish bachelor's degrees by the time they turned 20. Yablonski said that unschooled children "have absolutely been successful. They are holding jobs, raising their families ... they are productive, positive influences in their communities."

The couple disagreed with viewers who believed that unschooling limits the children's exposure to new things.

"We spend a significant amount of our time and energy making sure we're exposing the kids to all kinds of things," Biegler said. "We bring them to places, and we bring things to them. .. Their world is much, much larger and much broader."

Children as the 'Center of the Universe'

Out of an estimated 56 million schoolage children, about 1.5 million are homeschooled.

"Homeschooling is doing school at home. Purchasing a curriculum and administering it," explained Pat Farenga, the president of HOLT Associates. "Unschooling is following the interest of a child and helping them learn as they learned before they went to school."

At least 100,000 U.S. children are believed to be "unschooled" -- the term coined to describe the unorthodox approach to homeschooling that does not focus on formal classes, set curriculums or tests.

Many viewers expressed concern about the apparent lack of structure in the Biegler household. The children make their own decisions, and don't have chores or rules.

"We find that we don't need a whole lot of rules," Biegler said in the segment that aired Monday.

"They might watch television," Yablonski said. "They might play games on the computers."

"They might read," her husband added.

Most children will choose television over reading every time, but Yablonski said that "the key there is that you've got to trust your kids to ... find their own interests."

Kimberly in Ohio wondered, "How are these children expected to function in society as adults? They don't seem to have any structure or discipline."

Yablonski said, "There's an intrinsic structure" to their lives.

"If you look at a week or a month, there's absolutely a structure to what they're accomplishing," she said.

Ann Pleshette Murphy, parenting expert and "Good Morning America" contributor, questioned the unusual approach.

"This to me is putting way too much power in the hands of the kids, something that we know kids can often find anxiety-producing, and it's also sending a message that they're the center of the universe, which I do not think is healthy for children," she said.

Dr. Reef Karim, a psychiatrist, agrees.

"The whole concept of cooperating with your kid, it's kind of cool in theory," he said, "and if a child was a little adult I think it would be great, but he's a child."

Unschooling Father: 'They Will Do What They Need to Do'

This parenting style might raise some eyebrows, but in Massachusetts, it's legal. Unschooling parents in that state are required to report to local school authorities once a year. The Massachusetts Department of Education did not respond to calls and e-mails from ABC News seeking comment.

Homeschooling rules vary from state to state. Click here to see the home schooling rules in your state on the Home School Legal Defense Association Web site.

The Discovery Health cable TV channel chronicled the life of one young unschooling family, detailing a home in which the children faced no punishment, no judgment and no discipline.

"It's amazing when you broaden the scope of what you see as learning as opposed to worksheets," the mother said. "There is no hierarchy in our house, so there is no punishment, no judgment, no discipline. They get what they want for breakfast and eat whatever they want. It's all a matter of what feels right to them."

But what happens when the kids get older? Shaun Biegler, 13, last went to school when he was in the first grade.

He doesn't regret not attending anymore, but said, "I wonder what my life would be if I continued going to school. I was never really into some of the stuff that I had to learn in school."

He added that sports "haven't really been an interest of mine," but he also hasn't been exposed to many sports because he doesn't participate in a physical education class.

Shaun's sister, 15-year-old Kimi, doesn't even know what grade she'd have been in if she had remained in school, and doesn't feel prepared for college.

"I haven't done the traditional look at a textbook and learn about such-and-such," she said. "If I wanted to go to college, then I would pick up a textbook and learn."

Neither child has any plans for college, according to their father. When asked if he felt it was his responsibility to teach his children to do things that they don't want to do, he said, "they will do what they need to do, whether or not they enjoy it, because they see the purpose in it."

Though the children's father acknowledged they were growing up in a unique way, he said that "in all other aspects, they're … living in the mainstream."

"They have experiences and knowledge that other people don't," Yablonski said.

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