Wild Child

For Quinn Eaker, a son of the radical "unschooling" movement, school's out forever

--Henry David Thoreau

This intensive parenting method required Lundgren to give up her own career. It was isolating. At first, the few homeschooling support groups she found were doing it "because Jesus told them to," Lundgren says. She'd rejected all dogma and felt little in common with them. So she started putting up flyers to find like-minded unschoolers. "Gradually, over a few years, we had many families," Lundgren says. "Now there are hundreds."

In fact, unschooling is the opposite of the approach taken by many homeschoolers, usually conservative Christians dismayed by the erosion of educational standards and pernicious cultural influences in public and private schools. Most homeschoolers attempt to offer a structured, back-to-basics curriculum in a disciplined environment. They are certainly not child-led (ever hear of Original Sin?), and their educational guru is not John Holt but James Dobson, the evangelical leader of Focus on the Family.

Quinn Eaker, with his mother Barb Lundgren in their Colleyville backyard, where he says he spent an idyllic childhood.
Mark Graham
Quinn Eaker, with his mother Barb Lundgren in their Colleyville backyard, where he says he spent an idyllic childhood.
An unschooling family: clockwise from bottom left, Steve Eaker, Brenna, Barb Lundgren, Ike and Quinn
Holly Kuper
An unschooling family: clockwise from bottom left, Steve Eaker, Brenna, Barb Lundgren, Ike and Quinn

While the groups overlap, generally unschoolers are more liberal and less motivated by religion. Some only unschool in early childhood. Others keep their children out of school until they are grown but seek out community college classes or other enrichment opportunities the child seems interested in. They say the benefits are close-knit families, children who are unafraid to say what they think and young adults who have confidence in their ability to learn anything.

"From a learning and education point of view, people gravitate to the things that make them feel good and the things they enjoy doing," Lundgren says. "That approach is radically different from what most people are taught."

But Holt's admonition to "trust the child" wasn't always easy to follow. Lundgren remembers one of her most challenging moments as an unschooling mom came when Quinn, barely a year old, pulled a butter knife out of the dishwasher, pointed it at his mother and went "bang-bang!"

Guns. Her baby was play-acting guns. If Lundgren believed in the child following his curiosity, should she buy him a toy weapon?

Lundgren had gone from a professional woman determined to make a lot of money to a whole-wheat, granola kind of mom who believed in the things espoused by Mothering magazine. No immunizations. Everyone slept in the family bed. Breastfeeding until the children weaned themselves.

"We weren't going to have TV or guns or sugar," Lundgren says with a laugh.

With her short-cropped hair and glasses, Lundgren could be a librarian or a drill sergeant. She's sitting at the kitchen table of her Colleyville home, which looks out on a pool surrounded by sculptures and a wooded backyard. She brews a cup of lavender tea and remembers, in a voice that is both calm and commanding, what it was like to step out in faith that the path she'd chosen would result in happy children with a lifelong enthusiasm for literature, learning and life.

Well, two out of three ain't bad.

Literacy has been vastly overrated as a measure of competence and success in the marketplace.

--John Taylor Gatto, author of The Underground History of American Education

Lundgren had been a straight-A student, though she never liked school. A voracious reader, after Quinn's birth she'd devoured books by Holt, such as his classics How Children Fail and How Children Learn, published in the '60s.

Holt, a fifth-grade teacher, described the dynamics in most classrooms that inhibit learning, like kids terrified to answer questions for fear they'll get something wrong and be humiliated. He pointed out that little children learn an enormous amount by age 5, sometimes teaching themselves to read. At traditional schools, that enthusiasm for learning is stomped into the ground by mediocre teachers, peer pressure and curricula centered on boring stuff they couldn't care less about learning. What they needed: parents who could guide their interests without imposing expectations. In such freedom, they'd learn what they needed to learn when they needed to learn it.

Holt's ideas coincided with the rise of America's counter-culture. "The Russians had beaten us to space," says Pat Farenga, president of Holt Associates. "There was a big push to reform the schools. The answers are always higher expectations, more testing." The current motto: "No child left behind."

After a rave review of his first book in The New York Times and an appearance on The Donahue Show, the soft-spoken Holt vaulted into celebrity. A reluctant guru, Holt in 1977 started Growing Without Schooling, a magazine for the new movement. He died 20 years ago, but 10 of his books are still in print, selling more now than when he was alive.

Holt's ideas inspired the back-to-the-earth crowd as well as conservative Christians, who started pulling their kids out of school. But in many states, including Texas, school district officials began telling parents to present their curriculum for approval or be prosecuted for violating compulsory attendance laws.

In 1986, not long after Lundgren and Eaker moved to Colleyville, Texas homeschoolers filed a class action lawsuit for the right to teach their kids at home. A year later, says Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition, state District Judge Charles Jay Murray in Harris County issued a ruling that remains the guideline today. As long as parents rely on a curriculum from any source that covers the basic educational goals of reading, spelling, grammar, math and good citizenship, and they pursue that in a bona fide manner, the home is considered a private school and thus exempt from the compulsory attendance statute. What is taught and when it is taught are completely up to the parents.

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