Wild Child

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

Upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in 1994, Murray's opinion gave virtual carte blanche to homeschooling parents. Since the Texas Legislature has never defined private schools by statute, homeschoolers are protected from government interference.

After Murray's 1987 ruling, the number of kids learning at home exploded. Lambert estimates that today there are about 300,000 homeschooled students in Texas--about the same number as in traditional private schools. Nobody knows for sure, because they don't have to register or be tested.

Critics have tried to link homeschooling with child neglect and abuse. "We point out that the vast, vast majority of kids abused or killed by their parents are in the public schools," Lambert says, but concedes "there are probably some folks who homeschool who are just as unqualified as some teachers out there."

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

Lundgren sees no downside to unschooling. "I think there are unschoolers out there where the kids aren't benefiting too much, but it's a mysterious process," she says. "I do believe the intelligence and drive unique to the human species is powerful, and the unschooled child will always gravitate to the things he's interested in. Even a dysfunctional family is able to see that."

Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.

--Fran Lebowitz

Lundgren believed her children came out of the womb with the intelligence and ability to express themselves, and her role was to listen to them.

"It's all about following the child's lead and not treating him like something that needs to be molded and shaped in my image," she says. "I think that from a learning and education point of view, you always gravitate toward the things that make you feel good and the things you enjoy doing."

So when Quinn persisted in "bang-bang," Lundgren bought him a squirt gun. He and his siblings, Brenna, now 20, and Ike, 16, spent their early years in the backyard waging battles with fake guns and swinging homemade swords. They had pets and gardens. They watched the weather and cooked meals, learning math by measuring out ingredients. They peered under rocks and caught turtles.

"There's a huge amount of natural science that comes in the life of a normal person," Lundgren says.

When Quinn turned 5, Lundgren bought some workbooks and sat him down for home "kindergarten." Quinn looked at his mom in bewilderment. "Up until that point, his life had been an organic diverse exploration of all things that were of interest to him and us," Lundgren says. They went to the library and took frequent field trips. She thought, "Why am I sitting him down with books matching shapes and checking boxes while he's out in the real world building forts?"

She chucked the workbooks, but when Lundgren noticed her children becoming intrigued with something--bugs, dinosaurs, mummies--books on those subjects would appear. They'd be off to the natural history museum or Fossil Rim Wildlife Center with a butterfly net. It required attentive listening.

Early on, Lundgren assumed her children would love the same things she did, especially books. But Quinn and Brenna didn't learn to read until they were 9. Though he could understand instructions for computer games, Ike was 14 before he got serious about learning to read. (Ike declined to be interviewed.)

Lundgren admits that provoked concern. "Just because your kids are home with you, it doesn't mean there isn't a lot of anxiety," she says. "I never tried to put any pressure on them to read. I think they learned how to read many times before their brains were able to keep up with it."

For Lundgren, it was an article of faith that--properly facilitated--each of her children would learn what he or she needed to learn. The gate in their brains would swing open. But as much as Lundgren loves the canon, those Great Books that form the basis of most classical education in the Western world, her three children simply weren't interested. "It's tough to get a kid to gravitate naturally to that," she admits.

Who wants to read Dante when he can play Doom?

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.

--Oscar Wilde

Quinn gets a dreamy look in his eyes when he talks about the early days--the closeness he shared with his siblings and his best friend down the street, the day-long games of make-believe uninterrupted by "musts" or "shoulds" or "have-tos."

And always the gentle influence of his mom.

"She would expose us to a lot of things and make opportunities available without making it seem as if she wanted us to do it," Quinn says. "Her philosophy was if you didn't want to learn it, it's not worth learning."

But that philosophy provoked some anxiety. Lundgren kept waiting for Quinn to express interest in reading on his own, but it never came. He remembers learning to read at age 9 only because it was "coaxed."

"My mother bought us a reading program and nudged us," Quinn says. He didn't start picking up books on his own until age 12, when he read his way through Lord of the Rings. "My life was so full," Quinn says. "All we did all day was play." He and his brother would often stay up until 5 a.m. playing videogames.

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