Unschooling: then and now

When my mom was a Kindergarten-aged child in the late 1940s, she regularly skipped class.

No one kept attendance, it seems. Or if they did it wasn’t as rigid as it is today with automated phone calls and amber alerts all over media…

For added perspective: try to imagine a small city in Switzerland, near the metropolitan city of Zürich, during the late 1940s and early 1950s…kids in general were not really parented in the way that we do it today.

I think most of us know this. 🙂

So anyway, here is my mom as a child, with long, brown braids, marching off to Kindergarten every morning while her mom tended to several younger girls at home.

Except, on some days, my mom didn’t go to Kindergarten at all. Just decided it was much more interesting to hang around anywhere else. 😉

I don’t know where her Kindergarten was located but I grew up in that neighbourhood too. The house my mom grew up in I knew as my grandmother’s house and it is still in the family today. My aunt, my mom’s youngest sister, now lives there.

The house is located very close to the train station. Just a few walking minutes away.

The train station, like all train stations in Switzerland, had a big clock.

The Swiss 🇨🇭 take their on-time performance very seriously. 🕛🕒🕢🕘

So. There’s my mom, age 5 or 6, wandering around the town, and intrigued by all the things around her. There’s shops and office buildings, apartments and houses with flower gardens, there’s little kiosks with candy and cigarettes for sale, there’s the train station with the bike racks and the bus stops, and there’s lots and lots of people coming and going.

Paradise for a small child. A small, unsupervised child.

I don’t know what she did when she was supposed to be in class, but I do know this: my mom taught herself how to tell time.

How did she do this without teachers and books, lessons and demonstrations?

Well, it was quite simple, actually. In Switzerland back in those days (perhaps still today), lunch time for the working people (husbands mostly) was at least two hours long, from noon to two o’clock. The home-makers, wives in aprons and with their hair perfectly sprayed into place, cooked the main meal of the day to serve to their husbands at 12:30 pm for lunch.

Mittagessen, is the German word for lunch.

The husbands would come home, eat their lunch and after perhaps take a little nap before returning to their work.

My mom, as a five or six year old child, would know this because she, too, was expected home in time for lunch. Kindergarten let’s the kids out at that time as well so they can go home and have their meal. Z’Mittag ässe is the word in the Swiss German dialect.

So, while loitering around the Bahnhof all morning, she would begin to notice a pattern after a while. When a sudden influx of men in business suits populated the gates beside the train station, she would glance at the clock and realize, it must be lunch time.

Kindergarten is out when the men appeared on the train platform, so she better get home too.

To my knowledge, her mom was never aware her eldest daughter played hookie. 🙂 And, the teachers didn’t seem to really care, either. There were no frantic phone calls, or automated systems to contact the parent in a panic if a child didn’t show up for class.

This is what I imagine unschooling is all about.

Part of me thinks about this story when contemporary public education gets me all worked-up, and not in a good way . 🙄

I realize it’s not practical to do these things today. The world has changed, the societies have evolved. School has, one the one hand, become a commercial business event. Stores create back to school sales with tv commercials enticing people to shop for their kids’ school supplies.

It’s so very different today.

Still, a small part of me thinks about this carefree time from yesteryear…(was it really that carefree? We all know appearances sometimes defy harsher realities…)

It feels like a crucial part of education has gone missing in today’s childhood. Everything is designed, outlined, planned, demonstrated and taught to the kids from an early age on. In some cases, perhaps this is the better way.


But in other cases, I almost think we’ve taken it too far, this endless hovering, teaching, organizing, planning…just look at how I parent my kids.

I’m a product of this new society.

I’m challenged with finding a middle ground between the contemporary ways and the more laissez-faire ways of years gone by.

Yet, unschooling seems to be making waves in certain parts of the world again. It’s branching out from the homeschooling word, which, incidentally, is illegal in some parts. Germany for example does not allow kids to be homeschooled. The law is strict and rigid and people may even face jail time when keeping kids home from state-led education. I know this because my (Canadian) friend is raising six kids in Germany and her greatest wish has been to homeschool them. She couldn’t with the first who is over 20 now, and still can’t today with her seven year old.

I’m not saying I want my kids to homeschool, or unschool. I’m simply remarking on how much things have changed over the years. In some cases, things have changed for the better (in terms of widespread extreme poverty, food programs, special needs awareness, etc) but in other cases? Things are not necessarily better at all.

Kids are handed things today at every turn. Kids have money. A lot of money. Kids get driven everywhere ‘for safety’s sake’. Kids have parents guiding their studies, their hobbies, their playtime.

Everything is structured.

It’s good and it’s not good. It’s both, and neither.

It’s hard.

We do the best we can with what we have. For those of us with options to change our minds about how we want to educate our kids, we’re the lucky ones. If at any time I decide to homeschool, or unschool, my kids, my country (Canada) makes allowances for this.

For those who struggle within the confines of a rigid system without options, I’m sorry. I have no answers.

But that image of my mom as a small child, staring at the clock at the train station, that’s priceless.

31 thoughts on “Unschooling: then and now

  1. That is an interesting story! I immediately wanted to visit and if I were you, I probably prefer living there as it seemed idyllic. Unfortunately I have no relatives that I know of in Europe. I do think parents play such a big part in instilling a love of learning, discipline, and motivation which a school and teachers cannot provide always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not really idyllic, at least not any more or less than other places I would think. But it was fun going down memory lane even though I talked about my mom’s childhood from my perspective. The way the area looked when I lived there was different compared to 30 years before when mom was little. But still, I have a similar vision of the imagery. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post full of much history! The part about Switzerland was written so well that it created pictures in my head. Since I have a friend from Switzerland, I’m so glad that I read this + can see your point quite about unschooling well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 😮wow your mum going hooky at such a young age, incredible, times have changed! My mother tells the story (with photos) that when aged 14 along with her niece aged 8, they’d take the train and spend the day together at the seaside……………. two girls on their own, all day, would NEVER happen these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wish kids had more time to just be kids, to just use their imaginations and play. And I wish that parents would be OK with that and not stress about keeping them busy with planned activities. There is great value in kids figuring things out on their own, in filling this time with their imaginations.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think one of the reasons parents put kids in activities is due to that fear of letting them play out of the house, unsupervised. Even when I pushed my kids to go to the park at 6 and 8 without me, they ‘educated’ me that it’s not allowed. ‘Who says’ I wanted to know. ‘School’ they responded. They learn from an early age that school is more powerful than parents.

      Activities, especially sports, gives them an outlet, albeit a structured (and expensive) one, but still an outlet.


  5. Reading this I am reminded of Linchpin – by Seth Godin. And I think there is something missing in education in general. Something akin with emotional intelligence but coupled with perception and dot-connecting.

    I think AuthorLauraBlog has a strong point and key: free-range. Freedom.

    Negligence is one side of the coin, for sure. But what might actually help is genuine curiosity on the parent’s part. Leading curious-driven and interest-driven ACTIVE lives is a great way to model real life skills that today’s and tomorrow’s marketplace can appreciate.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love this. It is so true in so many ways. I live in the states and struggle with the way things are as I’m trying to raise my four kids. I grew up in a much more lax environment where we were told to go outside and play and not come in till called or the street lights came on. If I were to try that now I get DCFS called on me. I get it it’s not the same society it used to be but like you said in some ways that’s not a good thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I too had a more relaxed atmosphere, although I know now there was some stress. My mom obviously managed to keep this to herself, or I was, like most kids, too self absorbed to notice. 😉

      I go up and down on the topic of education…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My mother was not laissez afire at all…in fact, she was way stricter than I am with my daughter. That being said, I think there has to be a combination. I think too many parents expect the school to teach everything because sometimes parents don’t want to. I get this…time and such. But I remember people complaining in kindergarten that the schoo, wasn’t teaching the kids to use utensils at lunch….so, I think the whole paradigm has shifted. I’m a believer in kids going to school, and I think school should concentrate on academics and socialization. I’m ok with teaching the rest…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. True. I get pissed off at all the duplicate, redundant forms I have to sign for every little freaking thing…even to leave school property, or walk home unsupervised. Today it’s about who is liable…not that it wasn’t then, but it’s all so much more complicated.

      Don’t get me started about what should be taught and what shouldn’t…🙃

      Liked by 2 people

      1. We had to sign forms that our kids are allowed to be photographed and videotaped and interviewed if the need arises….General for school and one for each activity….

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I’m a teacher and I had one family that wouldn’t allow their child to be photographed. She wasn’t allowed to ride the bus to a field trip either. I’m not sure if the mother was overprotective or if they were in the witness protection program.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Tough call. Guessing that overprotective cause of the bus, but who knows. My daughter says it’s annoying because they keeep bringing the kid out of the room.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I love this. I know you’re working on a memoir, and I, for one, would love to read it one day. You have such an interesting background and I loved this story about your mom.

    What I have a hard time with, is the way public and private education have changed so little over the last century. Children were once being groomed to be good little workers. That rigid schedule meant to teach them how to be good employees, follow directions, etc.

    The world has changed drastically. Employment is such a different experience anymore than it was, even 20-30 years ago. I wish more people had to option to unschool their kids. I think we’d see a lot more of them reaching their true potential if they had they opportunity to spread their wings a bit more. It’s not for everyone, of course. But I do hate that not everyone at least has the option.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah the memoir…😵

      Thank you for your kind words.

      We start bugging kids in elementary school about preparing for college, career… it’s a little nuts. At the same time we restrict their freedom to the point of inhibition.

      I just don’t know.


  9. I think free range children have an advantage to being more independent and resourceful. I don’t mean unschooled or homeschooled, I mean the freedom to walk alone (within safety limits) to the park, school, a store.
    I think parents today are worried about being judged for negligence.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. My kids were more free range than their peers. I let my kindergartener walk home alone (2 blocks) after significant practice rather than wake 2 babies from naps or leave them home alone. Other mothers were judgy about it. They all turned out fine. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Exactly. My 4th grader, halfway through 4th grade, started taking public transportation with her older brother. 3 stops…he had about 6 or 7 stops. Wasn’t long before she went on her own. I got looks from some people…but they didn’t know that I trained and practiced with them for 2 weeks.

        Liked by 1 person

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