My daughters Marley, 11, and Sage, 9, are fully immersed in childhood, exploring a variety of places and things and learning to manage relationships among their family and their peers.
Our girls are beginning to develop their own unique understanding of the world and their place within it. In many ways, they are typical tweens—fun-loving, curious, magical, moody, and filled with bold opinions on just about everything.
But unlike most children their age, Marley and Sage are not enrolled in school, nor are they homeschooled. Instead they—along with my husband Kris and I—embrace an alternative to the traditional adult-to-child learning and living environment of schedules, structures, and schools. Through unschooling (also known as worldschooling or free-range learning) they learn what they want to learn, at their own pace.
Welcome to Our World
It’s almost 7:20 on Wednesday night and our family’s evening symphony is in full swing. I’m in the living room standing on my purple yoga mat, half-committed to giving Kemetic Yoga another try. Grunts from my feigned back bends are accompanied by the rhythmic taps of the chopping knife slicing through pieces of pumpkin and carrot. That’s Sage’s doing; she’s acting sous chef to her dad, Kris, who has gotten used to her ritual of showing up ready to work — often with recipe ideas in mind — whenever he’s making dinner. At 9 years old, Sage is pretty handy with a knife and cutting board, and is generally at home inside a kitchen, or anywhere that requires her hands-on participation. She enjoys painting, reading, digital art (Sketchbook is her favorite app), and loves cooking and baking.
Sage’s big sister, Marley, is not so big on the culinary arts. She’s nestled into the corner of the living room couch, staring at her MacBook, immersed in Shane Smith’s exciting introduction to her favorite documentary TV series, Vice. Marley is 11, and is more interested in forensic science, criminal psychology and all things anime/manga than she is with anything in any kitchen.
Kris and I will likely eat dinner together while chatting about our work and our daughters. We all eat at around the same time, but not always together, as is the case tonight. Around 9-ish, the four of us might pile up on one bed and get lost in a few audio chapters of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We don’t get to listen to it together in our car like we do when we’re living in America.
These days we walk most places. When we do get into a car, we’re sharing laughably inadequate seating space with our crammed in co-passengers, being urged by our driver to “small up” ourselves so he can fit one more fare into his cab. We’ve been living on Jamaica’s north coast for five months, and in a couple more months, we’ll head back to the States to spend a few months somewhere in the South, either Georgia or Florida.
After our usual post-Hitchhiker’s Guide debates about interstellar travel and space aliens who write notably horrible poetry, I’ll probably address a writing deadline with a couple hours of late-night focus, and Kris might put some finishing touches on a Web design project. The girls get to bed at around midnight, and Kris and I follow suit a couple of hours later.
No one in our home has a set bedtime, nor do any of us rise to the sound of a 6-something a.m. alarm. We prioritize flow over structure and biological clocks over buzzing alarms. We are a family who traded in our good jobs and gifted school programs for liberation in the form of location independent, school-free living.
Unschooling is essentially a curiosity-led approach to learning devoid of testing and predefined curricula. It leaves the exploration and implementation of knowledge to children, instead of relying on the passing of information from adults and books, based on what is believed (by adults) to be necessary learning. This approach has been an invaluable resource for our family as we raise children, travel the world, and continue to turn our interests into income.
To some, my family represents an anomaly. I am a 37-year-old woman who writes about self-expression for a living. Writing is not my side hustle, nor is it the thing I’m doing in between jobs. I write for a living, and through my writing, I engage in private (coaching) and public (speeches and workshops) talks around the things I write. My husband, Kris, is 36 and he develops ideas for a living. He’s a creative brander, hired by organizations and solopreneurs to develop, design, and communicate cohesive brand messages across print and web platforms. We’re lucky to do work we love, and fortunate to have family who has backed us up when life challenges and ebbs in our client tide left us with funny money issues. But luck and good fortune are only part of our lifestyle equation; the rest comes from a strategic approach to life in general, and parenting in particular.
The Mindset Behind the Unschooling Lifestyle
Kris and I help our daughters get access to information and guide them through everyday living and the life skills to navigate adulthood. We don’t position ourselves as their primary teachers, nor do we see ourselves as their role models. Though we understand our position of power as their parents and default primary influencers, we believe in the old adage of it taking a village, and actively help our daughters seek out mentors and other resources for their areas of interest.
As their parents, we work toward a shared goal of raising women who are comfortable in their skin, versed in the skill of confident autonomy, and experienced in how to mine and utilize information in the digital age. We unschool because having our lives revolve around our children sitting in a building for six hours per day stopped making sense for our interests and needs as a family. We are not anti-school, we are pro-learning, and for our daughters, school put unnecessary boundaries and segmented blocks of time around their ability to explore and process the information they had gathered.
Also, school can create a dangerous reliance on external validation (teacher’s approval and social acceptance), which we find particularly dangerous for Black children, as most of the teachers in our daughters’ school did not look like our daughters, nor did they share our family’s cultural and spiritual values. Those values are a vital part of raising a whole child who is not just savvy in their current time, but has a growing awareness of their context inside the American system, and as part of the developing world.
We believe that traditional grade school and the pursuit of a university education offer one path to professional and perhaps personal fulfillment, but there are many alternatives, especially today. And especially because Black children in particular are grossly underestimated and unfairly punished across American schools.
When our girls were in public school, they were both labeled as gifted children and their elementary school did a great job putting together a special curriculum to fit our daughters’ appetites for information. But it was not enough, nor could it ever be, because our children — like most children — do not learn by collecting information, they learn by experience and guidance. And when you take the lid off a child’s learning environment, you really get to see their incredible capacity to absorb, interpret and utilize information to affect their environments and get what they want.
Instead of trying to work within the system to lobby and hope for change, we are designing our own liberation. The four of us are learning how to seek, gather and process information using new media tools and resources instead of textbooks, teacher’s interpretations and bosses. Each of us are developing relationships with people all over the world, instead of just the people who happen to be geographically close to us by means of our careers, school or social circles. We connect with people based on our interests and goals, not just happenstance, age or geography. Marley and Sage create community based on their own needs and engage in healthy competition through digital meet-up communities like DIY.org where they earn badges for everyday life skills, and Khan Academy, where they take as much time as they need to practice the math skills they’ll actually use in life.
Living Our Politics, Buying Into Our Beliefs
We don’t own a home, and we don’t plan on buying one until the four of us feel ready to settle into a community somewhere on the planet. Flight deals on Kayak.com and well-reviewed rentals on airbnb.com bring us far more joy than our big house-busy days lifestyle ever did. As a matter of fact, our spending habits have shifted significantly, causing us to realize that we often bought things to fit into our home, but they didn’t ever fit into our lives, and they definitely didn’t fit into our beliefs. Without realizing it, we were feeding the same capitalist machine we claimed we were against.
A recent report published by the Nielson Co. and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) estimated Black buying power in America at $1.1 trillion dollars annually. The report reads:
“Blacks watch more television (37 percent), make more shopping trips (eight), purchase more ethnic beauty and grooming products (nine times more), read more financial magazines (28 percent) and spend more than twice the time at personal hosted websites than any other group.”
In our family, we know we won’t significantly affect those numbers on our own, but we live our politics and buy into our beliefs by buying from Black-owned business and businesses local to wherever we live at the time. We often (though not always, depending on shipping issues in our area) buy household and body products from Black-owned sellers online. We buy food directly from the people who grow it, or know where it came from. As we extend our travel options, we prioritize Black nations, in part so we can help our daughters recognize and navigate the Eurocentrism that permeates media, school and other everyday environments. Our intention is to counter the messages and daily interactions that separate children from the personal power, deep relevance, self-exploration and sense of belonging that helps children transition into confident, well-adjusted adults.
There are systems and structures all around us, and some may seem inviting or even unavoidable. But if you can manage to find or facilitate a community of people — whether local or virtual — who are doing the work of deliberate life design and of defining and creating liberation based on their own definitions of it, then start there. I know unschooling isn’t feasible or even for everyone, but I also know that it is an option for many people, if they could believe that there is more to life than waiting for Fridays and cursing Mondays. We had that life, and with little money and few examples, we are creating a new normal for our family. Today, our measure of success ignores GPAs, degrees and the American Dream, and instead puts a focus on confident autonomy, autodidactic learning, strong discernment skills and happy people who are willing to approach their own ideas of liberation and joy from an action-based space.
We don’t want our daughters hoping for change, we are equipping them with the tools to create it.
Akilah S. Richards is a six-time author, digital content writer, feminist speaker, and lifestyle coach. She writes passionately about self-expression, womanhood, modern feminism, location independence and the unschooling lifestyle. Akilah is a storyteller who believes in the power of expressed personal narrative and deep self-acceptance as tools for authentic self-expression and community enrichment. Learn more about her work at AkilahSRichards.com