“Unschooling” Update and Frequently Asked Questions – Part 2

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَـنِ الرَّحِيمِ

To continue from where I left off last month at the end of Part 1 of this post, I want to point out how and why letting your children learn mostly via play and not through structured lessons and classes for the first 10-12 years of their lives is not “crazy”.

Anyone who thinks so is clearly not informed enough about the way all the little children  of mankind (i.e. those not having yet hit puberty) have learned/gained knowledge for the most part throughout it’s history, and has perhaps also not read up much about how young children have been naturally pre-programmed by Allah to learn and acquire skills from birth till puberty.

And most importantly (for us), unschooling children during the first decade of their lives, and not forcing them to sit through educational talks, classes, or formal, instruction-like lessons accompanied with obligated and forced reading and writing (‘schooling’, in other words), is also perfectly in line with lessons gleaned from the Quran and the sunnah of Allah’s messenger ﷺ.

You see, whether it is the Quranic story of Prophet Musa عليه السلام learning from Khidr, Prophet Ibrahim building the ka’bah with his young son Ismail عليهم السلام, or the incidents narrated in the Prophet’s ﷺ seerah regarding his attitude, behavior and lifestyle ethics towards children ranging in age from infancy to age 10 (e.g. the fact that the 10-year-old Anas bin Malik was left in his guardianship to serve him), one can get a clear picture of what works best for aiding and facilitating their learning during the first decade of life.

Here is what I have learnt about how children learn, after much thought and pondering on the Quran and the sunnah, modern-day research regarding children’s education, and my own childhood experiences related to education and learning:

– Allow children to remain in the company of adults (primarily their parents) as much as possible, tolerating their quirks and naughtiness (and disciplining them age-appropriately if and when required),

– Do not force them to read, write or sit still before and more than they are willing and able to.

– Let them play independently, supervising them sparingly from a distance (and join them in their play as much as you can).

– Answer their questions as much as you can, and train them how to ask questions politely, without interrupting elders. Because believe me, unschooled children let loose such an unrestricted barrage of questions all day long, that it is not even funny! Only schooled children ask questions sparingly, because they are trained very early on to raise their hand before asking a question, and to remain quiet if the adult ignores their raised hand. By age 10, a school-going child has heard “Be quiet!” so many times, that he has, by and large, stopped asking the adults around him the questions that incessantly pop up into his head due to his innate natural curiosity.

How will your children learn to socialize with others their age?

I do not think it is a matter of great concern if children under the age of 12 do not ‘learn’ to ‘socialize’ with same-age peers. I think that it is more important for them to be able to engage, converse and socialize with adults.

It’s like this (the foodie in me has come up with an analogy to help you better understand what I am trying to say):

To me, being asked why and how my unschooled children — who mostly hang out with adults, and almost always accompany their parents on ‘adult’-oriented events, trips, errands and outings, — will learn to ‘socialize’ with same-age peers, is like being asked, how a child who has already learnt how to bake assorted breads and cakes, will be able to crack an egg into a bowl.

Get it? 🙂 I hope so.

But how will they have any friends then?

When and as they grow up, insha’Allah, they will become so well-versed in dealing with people who are older than them in age, that attracting and keeping friends their own age, will be a piece of cake.

Here, I want to narrate a personal experience.

There is this girl my older daughter’s age. She and A’ishah were born merely months apart, in fact. She has always been normally schooled, and currently attends one of the most exclusive and expensive schools in Karachi. She also went to public school in North America for a few years.

We have met her in informal settings at her home more than a few times. Not once has she tried to befriend or talk to A’ishah, nor did she greet the elders in the room (her mother’s friends), or acknowledge their presence.

In fact, being around that little girl is actually very humbling, because it allows me to feel like absolute thin air. 🙂

As for whether she has a problem that prevents her from befriending people, well I know for a fact that she doesn’t, because she is very vocal and expressive with a selected few others in the same setting.

Anyhow, my 8-year-old daughter A’ishah has tried talking to her and making friends with her during the few times they were in the same place, only to receive a reply in the negative. At one point, A’ishah was even told point-blank, “You are not my friend” as she walked off.

This is just one example, from among many others that I can quote here, based on my practical experiences and observations of social interactions between children.

My children usually do not avoid or shy away from peers during social gatherings or when they are in play-areas in public places (unless they are unwell); rather, in my experience, it is quite the opposite.

In particular, I have noticed that it is the children who go to clique-based, elitist schools (which usually cater to the upper-crust, affluent families of Pakistan), who are more averse to ‘socializing’ with peers outside their accented-English-speaking, branded-wear-attired schoolmates, than the children who are homeschooled.

They don’t even greet the familiar-faced elders who have been visiting their parents at their home since years, so what can be said about talking to/befriending the children of the same?

So here I’d like to make a request, please: whenever you, in your sincerity and concern (which I do appreciate, in and of itself), worry about how my homeschooled children will learn to “socialize” with peers, please take an objective, critical look at your own children, and how respectfully/cordially they meet and greet both adults and peers in social settings,– people whom they’ve known since years, but from whom they have nothing to gain in terms of social or professional prestige.

If  your son or daughter has attended and successfully passed out from expensive, high-end schools and universities, but he or she doesn’t have the courtesy to greet those whom they or their parents have known for years (whether family or friends) when they are present at the same social gathering, then you should perhaps be directing your concern more towards the moral tarbiyah (character-building) of your own offspring, before worrying about my supposedly ‘overprotected’ and ‘stifled’ home-schooled children’s social skills (who were just born yesterday, in comparison to yours).

Oops, did I just “judge” your parenting skills? 🙂

Sorry, I was merely returning the favor.

What curriculum are you teaching them?

I used to stick to a rigorous, class/age-wise, structured, divided-into-subjects, school-board-approved curriculum (Oxford University Press, to be exact), until 2010.

I soon realized what a folly it is to let a fish into a giant freshwater pond full of diverse species, foliage, coral, flora and fauna, only to force it to stick only to a small shallow puddle in one of its corners, forbidding it from foraying into deeper waters of its own free will (another analogy at work here, in case you were wondering :)).

Suffice to say that we buy our children whatever books, crafts, building toys, and other resources that they show an interest in, and which we deem suitable for them from an Islamic perspective.

But teachers and teaching is endorsed by Islam!

As someone whose religious practice and identity is the passion that governs and drives their whole being and existence, I find it a bit disappointing when some people mistakenly assume that I am against letting my children learn from any teachers besides myself i.e. I am anti-teaching and anti-classes.

Being anti-school for little children (aged 0 to 12) doesn’t necessarily equate to being anti-teaching, per se. Plus, the ‘teaching’ that is endorsed by Islam traverses a broad spectrum, and includes many styles, such as those that are known in the modern day as mentoring, tutoring, training, sermonizing, lecturing, dictating, coaching, as well as teaching large groups in a classroom setting.

I am currently not teaching my children ‘formally’ (except perhaps the reading of the Arabic of the Quran). Whenever they come to me with questions (about anything), I try to answer them to the best of my ability, or direct them to resources that will give them the answers that they seek. That is all the ‘teaching’ that I do.

My second child has not started reading and writing yet, because, despite all the coercing, enticing and cajoling (coupled with the provision of physical learning aids and resources that facilitate reading), he still refuses to do it (I will not elaborate more on this now, because my older two children understandably do not like it when I air their laundry in public i.e. discuss their shortcomings and learning-related challenges with others, even if my intentions are based on sincere well-wishing for them as a parent).

The reason why I am not worried about my children spending a lot of time reading and writing yet (although my oldest child is a naturally gifted reader, مَاشَاءَ اللهُ لَا قُوَّةَ اِلَّابِالله) is because, at this stage in their development, I think it is not as important for them to sit down to read and write, as it is for them to engage in unsupervised creative play.

I am not against them taking courses, attending classes, and studying under a teacher in a classroom setting on a structured basis.

But that is planned for them later on in life, when they are older, independent and more mature اِنْ شَآءَ اللهُ.

Not right now.

Will you prepare your children to give exams?

We might, if the need arises.

My husband and I have diligently given many exams as youths. We were both very “پڑھاکو”  as it is called in Urdu (meaning: studious bookworms).

Despite our cramming-for-exams-filled past, we both now think that examinations and grades are very over-rated, and that they in no way indicate, guarantee or harbinger a child’s future success in life as an adult, whether on a personal or professional level.

In particular, we have learned the hard way that making a child ace his school exams with high marks in no way means that he or she will be able to easily and successfully overcome practical challenges and problems later on in life, as an adult.

So yes, while he and I grudgingly acknowledge that a young person does need a degree to get their foot inside the corporate door (i.e. especially if they want to pursue a career as a yes-sir-uttering, on-a-short-leash ‘servant’ employee of a company, and not a self-employed entrepreneur), and in order to get that degree, they will have to pass exams, we will not beat up our children for ‘failing’ an examination or for not getting good grades, insha’Allah.

But you know what? I think that that might not happen, because I don’t think our children will be forced to sit exams that they do not want to give.

When a person studies for a subject that they love, they don’t have to be motivated to study for it’s exams, or pushed to get high grades. It is more or less a self-directed and self-motivated process fueled by inner passion and ambition.

And if our children’s current zeal for learning is in any way a sign, we think they’ll probably do okay, insha’Allah.

Will you ever put them back in school?

Not willingly, no.

But since life doesn’t always go as planned, and if something were to happen to necessitate it, it might be grudgingly done as a last resort.

I sure hope I never have to see the day that my minor child has to go to school!

Heck, when I hear school vans honking their horns loudly in the quiet streets around our residence after Fajr, I thank Allah that my children are not the ones being put into them!

And FYI I went to and from school in a van, from the age of 9 to 17. 🙂

As for college, it was a daily, hour-long bus commute to and from campus in the outskirts of Karachi. And while I didn’t hate it, it wasn’t a joyride either.

Schools and vans — just not the choice we have made while raising our children.

Will you put them into universities at age 18?

We might. We think that a basic undergraduate university degree is a necessity of life, sort of like a driver’s license, National ID card, or a passport. You need it to be considered worthwhile as an adult.

We don’t really want our children growing up with any sense of deprivation, or any kind of social stigma.

Wait a minute, did I just say ‘social’?

Why, yes of course, because a degree is more a status symbol nowadays, as well as a facilitator of marriage (into a specific social class), than a sign of credibility as a professional. And as I said, it helps get your foot into the door when/if you are looking for a job.

But does having a university degree (from a reputed institution) really translate to future professional success?

Just ask the 20-something, 30-something, or 40-something unemployed professional who has one Bachelors and two Masters degrees (one local, one from abroad) under his or her belt, yet hasn’t been able to land a job offer for over a year, who is wondering in frustration, with his head in his hands, where s/he went wrong.

A suggested exercise for everyone who is skeptical about homeschooling

Now, if you have the time and willingness to do a self-help-type, introspective exercise, which can hopefully help widen your perspective about the crucial role that childhood experiences play in shaping one’s destiny (اِنْ شَآءَ اللهُ), I’d like to suggest that you do the following:

– Remember all the positive experiences of your childhood. Note them down. Anything that you enjoyed doing as a kid. Was it climbing trees? Riding your bike to the nearest store to buy something for your mother? Helping organize the neighborhood funfair? Helping your uncle fix his car? Write it down.

– Now recall all the negative experiences, and write down what exactly you disliked about them. Being spanked when caught breaking a rule? Being scolded in front of others? Your sibling getting something better than you? Not having your own room in the house? Being left out during games at a kiddie party? Losing a race at school? Being bullied by an older kid at school or in the neighborhood? Write these negative experiences down as a list.

– Now list down all the knowledge and skills that you acquired outside ‘school’. Then recall and note down why and how you acquired them. Who taught them to you? What was the structure of the classes and/or lessons? Which form of learning did you find to be the easiest and most enjoyable?

Examples: learning to drive a car or a bike; learning to cook (more than a fried egg) or bake; learning to stitch, crochet or knit; learning arts and crafts, such as fabric/oil/glass painting or print-making; learning how to operate the computer (this is for those born before 1990); learning to play a sport e.g. badminton or scrabble; learning to do a household chore, such as operating the washing machine or fixing a faucet.

Make a list of everything beneficial that you learned outside school, whether by yourself, or by joining a workshop or course.

– Now recall the moments of inspiration in your youth, which made you want to learn something new. What inspired you to learn it? Was it need? Was it peer pressure? Was it a low sense of self-worth i.e. not being good enough in someone’s eyes? Was it a desire to win a competition, or to get a coveted prize? Was it a natural love of that activity e.g. a particular art or sports?

– Recall all the adults (teachers, mentors and role-models) who had the greatest positive impact on your young self; who inspired you and motivated you to achieve something. Who made you want to do more; strive more.

Now write down what you liked about them as a child/youth. Was it their smile, their warmth, the way they greeted and treated you? Was it their personality, or just the fact that they gave you importance, and listened to you when you spoke to them? Whether each of these people inspired you at the age of 5 or or at 20, write down who they were and what you liked about them.

– Now recall and write down every useless activity, possession, habit or pastime that gnawed away at your extra time, exuberance, energy, and the activeness of your brain as a youngster. All those things you did that still fill you up with a deep sense of regret and remorse every time you recall how much you indulged in them during your childhood/youth. Was it listening to music? Watching horror or action films? Poring over fashion magazines? Being obsessed with a certain celebrity? Gossiping/backbiting/rumor-mongering with ‘friends’? Smoking or trying out drugs and alcohol? Going to late-night private dance parties? Chasing someone for years desiring to be in a romantic relationship with them, only to realize that the whole pursuit/distraction was humiliatingly, embarrassingly futile and bad for you?

Going down memory lane to revisit your childhood, and writing down in your personal diary or journal all the above things as lists, will surprisingly work wonders for your growth as an individual, whether you are a parent of young children or not.

It will, اِنْ شَآءَ اللهُ, give you a very clear picture of how foundational a person’s childhood experiences are in shaping who they are, what they become, and what they do, as an adult.

It will also perhaps help you realize (perhaps painfully), the shockingly pivotal role both parents play in shaping a child’s future life — either by allowing or giving leeway in things that should not be allowed, or by disallowing or forbidding (either by coercion or subtle brainwashing/manipulation) their children from things that should not be prohibited.

It will also hopefully broaden your vision and perception about why we have chosen to homeschool unschool our children during this extremely delicate, formative and pivotal phase of their lives.

We basically take our responsibility of their moral tarbiyah (character-building) and basic education extremely seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that we have refused to ‘outsource’ or delegate this responsibility to anyone besides ourselves for the first decade or so of our children’s existence on this planet. 🙂


In the end, I’d just like to say that I know that homeschooling one’s children full time is not possible for everyone.

Also, if I sound perfectly calm and collected in writing, don’t let that make you think that I do not have my bad days, when (as a human) I am in an extremely frustrated state because of spending most part of my days, day in and day out, with just my children. It is definitely not easy. Sometimes I sorely miss having the time to pursue my own ‘life’, my own interests, and my hobbies (pet cats, painting, baking – *sigh*).

And that is where the support of my husband plays a huge role, alhamdulillah, because he willingly takes me out after coming home from work, when he sees how much I need the breather (even if it is just to get some groceries, or have a snack/dessert somewhere).

I know that many husbands are not even half as supportive or concerned towards the emotional and psychological well-being of their wives, especially those who have other obligations in joint family living setups.

And just like husbands willingly delegate their responsibility of their children’s education and entertainment to others, they also expect their bored wives to go and spend time with someone else in order to relieve stress, while they unwind after work in front of the television, with friends, or on their laptops/smartphones/tablets.

So even if full-time homeschooling is not for you, I hope and pray that whatever I’ve shared from my personal experiences in this two-part post, particularly the retrospective, list-making mental exercise that I’ve outlined above, will benefit you in your parenting journey, or in your personal growth, in some way or the other.

And while I respect the curiosity and concern that people show about our children’s homeschooling, I hope that we will receive the same respect for privacy, that we try to give to them regarding the choices and decisions that they have made as parents of their own offspring, اِنْ شَآءَ اللهُ.

[Disclaimer: There is no way that I can remove the WordPress ads displayed below]

5 thoughts on ““Unschooling” Update and Frequently Asked Questions – Part 2

  1. Assalam alykum wr wb Dear Sadaf

    I am a beginner at homeschooling and would appreciate if you could guide me to some good reading for beginners to learn what to expect in this journey.

  2. Assalamu alaikum!

    I must say that I think these two blog posts are your best and most interesting. I am intrigued by the resolve to not allow children to be boxed in to what school limits them to, and act as though classroom schooling is all that they need in life, when the truth is that the independent skills learnt outside of the classroom are extremely important.

    I have two statements to make/ask, then:

    Firstly, aren’t you worried that perhaps if you allow your children to ‘do as they please’ with their learning (of course not a free-for-all, but generally), they will miss out on important skills and experiences that could be built up during youth? For example, my brothers and I were taught to read at school-age, for which I thank Allah because it meant that in my free time when I was younger, I devoured books by the truckload and amassed a huge amount of general (and Islamic) knowledge, grammar, critical thinking skills, writing skills, and eloquence which I would have missed out on had I not been taught. Perhaps the importance is in showing your children the actual applications of what they are learning – I would never have learnt math had it been my choice, but when in high school I began understanding the everyday implications and importance and history of the subject, I regretted not being better at it.

    Secondly, how draining is this sort of lifestyle? it strikes me that in an urban environment, it must take the mother’s life over completely to not have a certain schedule or routine for their children.

    Again, I really enjoyed these two posts. I don’t fully agree with your method of unschooling, but I think that the points which you mentioned – children learning interaction with all ages/situations and not being held back or afraid of new things, children not being forced to mindlessly memorize and sit through boring lectures that are actually pointless in the scheme of life, children being able to structure their learning in accordance with their learning styles, etc – are all very important, and I commend you for having tackled them! I think the important thing is having a mix of everything – unstructured AND structured work. I hated my middle-school school years because I found the material boring and pointless, but as soon as I was given high-school coursework, and given a tangible skill or knowledge to aim for, I loved studying and did very well. School was also a chance for me to mix with very different people, and I treasure my bus experience throughout my school years for the nitty-gritty down-to-earth atmosphere and friendships I had there.

  3. I love part 2 as much as I loved part 1. I basically follow the same method as you do, unstructured. Heck if we weren’t pressured by the authorities we wouldn’t even have them read and write the government school books. But unfortunately we have a law case possibly hanging over our heads for not taking our eldest to school so we have to keep some records of what we teach. What a wonderful blog and it came at the perfect time. Just when I was being harrassed by others about the whole unschooling business during September, when school starts and the pressure is high to “conform” with the rest of the “planet.”

  4. My brother’s comment when I shared with him my interest in homeschooling/unschooling/(or as one kid in a TedX talk put it, “hackschooling”: “Yeah, and some people breastfeed their children until age 6.”
    I just had to share this somewhere :/ *sigh*

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.