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The Concept of Catholic Unschooling

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Author Interview with Suzie Andres
Homeschooling with Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling
by Lisa M. Hendey
Catholic Online

Whether you are a homeschooling parent or simply a parent concerned with the quality of your children's faith formation and education, you owe it to yourself and your family to learn a bit about the concept of "unschooling". In her new book Homeschooling with Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling (Christendom Press, October 1004, paperback, 132 pages) takes a look at this "gentle" variation to the traditional homeschooling path. As a mother of two Catholic school students, I must admit that I initially approached Andres' book from a perspective of suspicion. My reading of this book, however, produced much fruit in the form of an enhanced appreciation for my own role, and especially that of my children themselves, in their own educations. In his comments on the book, noted author and professor Ralph McInerny reminds us that "The Church has always insisted that the parents are the primary educators of their children." Far from being critical of formal education, Andres book is a positive and uplifting commentary on the concept of "unschooling" and shares ideas and suggestions that will be of value to any family, regardless of your educational preferences.

Suzie Andres, wife and mother of two, shared the following comments on Homeschooling with Gentleness.

Q: Would you please introduce yourself and your family to our readers.

A: Thank you, Lisa, for your interest in my book. I am a Catholic homeschooling mother of two boys, Joseph and Dominic, ages 15 and 2 respectively. My husband Tony and I met at Thomas Aquinas College in California, and continued our studies together at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. There our courtship turned into an engagement and we married in 1988. After Tony received his Ph.D in philosophy, he was hired to teach at Christendom College. Thus in 1993 we moved to Front Royal, Virginia, and we've been here ever since.

When we were first married, Tony and I anticipated becoming the parents of a large family, and we planned to homeschool our children. We knew homeschooling families that we really admired, and couldn't imagine a better form of education. God surprised us with a different plan; after two years of marriage we had Joseph, and then it was another 12 years before our second child, Dominic was born. When Joseph was three, I began to get cold feet about homeschooling, and we ended up sending him to two schools in the next two years. Finally I mustered up the courage to give homeschooling a try (Joseph was now six), figuring that we could always send him back to school if it didn't work out. Here we are still homeschooling nine years later; I guess it worked out!

Q: I'm amazed that a homeschooling mom can make time to write and publish a book! What motivated you to write this book and how did you accomplish your goal?

A: I have always loved reading. One of the things that I enjoy most about reading is that sense of connection with an author when we think along the same lines, sharing the same opinions about human nature. Often my own opinions are not clearly thought out, but there is a resonance with something I read which helps me to clarify my thoughts. Perhaps you have experienced that "Aha!" when you read something true that you had not heard expressed just that way before, or which you had not been able to express yourself.

Like many homeschooling mothers, I read books on homeschooling hoping to experience that resonance. I had always wanted to find a homeschooling book in which the author shared my opinions about children and education, and mapped out an approach that matched what we were doing in our own home. Not that I knew exactly what I thought about children and education; in fact, I often am not sure what we are actually doing in our home! But I realized that I was reading homeschooling books not only to find new methods and materials, but more often to find a name for what we were already doing.

When I began to read about unschooling, it felt very familiar. I recognized that what went on in our home looked a lot like unschooling, but I worried that unschooling was not quite a Catholic approach. None of its main proponents were Catholic, very few were Christian, and many espoused a very secular outlook. My husband Tony was able to reassure me that we could be Catholic unschoolers, and he had many compelling arguments explaining the fittingness of this combination. However, I have a horrible memory, and so I'd return to him often to hear his explanations. I realized that if I wrote a book on the subject, I could give the poor man a rest!

In fact, writing about Catholic unschooling really appealed to me for three reasons. First, I could get down on paper Tony's explanations to reassure myself; second, for anyone else who was interested, I could express in writing our thoughts about homeschooling; and third, if my writing became a book, then I would have the perfect homeschooling book to read when I wanted to know what I was doing!

As to how a homeschooling mom finds time to write a book...I think there was a small window of opportunity that I crawled through in the early summer of 2003. My husband liked to study and write in the evenings, and our older son Joseph was usually busy playing with kids in the neighborhood or reading. Dominic, our then 8 month old, went to bed at 8 p.m., but I had to stay nearby to keep him from rolling off our bed, where he slept. Had I thought of putting our mattress on the floor, Homeschooling with Gentleness would never have been written! But as it was, I needed something quiet to do from 8 to 11, and I had just bought a used laptop from a pawnshop. I love to write, and so I would write during this time. The next thing I knew, I had somehow written a book. Just at this time Christendom Press had a new director who wanted to publish a book on homeschooling. God brought it all together, and now I too am amazed that a homeschooling mom can make time to write and publish a book! God's plans are really mysterious and beautiful.

Q: Please share your thoughts on the concept of Catholic "unschooling" and how this relates to the theories of John Holt.

A: In my reading about homeschooling, I eventually came upon the books of John Holt, a former teacher, educational reformer, and one of the first advocates of homeschooling. He has a wonderfully clear writing style and I profoundly agreed with many of his observations about children and education. Over the course of two summers, I read his books Teach Your Own, How Children Fail, How Children Learn, and Learning all the Time, and also copies of his magazine "Growing without Schooling."

When John Holt coined the term "unschooling," he used it to mean learning outside of school. He began a newsletter in the mid-1970s to help those who had taken their children out of school to educate them at home and in the wider world. At that time it was an incredibly courageous and mostly illegal act to keep your school-aged children out of school. Holt encouraged parents and children to find new ways to learn, to enjoy each other's company, and to follow their convictions. His experience as a teacher had shown him that often schools are places where learning does not, perhaps cannot happen. Over the years his further observations of children and adults led him to believe that learning happens best when it is initiated by the learner. Unschooling thus came to refer more specifically to child led education.

Some of the principles that underlie this theory are: children (in fact all of us) are natural learners; learning can happen at any age; a person will be most motivated to learn when he needs to know or use what he's learning; and fear is a bad incentive for learning, while love is the best incentive of all. I saw these ideas in John Holt's writing, and I had seen them before in Catholic philosophy and theology. Since grace builds on nature, what is true in nature provides a firm foundation for our life as Catholics. In a nutshell, I argue in the book that unschooling is an option for Catholics.

Q: I enjoyed discussing your book and its ideas with my own thirteen year old son (who is a eighth grader in a Catholic school) and was interested in his reaction to "unschooling." One question we both have is how you deal with overcoming issues like lack of motivation, distractions, and laziness (this from the seventh grader...) to keep on target with work flow?

A: Lisa, that is an excellent question. I think our family has dealt with these obstacles in a twofold manner. First, we have rules limiting our older son's use of computer games and video watching. Although these activities can be fun, they can also be addictive, and for us their overuse tends to squelch creativity and motivation. Secondly, each school year we decide on the type and amount of school-type work we want Joseph to accomplish.

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This year, for example, we agreed that Joseph would complete a set of algebra workbooks and learn typing with a computer program. Since the amount of assigned work was fairly small, keeping up with "work flow" was not difficult. At the same time, Joseph had a wide range of other activities and interests that rounded out his learning through work he chose himself. He continued piano lessons and practice, and began composing his own pieces. He began reading a series of college level history books. He participated in church-league basketball and Jr. Legion of Mary. Sometime in the middle of the school year, Joseph decided he wanted to write a science fiction novel. This prompted him to pick up some grammar books we had, and borrow books on writing. The novel got set aside, but only after providing some self-motivated learning in grammar and composition. For next year I'm sure we'll continue with some formal math, and Joseph is planning to take an introductory college Latin class. With all these interests and projects, and a quite limited amount of traditional schoolwork, the issues you mention have resolved themselves.

Finally, when I asked Joseph his opinion about this question, he suggested I mention another house rule that he finds provides plenty of motivation. He is not allowed to get together with friends until after he does basic schoolwork (math and typing) and chores each day. Since he has friends in the neighborhood, some of whom also homeschool, he has a daily spur to get his official work done in a fairly timely manner.

Q: I enjoyed your thoughts on catechizing our children by living the Faith with them. Could you please say a few words on the role of religious education in unschooling?

A: As Catholics, the greatest gifts we've been given are our faith, and the opportunity to live in union with Jesus by participation in the life of the Church. As Catholic parents, the greatest gifts we can share with our children are this same Faith, and this opportunity to live in union with Jesus. I hope, then, that religious education will take first place in the priorities of all Catholic families, whether they unschool, homeschool or send their children outside the home to school.

One of the principles underlying unschooling is that children want to imitate adults, to do what they see adults doing, to know what adults know. Religious education thrives in an unschooling environment when the children see their parents loving Jesus and living out their faith in their everyday lives. Two ways this can happen are through the liturgical year and the reception of the Sacraments. Other ways might be in concrete acts of service, such as helping in a soup kitchen or visiting a nursing home, or through family prayer such as the rosary or holy hours. When children see parents engaged in these activities, enjoying these activities, setting aside other pursuits to participate in the life of the Church, the children will naturally be drawn to the beauty and goodness of Catholic life. And the parents will often find that moments of teaching and learning occur fairly naturally within their Catholic life. At the same time, I want to add that most Catholic unschoolers, like other Catholic families, will want to take advantage of the wealth of catechetical materials available in the new springtime of the Church.

Q: What religious resources have you found useful and beneficial in your family's education?

A: We have used the Baltimore Catechism and other catechisms to do some memory work, especially in preparation for the Sacraments of Confession, Holy Communion and Confirmation. We have really enjoyed the series of Saints' Lives books published by Ignatius Press, TAN, and the Daughters of St. Paul. A favorite treasure that I read aloud to Joseph was Monsignor Ronald Knox's The Creed in Slow Motion, a set of sermons delivered to schoolchildren during World War II.

The last resource I'd like to mention is our local parish. Joseph has been involved in Jr. Legion of Mary, altar serving, church-league basketball, the holy hour program...This is our list, but I'm sure other Catholic unschoolers could find similar opportunities in their own parishes. Involvement in parish life has provided other adult mentors for our son, and allowed him interaction with many people of all ages and states in life.

Q: In one chapter of the book, you discuss whether or not all Catholic families should unschool. Are there elements of this approach towards education which could be integrated into the lives of families whose children attend formal schools?

A: Absolutely yes!

I think it is essential to remind ourselves that the Church allows for many different forms of education, and looking back in history we can find examples of Saints who initiated various pedagogical methods for the glory of God and the good of men. Unschooling is only one approach to education among many, and Catholic families need the freedom and encouragement to explore which method is best for their own situation. My guess is that we could find universally applicable ideas in every approach to education, regardless of which methods are most popular at a given time.

The element of unschooling that I would love to see all families embrace is the virtue of trust. I think the heart of unschooling is the trust that grows between parent and child. The parent embarks on a cycle of trusting the child to learn, seeing that the child does learn, and thus having that trust increased. The child's assurance of the parent's love and confidence in him grows as well. Perhaps most important of all, the parent and child grow in their trust in God - His plan for their lives, His patience, His eternal Merciful Love. I know firsthand, from myself and from friends' shared confidences, the incredible weight that Catholic parents feel from the responsibility to raise our children in the faith, in the midst of a hostile culture. I pray that we will all learn that God is near, is helping us, and has given us all we need. And He does not expect us to manufacture our children's success and salvation on our own. He has provided for all these things; we need to learn to trust Him.

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Q: What factors should a family consider before committing to this type of a lifestyle?

A: I think the main factors a family should consider are the temperaments of the children and parents. I have heard (although it's not an experience in my home!) of children who thrive on structure and clear assignments, who want to know exactly what is expected of them, and who enjoy plowing through their work in a methodical way. I think this type of child would feel very uncomfortable with the relaxed approach of unschooling, and the child's desire for the parents to provide structure and curriculum ought to be respected.

As for the parents' temperaments, I would like to quote a passage from John Holt's book Teach Your Own, in which he addresses this question. Let me qualify that I don't think many parents start out with all the attributes and virtues that he lists. A desire for these virtues would be enough, I think, to indicate unschooling as a viable option. Holt writes:

We can sum up very quickly what people need to teach their own children. First of all, they have to like them, enjoy their company, their physical presence, their energy, foolishness, and passion. They have to enjoy all their talk and questions, and enjoy equally trying to answer those questions. They have to think of their children as friends, indeed very close friends, have to feel happier when they are near and miss them when they are away. They have to trust them as people, respect their fragile dignity, treat them with courtesy, take them seriously. They have to feel in their own hearts some of their children's wonder, curiosity, and excitement about the world. But that is about all that parents need.

Q: I share your love for and devotion to St. Therese. How has she served as a guide for you as a mother and in your homeschooling?

A: Again I would have to refer to the deep anxiety that so many of us experience as we try to help our children along the path to Heaven. I think that St. Therese is one of God's antidotes to this anxiety. In my own life, St. Therese has been a wonderful role model in littleness, and has shown me a glimpse of God's great love. She has taught me that "Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude." I think she is trying to help me realize that even if all my worst fears are true, and I am not a good enough parent (wife, friend, Catholic), God loves me even more for this, and knew all about me when He entrusted my family to my care. He trusts me, and so I can trust Him. But most of all, St. Therese has helped me see that I am not a failure, that as I learn to accept my weaknesses and disappointments I will also learn to see myself as God sees me: as His beautiful and beloved child. Learning from St. Therese how to become gentle with myself, I am also learning how to be gentle with my husband and children, and I see this gentleness as a precious gift.

Q: Suzie, as a voracious reader I loved your section of "Books as Friends" - what have been some of your family's favorites?

A: to limit myself here, and where to begin? Some children's books that we have loved are: Follow my Leader by James Garfield, The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill, The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, and the books of Edward Eager. Some of our favorite read-alouds have been: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, and The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. All time favorites are Leave it to Psmith by P.G.Wodehouse, and Penrod by Booth Tarkington. Joseph has really enjoyed the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, and the Star Wars novels of Timothy Zahn; his ultimate favorites are Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tony and I share the same favorite novelist, Jane Austen. My other favorites are E.F. Benson (who wrote the Mapp and Lucia series) and Elizabeth Goudge. And I think Tony would want me to mention that Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope is not to be missed!

Q: Suzie Andres, Catholic mom and author of Homeschooling with Gentleness, congratulations on this wonderful resource. Are there any closing thoughts or ideas you'd like to share?

A: Lisa, thank you again for your kind interest in my book. In closing I'd like to borrow the words from a favorite spiritual book, I Believe in Love. "I assure you, we are bathed in love and mercy." I send my best wishes to you and all your readers; may we remember that we are bathed in love and mercy, as we enjoy these years at home with our children.


Lisa M. Hendey is a mother of two sons, webmaster of numerous web sites, including and, and an avid reader of Catholic literature. Visit her at for more information.

Contact CA, US
Lisa M. Hendey - webmaster, 559 5551212



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