Dear Mark: Unschooling and Letting Your Freak Flag Fly

UnschoolingToday’s edition of Dear Mark has a theme: being a Primal freak and proud of it. First up is a question about the Primalness of unschooling, a learning method that isn’t really a method and challenges everything most people think they know about education. Since hunter-gatherers didn’t attend schools, instead learning about the world by living in and being curious about it, does it follow that modern children can also learn effectively without formal education meted out by an authority? I think so. And then I help a reader discover the joy of reveling in one’s strangeness. You’re weird, I’m weird, we’re all weird. Everyone else is going to notice it, and that’s more than okay.

Let’s go:

Hi Mark,

I read with great interest all your books, articles and periodically the blog. It is all amazing. I am from Argentina and live in Austria.

I just could not find much in your website about the concept of unschooling and homeschooling and I believe it to be very pertinent to the primal ancestral discussion, especially in relation to the notion of play, following more natural move patterns, and overall how modern schools shaped around an utilitarian factory like economical model, have only a few hundred years old, as opposed to millions of years humans learning different (such a time analysis reminds me of the notion that agriculture is very new vs what we eat through evolution).

Hope you find this theme interesting to address. Thanks in advance if you do so.


Although we didn’t do it with our kids, unschooling intrigues me. It makes sense. Kids are curious about everything. They’re frequently in awe. They like learning. They become miniature experts of pet subjects, throwing their entire being into the diligent pursuit of everything there is to know about dinosaurs or trains or archaeology or butterflies. Anyone who’s ever had one or interacted with one can tell you that. Even the kid with her head buried in an iPad is curious about something, or would be if you gave her a chance.

Unschooling capitalizes on that natural zest for learning inherent to tiny humans. Unschooling parents don’t teach their kids, not directly. They act as resources and guides to support the child’s curiosity. They provide transportation (to museums and forests and meetups and libraries) and resources (books, supplies, logistics) and answers to questions, but they’re not putting together lesson plans or following a teaching template. The kids set the agenda and the adults try to stay out of the way. There are subgenres of unschooling (like radical unschooling where kids receive absolutely zero input), but that’s the basic gist of it as I understand.

Peter Gray, one of the major experts on the role of play in human evolution and consciousness, is a huge proponent of unschooling. He echoes the very point you make, Matias: that what we call unschooling is actually the oldest system of human education. It’s an organic model arising out of the human animal’s natural curiosity about the world, not a bureaucracy; it’s the most likely way humans have learned for most of our history; and it’s how current hunter-gatherers – an admittedly rough approximation of our ancestral past – still learn today.

But I’d be careful. Unschooling isn’t “easy.” It can go wrong.

Consider the original unschooling environment: the wild world. Thousands of animal species. Tens of thousands of bug species and plant species. Dirt, sun, water, fresh air, things to climb, things to crawl under and into, places to dig, something new to see and find every single day. New challenges to face, most of them relevant to the challenges they’d see as adults. Kids of all ages, usually unsupervised.

Now consider the typical unschooling environment today: the inside of some house, maybe a park on certain days. The same furniture and climbing equipment every day. The same flat, even walking surfaces. Predictable activities and challenges. Very few real surprises, not much carryover into the outside “real” world. Scattered kids, usually protected by hovering parents.

I’m not suggesting that unschooling can’t work in the modern world, but for it to approach the effect of the ancestral unschooling environment you have to leave the house and expose the unschooled child to new, varied stimuli and challenges. Since we no longer live in close-knit tribes or large extended families, the unschooled child also needs a community of peers.

If Carrie and I could go back and do it all over again with our kids, we might incorporate some unschooling in the mix. But you know what? Unschooling isn’t the only way to produce a healthy, happy, engaged human, and a traditional school education won’t necessarily create a hard-working clock-punching automaton. Our kids, who went to fairly traditional schools, are turning out to be great adults. Lots of friends, curious about learning new things and seeking new experiences, healthy habits. We’re very proud.

Whatever style of education you settle upon, help your kid cultivate curiosity. You don’t even really have to do anything except put your kid in interesting situations and let it happen naturally. Lead interesting lives and keep interesting objects and reading material and art around. Have music on often. Play music, too. Take your kid to the forest, beach, desert, and museums. Have interesting friends over for dinner; if they have kids, even better.

Start early. Start immediately. Those disproportionately-sized baby brains are sucking up information from the get go. The sooner they’re exposed to environments of learning and knowledge acquisition, and the more their parents and peers are curious about that world, the more they’ll want to learn. And it will stick, because it’s been there all along.

Dear Mark,

I’m really having trouble keeping to the lifestyle that you suggest. I’ve been off and on the wagon in terms of diet and exercise, and I don’t know how to keep on track. The hardest challenge has been because all of my friends or family think I’m a freak. It makes me feel kinda lonely. What can I do?

A few weeks back, another reader asked a similar question about constantly falling off the wagon. She’d be strict for a couple weeks only to end up binging on junk food. Like clockwork, this happened every other week. My advice was to change her perception of those junk food days. Since they were going to happen anyway, thinking of them as “part of the plan” eliminated the stress and psychological fallout. It wasn’t failure; it was compromise. So that might work for you, but it might not. I suspect not.

I’m sensing that your real issue with all this is feeling alone. Like a “freak,” as you say. Believe me, I get it. Being Primal can make you an outsider, especially early on when you’re the guy who suddenly stops eating grains and sugar. Much of what we do runs directly counter to the norms. That scares people:

  • Everyone’s chowing down on pizza and you’re there with your salad.
  • You’re the only guy without expensive hiking boots on the trail. You might not even be wearing any shoes at all.
  • At lunch in the break room, you self-consciously eat leftover grilled ribeye with steamed broccoli and butternut squash mash amidst a sea of Subway and frozen dinners.
  • You politely pass on the birthday cake and double up on fruit.
  • You’re at the track, running sprints and earning strange looks from joggers.
  • You’re trying to plan dinner parties while your peers are still into late nights at the bars and clubs.

Sound familiar?

First off, don’t be a jerk about being Primal. Don’t make a face when they ask for fat-free dressing. Try not to sneer when someone squats in the Smith machine. Don’t wear Vibrams to the wedding. If a person challenges your grain-free and high-fat ways, go ahead and respond with sound, measured arguments; don’t belittle them. No one is beneath you. Make sure you’re not the one making people feel left out before you go blaming them. I doubt that’s the case, but I have to rule it out.

It’s tough, especially if you’re younger. And sadly no, it’s not just “in our heads.” Either you’re making them feel bad for eating junk or not exercising and they lash out, or you’re challenging the paradigm upon which their reality rests and they can’t deal with it. Some people really do look down on us for eating, exercising, and living differently. No one likes that feeling. No one wants to be ostracized by friends and family or the general public.

There’s really only one way to beat it: you have to let your freak flag fly. You just do.

I’m proud to be a freak in my own way. But extensive life experience residing firmly outside of the mainstream on many issues has made me comfortable there. At this point, I feel weird if I’m doing what everyone else is doing. You can get here, too, and you should. It’s a wonderful state of existence – being comfortable in your own skin.

But I’m not doing it alone. Beside me are my family, my friends, and this entire community of loyal, curious readers who also happen to be freaks in their own way. That makes it easier.

Whenever someone expresses feelings of exclusion, my thoughts turn to PrimalCon. For regular attendees, it’s a tribal gathering, a family reunion. For many first timers, PrimalCon is the only time they’ve felt at home. I know this because they tell me. They come up to me, or one of the team leaders, and gush about finally feeling like a part of something bigger. And you see it happening all throughout the weekend: a tribe of freaks forming, accepting new members. It’s a beautiful thing, and it sounds like precisely what you need.

You gotta find your tribe. You can’t do this alone.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a great start to your week.

Primal Kitchen 7 Days, 7 Salads Challenge

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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