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.


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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104 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Unschooling and Letting Your Freak Flag Fly”

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  1. I just recently moved from a city that more or less accepts Paleo/Primal, to Quebec City, Canada, where it’s hardly known. I’ve been slipping more and more because of this isolation and feeling like a ‘freak’. I can’t afford to go to PrimalCon, for example, and I can’t find anyone around here who is Paleo/Primal. How can I find my tribe within these limitations?

    1. Find one that is gathered around some other subject. Church fills that role for me. Accept that everyone is different, everyone has their quirks. Including you. That it is normal and expected for a person to have at least one thing unusual and unexpected. Also realize that there is, if not a tribe, then at least a community here.

    2. Hey Zest,
      I am from Sherbrooke, Quebec, and there is a surprising amount of paleo adepts here! But you have to know the right circles. People who know, or potentially are open to paleo are likely to be found at crossfit, bjj/mma or rock climbing gyms. I’ve found people who were or at least knew about paleo in all three spheres!
      Also, do check out Quebec paleo/primal pages on Facebook. There are some really nice ones!
      Cheers and don’t give up! 🙂

    3. Hey Zest,
      I’m from Quebec City and have been Paleo/Primal for about 2 years. Quite rare to come across us folk in this part of Canada for sure. Drop me a line at silvermarkATgmailDOTcom if you like!

    4. I agree with you that it’s kinda hard to find paleo/primal aware people in Quebec. I’m in Montreal and I found that Crossfit places seem to be the best spot to meet other people “like us”. Those gyms are usually pretty cool communities. A little insane, but hey, that’s what make their charm 😉

      And if I’m ever in Quebec City, we can always hang out!!

      1. It looks like there is a community in the making just by posting this! Cool! Let me know if you ever come up to Quebec City!

    5. I’m in the Montreal area. I know how you feel. I don’t know anyone outside our family who follows this way and it sure would be nice if I did. Glad to see a Mark reader is in your area. Perhaps it is up to us to grow the tribe up here.

    6. I find that if I don’t focus on my Primal lifestyle when around non-primal people that things are a lot easier. I don’t talk about it with them, don’t draw attention to my eating habits, etc. but instead I focus on things we DO have in common. It might be work, children, or books and movies. If someone asks why I’m not eating certain foods I just answer vaguely, “It upsets my stomach.” or something similar. They don’t have to know the details. I find it much easier to “fit in” by just ignoring our differences. But if people seem really curious about primal I will talk about it in a non-superior way and let them know how great I feel. If they become defensive/aggresive I just drop it, or say something about everyone being different and people should do what works for them. Good luck – I know you will find some like-minded souls soon!

  2. I would love to hear from everyone how they succinctly explain why they are eating paleo/not eating the pizza/bread/birthday cake. I get skin rashes, so that is a short response that shuts ’em up. But I would love to explain our paleo way of eating in a short but convincing couple of sentences. Anyone got a good response they could share without sounding like too much of a freak? Thanks!

    1. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, I just say “I don’t like …insert crappy food here…”
      It’s hard to argue with that.
      Or I play the gluten intolerant card “I like bread/cake/pizza, it doesn’t like me.”

      1. “No thank you” works well for me. I am not being flip, either. With the confidence gained through practice, my “no thanks” is almost never challenged. Next, change the subject to something non-food. “No thanks, wow, love your outfit!”, works wonders. Also, I am always happy to talk about paleo if the conversation stays food-related and the other person has questions. After all, sharing our knowledge is paying it forward.

        1. “No thank you” is the best answer. That and finding a way to quit worrying about what other people think. Steve Jobs said something valuable to think about; “Don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your inner voice.” He also said; “:Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition; they somehow already know what your want to become.”

    2. Why do you have to explain anything? Most people I know don’t ask and probably don’t even notice. On the rare occasion that someone does notice and asks, I just say–without going into much detail–that I feel better if I don’t eat wheat or sweets. I might get the odd look, but it usually ends at that. I used to try to “sell” the Paleo way of eating but quickly found out that most people aren’t interested in being preached to about their diet.

    3. “I put plants on one side of the plate, animals on the other. Anything else is where things get complicated.”

    4. “It’s not good for you.” I think all dietary plans agree that pizza, cake, bread are simply not good for you. Empty calories.

  3. Nothing can kill the spirit quite like having some bad teachers in traditional schooling. Unschoolers unite!

    1. My spirit was killed in History class. Every day, a teacher with a monotone voice (much like an undertaker) would get up in front of the class, and read aloud from the textbook we all possessed (like we couldn’t read it for ourselves).

      It was more like a daily funeral than a learning environment: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to learn about everything from the Egyptians to Eisenhower…” Talk about soul-crushing! I slept through history class.

      And yes, it was the same thing from elementary school through high school: Egyptians to Eisenhower. One day, a substitute dared to bring up the (then timely) subject of Jimmy Carter–we spent the entire hour talking about him, and that’s when I learned there ARE teachers out there who will eagerly discuss relevant and current events, and capture my interest when doing so.

    2. We homeschool. I’ve seen a few extreme unschoolers in action (or rather non-action). Kids lacking skills because no one bothers to teach them what they’ll need to know in a systematic way kills their spirit, too. Preventing unschooling from slipping into well intentioned neglect in the modern era is very difficult, as Mark suggests.

      1. We homeschool, too. I think unschooling can be effective in a deeply intellectual environment where Mom and Dad are vibrant and brilliant. My husband and I are not, so we chose a more structured approach. But I didn’t start when they were itty bitty. They needed time to play, explore, and think in an uninterrupted environment free from technology. I use a curriculum that is high in quality and has rigorous standards, but it is not overly time consuming. Therefore, my children have many free afternoons and no extra homework. They can roam the neighborhood with friends or pursue their passions at home in their spare time. The best of both.

        1. To the earlier poster who said she homeschools (as opposed to unschools) because she & her husband aren’t “brilliant”-
          We unschool our 4 children. I don’t consider myself “brilliant” but my children certainly are, we are all born brilliant & unschooling really nurtures one’s natural curiosity & zest for learning.
          My eldest son, the most “unschooly” of them all (resisted help with most subjects, yet loves to create robots & read science dictionaries, text books and anything really) entered college last year, at the age of 13 and is thriving. He loves the assignments, speaking to professors & helping the other students.
          He decided (not me) that it was time for him to take some engineering courses so he took it upon himself to study for placement tests, gather all the necessary bureaucratic ppwk. After he took all of the local engineering courses he entered into general education and is still enjoying it because this is part of his own natural self-led educational journey.
          It’s really amazing to witness all of my children grow up this way.
          I was a straight A student in high school and college and NEVER loved to learn, I just liked to get accolades for my grades.
          Seeing a child grow up in such a liberating educational environment is nothing short of amazing to be a part of!

        2. Farah, I couldn’t figure out how to reply directly to you.

          I appreciate what you are saying and I imagine that there have been many successfully unschooled students. I’ve also met a couple who were not what I’d aspire to. That probably goes for most models. But we may have a different fundamental perception of childhood and education. I abhor much about the factory model school system, but I don’t hate every part of a formal education. Our day is more like having a private tutor who is your mom. It’s a somewhat old school upper class approach to education in the middle class suburbs.

          I do desire to give my children plenty of time to wonder, explore, and follow their passions. But I also consider it my job to direct their education and instill an amount of discipline. I love children, but I also believe that they often have foolish inclinations. I, myself, am unfinished in many ways, but I am far wiser than they in many areas. I am not going to give them free reign of their learning 24/7. My understanding is that unschooling is to be extremely child directed. The parent acts as facilitator. I like that idea for a large chunk of their day, but there are certain things which are not optional for me. I should add that my husband is a list maker and consumed with productivity. He wouldn’t be able to handle such a hands off approach and I don’t think it wise in our circumstance. I digress.

          I believe that to function, no matter their interests, they must learn basic math. I understand the arguments that one will – it’s just when they’re ready and in a more natural way. Fine for some, but I have a lot going on and there are some things I need to be able to know have been addressed b/c I am not disciplined by nature and so I have to impose accountability upon myself. Plus, if anything tragic ever happens or we have to mainstream, they will be able to handle the work expected of them. A curriculum provides this.
          Certain books will be mandatory. My children love books so I suspect it will never be an issue. They will need to know how to write and speak properly, etc. My daughter sometimes whines b/c I make her sketch a couple of times a week. I think it is a vital skill to learn in a day in age when children are exposed to so many fast moving images. There is so much distraction, I want them to learn to slow down and pay attention. I am not an artist, but I think learning to sketch will help them to slow down and observe nature and the world around them. I believe an hour a week is not too much to ask. I never ask them to do twaddle. I don’t waste their free time.

          I don’t know your children and it’s not a competition. Although they have much to work on in their characters, mine do still have “bright eyes” and are joyfully curious. The three hours /day formal instruction has been carefully selected and has not dimmed their interest in general (thought I confess they grumble a bit during math). I’m excited you’ve had such a great experience with your own precious family and that you’ve been able to discover the spark along with them. I love that I learn so much every day and enjoy myself as much as they.

        3. Hi Jo 🙂

          It sounds like you have found what works for you & your family, which is wonderful.

          It’s great that our children have so many options for education!

  4. So then, when’s PrimalCon Canada and PrimalCon Australia, Mark? 😉

        1. PrimalCon Israel? I would love to find some friends over here…

  5. I emphasize that I am doing this for my health. Most people will respect that. I answer questions factually but do not try to convert anyone or make them feel bad for their choices. That is all you can do. And if I am in a situation where I have to eat something I would not ordinarily eat, I try to minimize the amount of it. I try to stick to my plan but without drawing a lot of attention to it.

    It helps if you can eat at home most of the time so that when these situations occur you can just factor that into the 10% imperfect part.

  6. Try using to find like-minded people. If no group exists, start one yourself. Try Crossfit; many of their members are into primal. But most of all, embrace who you are and don’t apologize for living life the way you feel is best for you.

  7. Re unschooling, the ancient ones did pass on knowledge to the younger generation through storytelling. They also had younger people accompany them in doing the work of the tribe. Each generation did not need to “reinvent the wheel.”

  8. The problem with doing ONLY “un”schooling is that by simplistic observation alone we often get it wrong. Our ancestors got it wrong a lot, and scientists get it wrong….that’s part of the process of discovery. And while that process is important, formal education is what allows us to “stand on the shoulders of giants”.

    Why do the two have to be separate? Why can’t kids, and adults, do both?

    I get that culture change often requires a pendulum swing in an extreme direction, but by completely dismissing formal education entirely I think we’re guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    1. Yes, I agree.

      And while I’m sure some of the unschooling stories of solid success are real, I’m concerned we’re not hearing the “I let my kid follow his muse for a decade and now I can’t get him out of my basement”. You don’t brag about that stuff.

      Case in point: I know a homeschooling family who leaned to the unschooling direction. She was very much (and is to this day) all about the children leading. Her eldest went to college a year ago and the transition was more of a face plant. He almost committed suicide and spent several months with a very tenuous relationship with his family, blaming them for transition issues.

      He did make through his first year, but not without costs to everyone in that family.

      1. Hmm… My brother went to a very good public school and the same thing happened when he went to college, only it wasn’t months, it has been years. He is a brilliant guy, but he basically gave up on life. I’m not sure this has to do with homeschooling, unschooling, or the cookie-cutter education system in America. I think problems like these have roots elsewhere.

  9. My father was an artist and a cyclist, my mother a piano teacher… my four sisters and I grew up 100% “unschooled” in the woods of central Wisconsin. It was totally awesome and I would never choose any other childhood. When I decided I wanted to attend college, I tested in above most of my peers and graduated summa cum laude. Unschooling is a fantastic way to learn…. how to LOVE learning and how to teach yourself almost anything.

    1. Lucky you! I was just in central WI yesterday (Taliesin) wishing I was raising my kids there…
      And wow, your paintings and drawings are incredible.

    2. An Amish girl who wasn’t educated past the 8th grade recently got herself into Harvard. Her SAT scores (test given by the college) were in the 95 percentile.

  10. I agree with Shirley Goff and kiki above. There is nothing wrong and much good with lectures, books, direction and guidance, learning by example. Teaching, apprenticeship, and generally passing on knowledge intentionally are surely just as ancient and just as human as learning by pure observation and discovery.

    Further, seeking out a source of knowledge (as opposed to simply information) seems like an invaluable shortcut. I’d rather learn math by instruction than derive and prove everything myself, thank you very much.

  11. On the freak thing…this coming from the guy who sprints in the urban park in Vibrams at lunch without a shirt on so I can get some sun…I say be true to your convictions. You don’t need to convince anybody else, you don’t need to explain, but you do need to do what’s right for you. I think people pay less attention to us than we think (they’ve got their own worries), and hey, if they ask because they’re interested, tell them a bit but not too much. If they keep asking, they wind up at MDA. If they’re challenging or criticizing you, just deflect. It’s not a crusade, it’s your life. Let your Grok flag fly!

  12. In our modern world we need to learn reading, maths skills which most of us got in grade school. Looking back, I had fun in high school, but didn’t really learn anything I needed in real life. Some would say you needed to learn that at home, but it didn’t happen for me.

    1. Being a housewife, all I needed to learn I got from Home Ec.–okay, and maybe Algebra 101 too, but that’s about it. The rest I got elsewhere.

  13. Unschooling allows my children to spend lots of time outdoors and be very physically active. We are out doing things with our local home-ed ‘tribe’ a good proportion of our time and also spend some lazy days in when we feel like it. The children are nearly always barefoot until frosty weather comes.
    I know home ed can be a difficult option financially and, when it is not an option, there are lots of ways to incorporate aspects of it around the school system, but it does feel ‘right’ to me and seems to fit well with a primal lifestyle. We choose autonomous learning with some adult-suggested learning, avoiding differentiating between life and learning.
    As education writer Roland Meighan once said, the deep kind of learning that happens when a person chooses to learn something does not seem to prevent the more shallow kind of learning needed for exams when the time is right. My eldest, like other autonomously-educated kids, seamlessly went into formal study after a childhood that, at first glance, seemed to consist mainly of playing.

  14. I saw your question for Mark, Matias, and wanted to let you know about a site I launched not too long ago that combines nutrition, peaceful parenting, and alternative education for kids called Reboot Your Kids at

    I think you’re absolutely right that all of this ties in and it’s imperative we start addressing the issue of global health at the child level.

  15. As for being a freak, if it bothers you, there are a whole lot of ways for your meals to be less noticeable. It’s socially acceptable to order a salad with grilled meat for lunch, at least in metropolitan areas and suburbs. Concern about gluten is mainstream these days, so you can easily order a bacon burger without the bun or wrapped in a lettuce leaf, if you just ask nicely. If you’re going to someone’s house, ask what they’re serving and eat whatever you can. You can also partially eat before you go. I also keep nuts, dried coconut and even buttered coffee (pre-made), stashed in my car, in case I didn’t get enough to eat. Feign a caffeine addiction if someone is driving with you, it’s surprisingly acceptable to “need a fix”. If you’re the one cooking, it’s easy to make meals to please everyone. You can make chili and serve beans on the side. You can make a meat/marinara sauce, give everyone spaghetti with meat sauce and just eat the meat sauce yourself. People on the other side of the table don’t notice and people nearby, if they notice and ask, I just say I’m watching carbs or trying to eat heathier.

    On vacation with 21 relatives, I got some weird looks and comments about my buttered coffee. I politely and briefly explained it to anyone who asked, but the three young adults who just graduated medical school were clearly indoctrinated with the food pyramid. In those situations it can feel a little lonely being paleo/primal. But 3 of the 21 people are long-term vegetarians and no one questions their meals and even alter the big family dinners to accommodate them. So, I figure this is what they must have felt decades ago when they gave up eating animals. That makes me a bit of a pioneer, so I forge on, knowing that maybe in 10 to 20 years, no one will blink if there’s a Grok in the house.

    I also find strength to “stick with it” in my daughter. She developed horrible eczema recently, age 9, and in just three months of fairly strict paleo (no grains, no dairy, no artificial colors), her hands are significantly better, the tiny rash on her face is completely gone! I read phenomenal stories here every Friday. And I read amazing books, like the Wahl’s protocol, and what it’s done for people and I just know I’m on the right path. Call me weird.

    1. Love this comment! And regarding “this is how vegetarians must have felt decades ago”, you are so right.

      One of my favourite paleo articles ever ( has this great relevant wisdom:

      “Commit yourself to paleo. Don’t waffle. Set your boundaries. Educate yourself. Believe in it. Stand for it. Don’t complain. Don’t explain. Be sure in your actions. Your [family] will see that you’re not for turning.”

  16. Yay for leading interesting lives (though with my other half it’s like pushing water uphill) – but for many of us with ‘regular’ lives that’s difficult, time consuming and expensive. We can only do as much as we can do. Beating ourselves up about it doesn’t help. As for being a freak, I like being one, but I do it quietly!

  17. Glad to see the unschooling question! I am an unschooler mama with my two kids. Even though it is not perfect, I do think kids being with their parents (and thus the parents being able to give personal support and guidance) is A LOT more natural than segregating kids by age and then only having one adult to model and emulate within a group of 20-40 same age kids. In that school environment, kids mainly learn about society from each other. Think Lord of the Flies. My kids are used to talking to adults and adults talking to them (in a respectful manner for both sides). They can also play with babies. And I don’t have to give up my parental rights to a teacher I have never met. School in its current form is very new and in a lot of instances, it does not have a proven track record. For most of society, it acts as a daycare. We sacrifice so I can stay home and do this (I am a lawyer by training). And I am thankful that I can do this. In addition, thanks to the internet, I have access to so much information that I don’t feel my kids are missing out. I consider myself like Julie, the cruise director on the Love Boat. I don’t have to know everything, but I am here to help guide and gather resources.

      1. We unschooled in 7th grade. It gave my son a chance to heal from middle school and for us to find other options than public school.

        A charter school worked for him in high school and he has flourished in college.

        As a public school teacher, who once was a public school student with a son for whom public school did not work. I would like to scrap the old model, which has been out moded for decades and develop new ideas for the new century. It may have nothing to do with schools as we have known them.
        Tacking another “idea” on to the old box is not the answer. But people are wary of change and may not do anything until the old structure implodes.

        1. Nice ” It gave my son a chance to heal from middle school” is how summer seems for my son. He’s such a unique kid that public school isn’t a good fit for him. We had a “kid sitter” some days but it just turned into letting him watch TV all day, he was even bored after the first hour or so. So he ended up spending time in my husband’s office playing and making things, reading and interacting with the other adults here and there. Not the best situation but so much better than boring TV.

    1. Look at the inventors of the last 2 centuries–most were isolated, and probably ketogenic–but OH, WHAT BRAIN POWER!

  18. When going Primal, always remember in leaving the SAD behind, you are joining a tribe headed for health. I don’t care if my co-workers saw me avoid eating what they brought in to share.It’s my body,my life, not theirs. And, I am setting an example. Perhaps one day they too will switch tribes. And if not, that”s ok too: everyone is responsible for themselves. I feel empowered passing on the doughnuts etc, and sad that they yet do not. All we can do is set a good example, don”t torture ourselves for non-paleo “slips” and be oh so ever proud of ourselves! Even if you don’t know very many personally that are also paleo, this community is growing! And I’m so proud to be a part of it! My son is Paleo as well, and since he is 3, it is my job to teach him the same

  19. If you feel freaky following Primal, then wait until you are following the Autoimmune Protocol! 🙂

    I think the secret is to (1) remember that you are doing this for YOUR health – nothing can beat that, and (2) see yourself as the trendsetter, the one others are going to look up to as an example and encouragement when they start to see you GLOW! They might not understand now, but just wait until they see the results.

    Then it is not so much that you are ‘left out’ in your perspective, as that you are running ahead of the pack, and at some point they will follow!

    1. Amen. I got funny looks running sprints in the park. But one guy gave me a thumbs up. Next time I went, I saw three people running sprints.

  20. From Crosby, Stills and Nash…

    Almost cut my hair
    It happened just the other day
    It’s gettin kinda long
    I coulda said it was in my way
    But I didn’t and I wonder why
    I feel like letting my freak flag fly
    Yes, I feel like I owe it to someone.

  21. I unschooled my three kids their whole lives. I did it because I didn’t want them to have their curiosity squashed and I wanted them to own their education and their lives. That doesn’t mean we didn’t study English or learn math – we did it in ways that engaged their interests. By the time they became teens they knew more than enough about the “real world” to choose to take some structured classes at the community college or at one-day-per-week home schooling “academies” so they could go on to do what they wanted in the “real world.”
    My oldest graduated early from a VA state university magna cum laude (had the highest scholarship), my middle daughter scored 2300 on her SAT and is a junior at Texas A&M at age 19. My youngest is a brilliant Shakespeare scholar and blogger with an incredible vocabulary (she used the word “mollify” when she was 9). They all have about 3.8-4.0 grade point averages beginning with the weekly high school math classes and community college.
    This was possible because 1) no tv except movies on weekend nights until they were in their teens, 2) barely any computer time until they were teenagers, 3) My husband and I never talked down to the girls – we used big words and, 4) I was an active unschooling mom and took them to do REAL things such as volunteer work and digging for fossils, etc. We weren’t afraid that there might be “holes in their knowledge” – the schools leave plenty of holes too! No one can learn everything.
    It is important to know that STARING AT A WALL is better than the best educational television or computer program. And, since they won’t want to stare at the wall, they will find things to do. We do have 1.5 acres and a creek but we are only 30 minutes from downtown Austin. But city kids have a whole other set of possibilities for activities.
    They have had a lot of friends and plenty of organized activities, and nowadays that is easy to find in home schooling.

    1. Primalcat, What programs or curriculums did you use or recommend for home schooling?

      1. Well, of course I never used a total curriculum package because I was into unschooling. I used a lot of library books (you can do home schooling very inexpensively that way) and I bought a lot of books on all different subjects. I am also an “eclectic’ home schooler and I incorporated the ideas of Charlotte Mason – especially her ideas on using only “whole” books. That means books about a subject that the author really cares about. No text books.
        My kids didn’t use textbooks until around Algebra I.
        For math we used hands-on materials such as cuisinaire rods, pattern blocks, kapla blocks, counters of all kinds and some great workbooks from Miquon Math for basic arithmetic. We also found math-y things to do in whatever we happened to be interested in (studying) at the time. There is also some fantastic math literature (stories) for kids.
        Giving my kids the allowance for all their clothes, spending money, etc. and letting them do whatever they wanted with it also taught a lot about math.
        I could go on and on about other subjects. You can read John Holt’s books or the Unschooler’s Handbook, etc.

        1. Oh! It is important not to undervalue the parents’ contribution to their kids’ education. The best resource in the world for a child is their parents. You know a lot!

      2. We use Charlotte Mason curriculum as well. She urged (she was a British Victorian) a gentle approach to learning. She advocated paying attention to the world around, spending time in nature observing and learning, using all your senses. She likes books to be “living,” so that the student is drawn in. The texts are supposed to speak for themselves (though I confess I sometimes interpret more than I ought when we are reading Plutarch or Shakespeare). While these readings are challenging, the school day is intended to be rather short – quality over quantity. She wanted students to have free time to explore nature and learn handicrafts.

        Immersing ourselves in beautiful language and stories when one is young will facilitate the transition to a more structured grammar education. My children love the history lessons and love when we can put a new character or event on our timeline. They have only groaned over 3 books of the hundred or so we’ve read. Her schools were faith based and, while I love that aspect, I imagine you could take what you like and leave the rest, so to speak.

        There are many resources out there, such as “Simply Charlotte Mason,” but I use the free My many books are NOT free, but I’d rather be building a great library than buying texts anyway and you can find many used. As she was British, many of these resources have a heavy British history and literature emphasis (though there is also a lot on American as well) & Western leaning. But you can supplement on your own and, since you are schooling at home, there is plenty of time for rich discussions about point of view and such. This is just the first 18 years. We are learners for a lifetime.

    2. Right on Primalcat. Unschooling is simply what kids will do when they do not have access to television. We took it one step further and read advanced material to our toddlers instead of children’s books. Their favorites were the National Geographic hard covers. I would suggest this to any new primal parent. Plus it is great fun to see the reaction from adults conversing with toddlers at dinner parties. Adult, “What kind of dinosaur is that?” toddler,” This is a Parasurolophus, it’s a Hadrosaur from the Late Creaceous” Adult, “Does he eat people?” Toddler, “People were not alive yet hadrosaurs ate aquatic plants”

      1. Unschooling also works beautifully with unlimited access to television and video games.

        1. Unschooling in that kind of environment only works well for the right kind of child. If given a chance, my children would watch TV and video games all day long, every day.

          And ditto for even not having the TV. My children need to spend time learning formal academic skills. They read comic books when given a choice of “not TV, but anything else”. There’s nothing wrong with comic books, but it won’t teach formal academic reading/writing.

          So much of the unschooling success stories appear to me to have a great deal to do with internally driven children and parents absolutely dedicated to make the most of their day. I confess I get tired of school and don’t want every activity to involve education. And my children are wonderful, but I would do a disservice to them by letting them entirely direct the course of their education as they don’t seem to naturally attracted to activies that expand their horizons.

  22. I think the most useful thing about the cave man image is that it gives you a funny, lighthearted way of explaining what you’re doing.

    The common response you get is “yeah but cave men only lived to be 35.” But that’s a softball.

    Plus, people see me now and can tell I’m not only in good shape, but feel good, and then its kind of like “well, seems to be working for you. . .” End of full blown mockery. (The kidding will continue though.)

  23. Typically, I just say “I tend to eat Paleo.” Either they already have a ‘category’ for that, and go ‘Oh, ok’ or they can then google it.

  24. I would like to correct your definition of “radical unschooling,” Mark. Radical unschoolers simply take the same respect they have for their children’s learning and extend it to non-academic areas of life: food choices, TV watching, computer or gaming time, chores. They provide guidance, information, support, and choices to their kids the same way non-radical unschoolers do, they just take it a step further.

    There is no version of unschooling where there is “zero input.” Zero input is neglect, it is not a form of homeschooling.

    As far as “standing on the shoulders of giants,” it should be noted that unschooling does *not* mean ignoring what has been done before, nor does it mean working without mentors or teachers. What it *does* mean is that the young person seeks that information when they are ready and when the material they want to learn is relevant to their goals at that time… i.e., when they will actually *learn* from the lecture/teacher/book/experience.

    I would encourage anyone who thinks unschooling might be a good path for their family to look up websites and writings by Sandra Dodd or Joyce Fetteroll, for starters. They have been writing and speaking about radical unschooling for years (they both have young-adult children) and are a great entry point for more information.

    We are two public-school teachers (one current, one former) who unschool our nearly-13-year-old child. It has been an amazing and wonderful journey. Our son has the option to attend school at any time (because we would support him in that interest as well), but continues to unschool quite happily.

    1. I’ve been homeschooling my kids for five years and considering unschooling specifically my middle child. He seems to be a free spirit and struggles with structure.

      1. There are at least a couple families in our local unschooling group who used curricula with their first child or children, but then had a different kid come along for whom it just didn’t work.

        I think if we had not chosen to unschool our son our lives would have consisted of us doing nothing but butting heads! So much better to be on the same side, supporting him!

    2. “There is no version of unschooling where there is ‘zero input.’ Zero input is neglect; it is not a form of homeschooling.”

      Susan, I love this!!

    3. “There is no version of unschooling where there is “zero input.” Zero input is neglect, it is not a form of homeschooling.”

      What happens when your “input” collides with you children’s natural wishes and desires? It must happen. How do you handle discipline if the immediate goal is to set the kid free?

      I do think unschooling works well for a very specific type of child. However, that doesn’t make a universally good idea for all children. And it’s not hard to see how for the wrong family situation, uneverything turns into outright neglect and dereliction of parental responsibilities.

      I tend to get a little squeamish about all this language of “input”. We do try to listen to the kids’ desires, but in the end, DH and I are responsible until they are self-supporting. They know that and I think ironically, are a bit freer to just be kids. They don’t have endless choices and we’re all okay with it.

  25. We wanted something different for our children than what was offered at the local school but could not and did not want to home school. We found this wonderful school, which is a great middle ground. The children learn through hands-on real-world experiences and self-directed learning under the guidance of teachers. It was the best move we could have made for inspired learning for our children, combined with lots of family activities and discussions.

  26. I was ostracized throughout childhood and my entire life for one reason or another. There was run of the mill racism, my shyness and introversion, not having the right shoes or clothes, wrong hairstyle… Not fitting in was unbearably painful. While I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I am so used to being a freak now that it doesn’t bother me in the least. As Mark said, I am very comfortable with it. There is such a strong societal drive to conform, for everybody to dress the same, talk the same, eat the same. Our human need for acceptance and belonging underlies this. All it takes is to find one, two or a few people who do accept you just as you, and you will find that all the rest becomes irrelevant. I have no desire to please anyone else, nor do I need their approval.

  27. I loved this “fly your freak” article. I so, so, so wish we could have Primal Con in South Africa. When I started Paleo, I had teasing, sarcastic comments, and eye rolls from family and friends. Now that I’m on the Auto-immune Paleo Approach, it’s even harder. I’m almost a hermit in my own home. If I go out anywhere, I have to take my own food. It’s difficult but the health benefits are so worth it in the end. It is getting better with the new “Banting” diet which is trending here in South Africa at the moment. It’s very similar to Paleo/Primal – Tim Noakes’ diet. Just wish my family would be more understanding though.

  28. I was born a freak, always interested in and doing things well beyond my age group, and outside my gender stereotype. I keep moving from tribe to tribe until I find one I can sit with for awhile, then I move on. Moving from the frugal world to Paleo really opened my eyes, and I stayed for the diet that fit my food allergies. I moved here because it’s more active. But at the same time, I scouted (and found) a new place to move onto: low-carb, because it (for a time) answered my weight loss needs within my diet limitations. When THAT stopped being interesting (due to various artificial foods creep and corner-cutting), I moved onto a purer form that answers both my need for limited food intake, and limited food choices (for now): ketogenic. But even that seems to be a place filled with ghosts of times past, except for Jimmy Moore’s site.

    i may not ever find my “happy place”–who knows what lies over the horizon? I’d like to know, so that’s probably where I’m off to next. Curiosity hasn’t killed THIS cat yet, so I’m gonna keep searching.

    Mark is like one of my more interesting teachers from college: the articles are ALWAYS relevant, ALWAYS timely, and I can’t seem to stop popping in for a good read (and comment). You ask me, his site is THE sort of unschooling I wish I had in my formative years.

  29. Unschooling is not a new discussion topic, it was his book “Deschooling society” (1971) that brought the works of Ivan Illich to public attention.

    Illich centered his book mainly on the premis that the school-system is trying to form people to fit into a highly institutionalised world. However, that highly institutionalized world does not exist and should be prevented for the sake of our humanity.

    Developing this idea Illich proposes four Learning Networks:
    – Reference Service to Educational Objects – An open directory of educational resources and their availability to learners.
    – Skills Exchange – A database of people willing to list their skills and the basis on which they would be prepared to share or swap them with others.
    – Peer-Matching – A network helping people to communicate their learning activities and aims in order to find similar learners who may wish to collaborate.
    – Directory of Professional Educators – A list of professionals, paraprofessionals and free-lancers detailing their qualifications, services and the terms on which these are made available.

  30. I love the idea of un-schooling. My wife and I are planning on homeschooling our girls and we have discussed the idea of regular field trips to learn things not normally taught in books. We are fortunate enough to have nearby parks, a zoo, and a science learning center that is a wonderland for kids. Also want to get them in the gardens to learn about where their foods come from and take them out camping to learn basic camping/survival skills.

    Anyone got any other ideas?

    1. Just be flexible about discovering who they are for education. Have fun in the grammar school years – they only need to learn math and reading/writing. I fell in love with certain education ideas to find that it didn’t work for my practical to the core children.

      I love having them home, but most of their education comes from textbooks right now as they are in middle school. Their mother isn’t enthusiastic about what appears to be fluff and it turns out they aren’t either. 😉

  31. I am not an unschooler, but I am a homeschooler. I do guide my children through a school year with a fairly set curriculum. That said, it is much more fluid and flexible than a brick and mortar school would be.
    First of all, our school year is completely different. We live in Florida and the weather is hot and muggy all summer long. Why take a summer break when it’s only pleasant to be outside in the morning? We walk or play outside in the mornings then come inside and “do school” when its hot all summer. When autumn & winter roll around with much nicer weather we take nice long breaks and enjoy having the parks and playgrounds to ourselves because everyone else is in school!
    I am also able to tailor our curriculum to both of my children’s needs. Each of them, at one time or another, has needed some extra time to grasp a concept. We are able to drop back and I try presenting it in a different way. (This doesn’t often happen in a traditional school.) And sometimes, we fly through lessons. Why waste time writing a spelling list five times for each word if you can test out of it the first time I rattle off the words for you?
    If my husband can come home early from work, we can put the books away and begin again tomorrow.
    If there is anything I love about homeschool its the freedom!
    And, honestly, I never dreamed how cool it would be to watch my children learn. I’m there witnessing all their achievements. From first steps, to multiplication tables, to journal entries, its been amazing.
    So their you have it: We’re Christians, we’re primal, we’re homeschoolers!
    Talk about letting your freak flag fly!

  32. Ah, unschooling is so dear to my heart, and I love that it brings the love of learning back to me as well. Another fellow unschooling mom and I are going to go back to school just to go through the Calculus sequence – all because it is inspiring to be around young, interested minds. To successfully unschool, you have to have trust in your kids, I think. And, you have to be ready to go on adventures they ask for, or make up your own on just about a daily basis. Sometimes, my daughter will get up and want to see the Zoo or the Science Center, so we get cleaned up and go right away. Or, some days she wants to see a music show, so we find a free outdoor concert or musical to see. Or, some days she wants to watch a lot of cartoons, which you would think is terrible for her right up until you realize that she uses these as a jumping bored to create her own dramatic stories and plays. She literally dissects what she sees and rehearses scenes/adds stuff on from shows she watched until she feels she’s mastered the performance (She’s really into performance arts right now). You just have to trust that your kid isn’t lazy and try to always help them get to the end goal of what they are so interested in at the moment. I could go on and on because I just love this style of homeschooling. It feels so natural.

  33. Unschooling!!! Yes. I do this with my five children. It was a part of my movement to a more natural, intuitive way of living. Today I have kids that hike barefooted through the woods, can identify numerous edible mushrooms and plants, know firsthand the value of work and play. As a matter of fact, Mark’s Daily Apple is an oft used and quoted part of our learning day! Un schooling is not passive. I bust my butt to supply the kids with the tools to educate themselves in all their various interests. The 17 year old starts college this fall having never been enrolled in a school before and I garentee that he will bring some very different educational experience to his classes. Thanks Mark for raising awareness of this lifestyle of natural learning.

  34. I was very lonely when I changed my lifestyle almost 4 years ago. I started my own meet up group on We now have over 500 members. I highly recommend this website to anyone seeking like-minded fellows no matter what your interests may be.

  35. My wish is to homeschool/unschool my son. He has such a zest for learning that isn’t really helped by public school. We hoped that this year would start our journey on that but alas not yet. He is that kid who wants to know EVERYTHING about ANYTHING so we kind of unschool him by having him learn on his own what he’s interested in although he does go to public school presently. It’s not really a good fit, it’s boring and he draws on all the schoolwork as he’s doing it. It’s nice that his 4th and 5th grade teachers were fine with it as is his teacher this year.
    About being a freak, well, I’m ok with that.

  36. Let your freak flag fly. Life is too short so why bother with what others think. I stopped caring about what Most OTHER people, outside of immediate family, say or think. I see it as life is tough and one must find what they are passionate about and run with it. If others stand in your way then are they truly in your corner to begin with?

    As for unschooling, that would be awesome but not entirely possible due to work schedules so we compromise. Our son & daughter are very young so we spend as much time in the woods, exploring our city, etc as possible. We give them space and come in to answer any questions. We’ve limited electronics as best as we can so they can utilize the outdoors to the max. Again I don’t care what others think b/c my kids are my gift to the world an dI want them to be as well rounded as possible.

  37. Whilst I agree on the idea of unschooling for some people, I personally think that it would be a good idea to work on changing the schooling system. The socialisation in large groups can be difficult to replicate in home school environments but not impossible. Improving the school system is completely achievable with the right steps over the years.

  38. I did well in school and unschooled myself I guess you might say with constant preoccupation with the outside world and looking things up in the encyclopedia and having a notebook of questions. (Yes, I am in my late 40’s.) But it’s been really troubling to me to see now how much schools demand one learning style while in the work world it’s not completely like that — you have this whole world to pick from and the people I know have landed where their learning style fits a job. I have watched really smart kids fail and then disconnect within a system that only supports one way.

    I thought there was one way when I “won” in it. I was wrong. I look back and an incredible amount of what I know I learned myself as a little kid and by doing in the wilds of life (mostly by volunteering: learning by doing). Although I did have some awesome teachers here and there in my school system.

    And totally changing the subject, I just wrapped a wedding gift in a Vibram box. I guess if you can’t wear them to the wedding, use the box.

  39. Embrace the counterculture! Seem out the freak in you and love it. I do pretty much what I want to do every day. My girlfriend says I am weird. Her dad says that I am a FREAK! Another buddy says I am a crack pot. In high school I was the “health nut.” I’ve been called crazy many times. As long as you aren’t hurting another person, just be happy about the fact that you are not boring haha

    I disagree about the suggestion of not wearing Vibrams at a wedding though. Unless you were going barefoot!

    Join a Meetup if you can’t find like-minded individuals.

  40. So happy to see so many freaks here! <3

    I unschool my 17 year old son. I originally took him out of traditional school like someone said above, "to heal from middle school", with plans to send him back a year or 2 later. BUT, the break went so well, I decided that he'd never attend traditional school again unless it was HIS choice.

    My son has had a specific passion since he was a toddler. I have facilitated and encouraged his passion, even though I thought it would go away. It has not, and he can turn it into a great career. Along the way, he has self-studied and learned all sorts of things (including math and writing skills) both directly related to his passion and not. We have been extremely lucky to have had (and still have!) a number of fabulous mentors in this journey, many of whom have also taught him invaluable life skills. Many of those are now encouraging him to go to college. He would have likely never even met these people had he been housed inside the walls of a school.

    Gone are the daily battles over school and homework, daily bullying at school (sometimes even from teachers!), and for me, almost weekly visits to the principal or counselor who did nothing but tell me negative things about my son (the final straw was their recommendation that I put him on Ritalin). He and I don't battle AT ALL any more; he's a respectful, decent, responsible young gentleman. His curiosity and creativity is alive and well. And his self-confidence simply blows me away. Is he perfect? Of course not. But I don't need a "show-pony". I wanted a child who enjoys life and who has a life-long love of learning.

    My only regret is that I didn't do the same thing with my other 2 children.

    I find that most people who unschool (including me and my son) just tell people that we homeschool to avoid the "you're a complete freak!" looks, comments and lectures about how I'm depriving my son of _____________ (usually LOTS of things).

    For those who are considering the homeschool/unschool path, there are countless FREE resources for learning (in addition to Real Life) on the web such as Khan Academy and MIT's curriculum.

  41. I unschool my twin 6 year olds. They get to dive into so many interests and play all day long. While in that play they learn a lot about STEM and we incorporate that knowledge into everyday activities. We read about 6-10 books a day. The kids have unlimited access to the TV-which they choose to use for watching how-to and learning videos like Bill Nye and Minecraft tutorials, gardening how-to, play-dough sculpting, dance, science experiments, nature documentaries, etc. They just turned 6 and now how to work well together, be peaceful and respectful, and love learning. Some days they watch no tv and some days they watch several hours. Most days they watch less than most kids. They are active for about 6-7 hours each day. They are creative, love problem solving, doing thoughtful things for others, and so far for them, learning is a pleasure not a task. I am there with them all day to guide them, ask questions to get them thinking about things (questions that I asked them prompted them to brush their teeth without being told, eat their broccoli, and wash their hands before eating and after coming home from some place). Dad comes home and it’s time for another perspective and personality. They learn from cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, too. I love it. I understand concerns about unschooling in the modern world. But even having a child in public school carries concerns if parents aren’t present, observant, and supportive of their child’s interests.