How do you unschool the multiplication tables?

Ed. note 11/26/2012: Please read all the post and all the comments before commenting. As always, if you have a long response consider writing your own piece and let me know if you’d like me to link. Thank you!

Recently in the commentariat of my blog I received this, from Kelly G:

I think you have a beautiful life, and wonderful children. I am no hater.

I do have a couple of questions though,

How do you unschool the multiplication tables? My daughter has gone to public school with near perfect attendance, and I found that I had to enroll her in MORE school (Mathnasium) to get her at grade level.

Similarly I went to public school and I never learned multiplication tables. I never bothered to teach myself them, so I never learned them. This was a pretty huge obstacle in my life.


Do you think you will be able to unschool during the teen years? How will this affect the process of applying for colleges? Do your kids talk about college as though they expect to go?


“Everything I am interested in, from cooking to electronics, is related to math. In real life you don’t have to worry about integrating math into other subjects. In real life, math already is integrated into everything else.”Anna Hoffstrom

(more great quotes – about math and lots of other stuff – at this quote page)


My reader here (I can tell she’s no Hater!) probably wasn’t looking for a very long answer, but her query raises some great points that delve into the very nature of raising one’s child without compulsory schooling and its application of “forced” learning (you actually can’t force learning, although schools and parents try, and this is why some kids keep not getting math, or whatever).

Briefly: college. Unschoolers, like homeschoolers, usually have no difficulty getting into college and the evidence indicates they generally do better in college than their always-schooled peers. This subject is vast and I’m not going to cover it here, nor address the assumption college is necessarily a good thing (it’s expensive, degrees continue to plummet in value, the average college student changes their major five times, and a college degree does not predict success and happiness). My children know about college of course, it’s another subject that comes up often enough, but steering them in that direction would be rude, unnecessary, and possibly harmful. If my kids choose college I’ll bet they own it.

But ah, math. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MATHS!? As a former math-nerd who KILLED it in high school, then college, and then had a mathy career as chemical engineer, I know too well the pressure to be awesome at math. And I also know what it’s like to be awesome at math. And as an unschooling parent, I’ve heard countless – and I mean countless – queries about math, teaching math, “lazy” kids who won’t do math, “is it OK if I unschool but make them do math workbooks?”, et cetera. Now since there is an absolute wealth of radical unschoolers (“radical unschoolers” is shorthand for, those who don’t enforce ciricculum and usually parent without coercion or punishment) who’ve written about math, I don’t need to duplicate their fine work (I have some links below). Most experienced unschoolers will identify “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MATHS!?” as the number one query people ask after, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SOCIALIZATIONS?” The links listed below are not to overwhelm but to encourage any reader here to self-educate.

It’s interesting the comment here involves multiplication tables. A woman I know took her child out of school at about age eight. For one and a half years, this kid did not want to “learn” anything. If he felt he was trying to be “taught”, he avoided the exercise like the plague. This caused her some anxiety, of course! But she stayed true to unschooling – or, as is more accurate – deschooling – and continued to support his interests. He was doing so much better emotionally and from a behavior standpoint, that I think that gave her the necessary courage. One day when he was about nine and a half he asked her about the times tables – he needed to know them for some interest he was pursuing. She reported this to me as a great relief in her unschooling career. I admire her having the guts to stick to it, because I know how much pressure is applied that kids should learn a certain skillset at a certain age. And not that it matters, but he chose times tables about the age, or a little earlier, than school tries to cram them in kids’ noggins.

My kids never had to deschool, so they’ve always liked learning, all subjects. PLEASE THINK ABOUT THE IMPLICATIONS OF THAT FOR A HOT MINUTE.

I’ll wait. Please keep thinking about it.

OK, so Kelly’s comment above reads in part:

I went to public school and I never learned multiplication tables. I never bothered to teach myself them, so I never learned them. This was a pretty huge obstacle in my life.”

I could write loads on this but I’ll just make a few remarks. A., here is another demonstration schooling doesn’t work for teaching math any better than anything else, and there’s a lot of evidence it makes people into big math-haters (or math-fearers). Some kids are going to get it, but a lot of kids are going to learn to hate math (and learning).  The comment here proves school, and more school (in the case of Kelly’s child), doesn’t make someone a math whiz.

B., I hope it occurs to some readers that the very structure of compulsory schooling helps create a child who is resistant to learning, especially certain subjects. Even more grave, the school schema saps many kids of their drive, their self-knowing, their authenticity, and their creative expression. Children end up in memorization-based math training not because they love it (more in a second about the kid who does love math), but are struggling (or succeeding) for the praise and at the insistance of adults – or the ultimate in other-validation, a 4.0 grade. Graver still, kids attempt academic achievement chasing the adult-taught illusion of guaranteed future security in some way (how often was I told my math and science intelligence was going to write me CARTE BLANCE to a financially-secure and therefore entirely successful life?). Saddest of all, kids learn to succeed (or struggle), to try to obtain assurance of their parents’ love. Compulsory schooling (and authoritative/authoritarian parenting) are likely to influence a child into confusion; she may indeed learn NOT to go after what she wants. She may need adults or authority figures to tell her how to do what and what terms define “success”. Now the child who loves math, like balls-deep loves it? Is going to love math if she is unschooled, too. Got one of those living in my house, except instead of doing tedious workbooks and word problems he does life-relevant things with his math skills.

C., I think Kelly has a bit of fear about math (many people do!). I ask: who needs this child to succeed in math? The child? Or her parent? This is another example of parenting one’s fears. I am not picking on this query or comment, and I’m glad this person asked. Many, if not most, parents end up parenting their fears. I’ve written literally thousands of words on this. Unlearning our fear-based mindset and strategies is the process of a lifetime, meaning I don’t claim perfection. But just because we started out on this path of fear-based strategies (or as is more common, a snakes’ nest mess of them!) does not mean we have to continue doing things as we have been.

So what about that whole, “I never learned this and it really hurt me” business? I hear it a lot. WHY did you never learn it – and was it necessary that you should have? What did you learn instead? Do you still hold shame and fear around this issue? Is that influencing you in a positive way with regards to your parenting? A few more questions about “making” your kid learn vis-a-vis school. Is it working, is it really working? Do you think our typical parenting and school models help children to be self-validated and do what they need to do? Or do these edifices stunt that process in any way?

My unschooled kids pursue the skills they need with a focus, humor, and joy that is amazing to behold. Happily, this ability is true of most any child – look at the schooled kids who race to my home and play a game that involves a lot of memorization. Sometimes they play it for hours until they’re called home. Imagine if that wasn’t a couple hours of bliss out of your child’s week, but your child’s whole day most days. A child in a nurturing life learning home gets to define her own terms, try, make mistakes, get up and try again. She gets to rest, eat, sleep, relax, and work when she wants. She is exempt from school culture (unless she chooses it; my children are free to do so) which is often imbued with not-insignificant climates of bullying, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, materialism, anxiety, and hours of tedious desk-time. Eight-plus hours a day.

I know it’s hard to wrap one’s head around a lot of this stuff. It was, for me. To any parent or carer interested in life learning – or anyone who thinks they might be at some point – I urge you to do the footwork on building a different future for your family. Here are a few links to get started.

Wendy Priesnitz; this link will take you to her various publications. Wendy was my number-one mentor when I was first considering unschooling (I was scared and uncertain!). I have so much gratitude for her body of work, which spans decades. Besides 30ish years of a wonderful career, she and her partner Rolf raised two always-unschooled daughters who are now adults and doing just fine.

Idzie Desmarais put in quite a few great 101 (and beyond-101) posts on unschooling. Her archives are fabulous. Start here and explore the site!

Sandra Dodd has some great writings on math and unschooling.

Try to find a copy of Parenting A Free Child by Rue Kream.

Please feel free to comment here, or if comments have closed by the time you read this, write an email and I will upload it here for comments (with your permission). I can’t speak for Wendy, Idzie, Sandra, or Rue – or any other person – but I’m happy to give my perspective on the pieces you read, or the difficulties you have.

My partner Ralph and I have proved to ourselves we will walk through hellfire and every obstacle to raise our kids in freedom. Mental, physical, emotional and spiritual illness have not deterred us. Financial hardship has not deterred us. Social, cultural, familial, and “academic” skepticism (both genuine and sweet, and … other kinds) have not deterred us. Being in a super-fringe radical minority (for now), and the discomforts that can evidence, have not deterred us. So when I write here, it’s to encourage anyone else who has that drive or is starting to think about this amazing way of life.  I can tell you, raising our children without forced institutionalization has been one of the best choices we’ve made. It has improved our lives in almost any way you could imagine.

But one caveat. If you’re starting to consider unschooling but you’ve still got math fears – or whatever fears – it’s better to go for it, surround yourselves with mentors & commit to YOUR deschooling (and unpacking of adultist mindset) – but bring out the math workbooks if it helps you. Or the enforced bedtimes. Or whatever. If you’ve read here long you know I began as a pro-education parent (and pro-compulsory pubic education, pro-public school, pro-academic achievement model). At first I had a cirriculum. Then I had workbooks floating around (which the kids loved doing, always on their own steam). The kids  grew out of math workbooks pretty quick, although they do them now and again for fun. Mostly they do a lot COOLER stuff now. And as for math – Nels was six – I think – when he mastered – and I mean beat the game – Plants Vs. Zombies. He’d play it over and over again, using different algorithms to win. That’s math. Math at this point I couldn’t do easily. I think this was also the point he’d be adding and subtracting three column numbers with 100% precision, and doing things like counting very high by 11s, stuff like that.

You’ll never see your kids doing stuff like that, stuff that just amazes you and that you can know you didn’t force, and you’ll never end up parenting your faith rather than your fears, if you don’t go to the end of that diving board and do a little bit of a hop.

My Daughter Asks A Hard-Hitting Question

13 thoughts on “How do you unschool the multiplication tables?

  1. This is great. Thank you for writing it. Like most other unschoolers, we get this question a lot. My kids have never been to school and I’ve never attempted to formally teach them any math. I don’t think they’ve ever even seen a workbook! In fact, recently my husband and I were talking about something and I said the word “math” and my 7-year old said, “What’s math?” And yet, just yesterday in the car, out of the blue he stated, “Mama — three 2’s makes 6.” To which, my 5-year old replied, “Yeah, and two 3’s also makes 6!” The four of us then proceeded to have a lovely, genuine, and EXCITED conversation about numbers. That’s just one small example of the kind of thing that happens all the time at our house — about all different kinds of subjects. My kids amaze me and have taught ME so much.

  2. @C
    You’ve got it. It gives me chills to think how many children have learned to loathe or fear certain subjects – or become apathetic and disinterested. Or, children who learn they are “better” than other children because they’re better at math (or the reciprocal case). Et cetera. Life learning/unschooling offers a way outside of those too-common experiences for kids.

    Thank you for your comment!

  3. So last night at the pool, a kid approached my daughter and asked,

    “Do you go to school?”

    “No,” Phoenix answered.

    “What is one plus one?” the kid challenged.

    “Stop bothering me with silly questions,” my daughter responded.

    *DIES* she is so incredibly awesome. You all know how sweet and polite she is. I’m so glad she can OWN it when she’s being condescended to, though.

  4. Right on.

    Truly, public school is not the definitive answer. Lard no. I think that I do best when I look at it as state funded day care. (That knocks off for work at the drop of an anything.) I’m sorry that you have to take shit for unschooling. I would do u.s. myself, if I had the circumstances.

    Mathnasium been wonderful in helping my kid reclaim math. It’s also really expensive. Relatively. So public school + math and music lessons + homeschooling in concert are *an answer.
    None of that leaves much time for unschooling. My daughter is doing that on her own. My unschooling is unawesome, but you have me thinking, definitely.

  5. “None of that leaves much time for unschooling.” ~ Kelly G.

    If your daughter wasn’t going to public school, math lessons, and music lessons (unless she wants to), then she would have plenty of time to unschool (pursue her own interests). Unschooling isn’t something that you do in your spare time. It’s about life learning. You learn all the time just by living life. Unschooling is not another subject like math or English.

    Loved the article, Kelly H.! My three children have learned so much more during the past 3 1/2 years of unschooling than they ever did in public school. It’s so exciting to see them interested about learning because they are learning what interests them. 🙂

  6. @Kelly G
    We all want to do well for our kids. I’m really grateful that when I wanted to look into home/unschooling I had good support. I hope anything I write can help. Thank you for your original question and thanks for writing in!

    Thank you for commenting! You remind me; I’d love to read more about the deschooling process and how it’s gone down for individual families. I think one reason parents who might otherwise unschool, choose not to, is because they foresee their kids will have all sorts of problems. And they might be right, but they also might not be seeing a little further down the road as to how their kid responds when he/she really, truly believes unschooling is actually happening and they will not be forced back into school! Many kids believe unschooling/homeschooling to only be a “trial” (and sometimes those kids are right!) and they don’t truly deschool. Anyone who’s been through this or seen it, knows what I mean.


    Not directed re: any comment in particular, but I wanted to add something. Anyone else who comments or writes more, play super-nice as this subject can quickly devolve into an unproductive conversation. I realized that since I have a tiny bit more readership lately and new people coming on to read, I’d like to draft some kind of guidelines for comments, esp. on controversial subjects. If any reader has some cool guidelines they think I should adopt, feel free to put them here or email me!

  7. As far as guidelines for comments go, I try to only write comments on others’ blogs that A) I would be willing to say to their face (staying civil and giving the benefit of the doubt, like a decent human being) and B) won’t be misconstrued too much due to coming across the wrong way online (words in print don’t have the benefit of facial expression and emotions for the reader to see). In real life, something that I might say sarcastically or jokingly may not be the best to write in a comment, since the blogger doesn’t know me well enough to read between the lines. I’d rather err on the side of at least keeping things friendly, even when I disagree completely, yet still stating my opinion. No trolling, though!

  8. To expand a bit on Alyssa’s guidelines:

    When writing behave as though speaking.

    When reading behave as though listening.

  9. Really thought-provoking in a number of ways. I might explain that sentence after I’ve gone over my thoughts and read the comments, or I might not 😀

  10. ‘K, have read comments now, at least, so until I ruminate over this a bit and check out links (which I imagine could take some time!) I wanted to say thank you for writing this. Again, explain later, in the meantime I will leave it at, thanks for giving me so much to think over.

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