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

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