10/23/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

To Home School or Not to Home School, and What Are the Alternatives?

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I want to homeschool or unschool my children instead of sending them to 6th grade. How do I start?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and get insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Answer by Charles Tips, Lots of direct experience in educational alternatives

"Education does not even start until you realize your time is your own."

--Our oldest son, Travis

First, what is your goal?

Why school? Why teach? Why educate? For me, there are three goals; everything else is secondary.


We want our children to have agency and autonomy, to be able to chart their path in the real world, to have reliable internal controls. (Our public school system is closely based on a model actually designed to prevent this from taking place.)


A high level of talent, expertise or accomplishment provides a wonderful advantage in life. The foundation is finding one's passion and then piling on layers of experience.


We are not judged in life on IQ, not on knowledge. We are judged on the skills we have to offer. There are thousands of skills. The key ones, of course, are social, particularly being able to listen attentively and being able to speak from the heart. The highest slots in society are reserved for those with high-crossover gender skills, that is, the ability to earn the respect of both males and females in your circle.

Like I said, everything else is secondary.

Second, how do you go about it?

Homeschool? Not for my money. One, it's usually a canned curriculum no better than what they'd get at public school. Two, you're the parent. They don't want you as teacher too. Dull and required are two whammies too many.

Besides, the real world -- the best school of all -- is right outside your door. If the goal is to make them successful in the real world, put them in the real world. Starting in sixth grade (age 12) we threw our sons right out the door. We were blessed to have a rare private school (N-8) near us that provided the three goals of education, so it was a matter of filling their summers until high school age.

A few months before the summer that Travis, who often had a video camera in-hand, was 12, I phoned an old friend from college who'd been art director for Texas Chainsaw Massacres and then a couple of dozen other horror movies to tell him my son was coming to Austin, Texas, to be his apprentice for the summer. "Like hell he is!" replied the 50-year-old bachelor.

We finally worked it out that Travis could come for three weeks. Well, Bob's claim to fame was that he was a demanding perfectionist, and, unknown to me, he had a project for which he wanted to take blood splats and bullet sprays to a higher level of authenticity. You can imagine the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old boy for such a project, and they hit it off. Trav ended up staying for most of the summer. Part of what made their annual collaborations over the next decade (until Bob died) work was that Bob was absolutely inappropriate -- he'd have Trav up until 2:00 in the morning watching one horror flick after another, original storyboard in lap with Bob explaining the scene lighting and camera angles. At 13, Travis slept behind the seat of Bob's truck traveling between locations overnight while shooting a documentary on the more famous Indian ruins of New Mexico.

Travis accompanied a young author writing a book on the Maya around Central America. Because he was still flaxen-haired, he was "borrowed" by a 95-year-old shaman and helped him drive evil spirits out of people's dwellings. He worked two winters in Luzern, Switzerland, with the brother of a friend who owned a dive business. They had a project mapping the wrecks of mining barges and ferries in Lake Luzern, and Trav ran the boat while the divers were down. He traveled Cuba for a month with a US high-school class and made a documentary of their trip. And so on.

What is missing? The one big thing missing is play. You cannot have genius without play. You cannot have spontaneity, creativity, socialization, immunity from bullying and many other desirable traits without play, lots and lots of free play. (The limiting of play is another way our schools fail us). Don't worry about lessons, take your kids to parks and playgrounds often and let them have their friends over whenever.

How did all of this work out? First, it was not expensive. In fact, including travel, it was a bit cheaper than having them at home. Second, we were never turned down -- the opportunity to mentor a young person and get free help with projects turns out to be hard to pass up.

How did it work out for getting into college? All three sons picked one favorite school and got in no problem. In Trav's case, the admissions office phoned to say that his application had received the only perfect score ever awarded by their toughest-reviewing professor (in his almost 40 years), and that they had decided to give him a $5,000 grant to honor that fact.

How did it work out for career? Bob died just as Travis graduated college, so Travis decided to get into the film business in NYC. He had a leg-up, as his college had helped him get a semester internship in Manhattan a year earlier. Before leaving, he explained his hope to be working as a cinematographer by age 35 if everything worked out for him. Instead, thanks to Bob's help having provided an undreamed-of advantage, he received the first of his two primetime Emmys for camerawork at 28. Zachary, 28, is an executive in international marketing in NYC. Keaton, 26, is a partner in an animation and motion graphics studio in San Francisco.

How did it work for the main goals? Fantastic. All three learned other languages on the fly. They all taught themselves musical instruments. All three are good at both math and writing with next to no formal training. By the time Travis graduated college, he had a decade of professional film work under his belt. By the time Keaton graduated, he had six credits on feature films as special effects supervisor. By the time Zachary graduated, he had lived and studied (and spoke the language) in Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Paris and Rouen.

Personal Note: This often sounds improbable when I explain it to others. It was actually quite easy. What did we do in between adventures? Nothing; your time is your own, remember? Thing is, once they find passion and excitement, their time is put to the best use possible -- pursuing their own dreams. Our sons will be the first to tell you, there's really no other way to do it, and the way we schooled them (or let them school themselves) has given them an advantage getting ahead in life.

Did we have unique advantages to enable this? No. Now that we live here in rural Texas, we have a dozen neighbors who'd be ideal for such an experience -- a concert pianist and master tuner, a stone engraver, a jet engine rebuilder, a master welder... people who are their own bosses and would love some casual assistance and who very likely would dearly love the opportunity to pass some of their expertise along to your child.

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