Teachers Say 'Free School' Mom May Be Setting Up Her Son To Fail After She Shows Off Her 6-Yr-Old's Self-Taught Writing Notebook

She obviously wants what's best for her son, but teachers say she and other unschooling parents misunderstand how kids' brains work.

child learning how to write solar737 / Canva Pro

For better or worse, many parents' philosophies on education are changing dramatically, with trends like "unschooling" and "free schooling" rapidly gaining popularity.

But one free school mom on TikTok had some educators online seeing red flags, and calling out how certain aspects of these alternative approaches to education fundamentally misunderstand how learning and kids' brains actually work.

Some educators feel that unschooling parents set up their kids to fail with unconventional approaches to education.

The exact definition of "free school" seems to differ depending on who you ask, but it's similar in practice and ethos to unschooling — basically not sending kids to school at all and letting them learn and acquire skills via their own experiences and curiosities instead.


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Unschooling and free schooling are intertwined with homeschooling, but they differ starkly in that homeschooling typically follows a curriculum and includes targeted instruction (in theory, anyway — it often doesn't in practice). Unschooling and free schooling, on the other hand, typically eschew these and are sometimes referred to as self-directed education.


None of these approaches are new, but what were once fringe approaches with a distinctly right-wing or libertarian bent have grown massively in recent years. Homeschooling and its offshoots are now the fastest-growing form of education in the U.S., in fact. That rise has correlated with the political and ideological shifts that have intensified since 2020 and have put public education in the crosshairs of conservative activism.

Mom and influencer Mami Onami is among those who have taken a "free school" approach. But educators warned that she and other parents like her may be swinging the pendulum too far away from traditional public education, and unintentionally doing their kids a grave disservice in the process.

The mom said her son's natural interests have led to him independently practicing reading and writing.

"We don't teach our children anything," Mami Onami explained in her video. "Everything that they learn is in response to either their interests or their questions."

@mami.onami The best part is that my son LOVES learning, LOVES beginning something new, and is experienced with practicing things until he improves. They do this school because they want to, and when you want to know something; your retention is 💯. Learn more about what we teach our kids at the story highlight “we teach them” #freeschool #unschool @Your Natural Learner ♬ original sound - Mami Onami

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"My big fear about free schooling," she went on to say, "was that if my kids only went towards what they were interested in …  they would never be interested in things like reading and writing and math."

But she said this has not been the case. She held up a notebook her son had been using, which contained scribbles of short words like lamp, egg, jar, and lion. "This is him doing this by himself. Copying down words from other places, asking us more," she said.

She urged other parents interested in or practicing the same approach to practice patience. "It will come at the right time," she said. "If you are not into your kids conforming, trust that you can follow their interests, and they will learn everything they need to learn, not what other people need them to learn."

But many online were shocked by how far behind typical reading and writing milestones her son is.

To say that the mom's video went viral for all the wrong reasons, at least among some parents, would be an understatement. "This is such a disservice to the child," one wrote. "He should be further than this at 6."


"You’re crippling your children," another sniped. "It’s fine if you want to keep them ignorant and at home forever. Personally, I want better for my kids."

Others felt that this was a clear case of "educational neglect," a form of abuse in which parents deny their children necessary education. One veteran reading and writing tutor on Twitter accused the mom of just that. "Refusing a child the tools they need to read and write at the level of their peers is abusive," she wrote.

"These parents … are failing to exploit the most plastic years of brain development, and these children will forever be behind in life because of their selfish, lazy parents," another Twitter user pointedly responded.


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Teachers say reading and writing are not skills children can pick up naturally, like speaking. They require extensive instruction.

Jenny Kancho-Johnson is a 20-year veteran elementary educator and librarian with a Master's Degree in Literacy and national certifications in early childhood education and English-language learning. (Disclosure: Ms. Kancho-Johnson is this writer's best friend; her name has been altered for privacy reasons.)

Kancho-Johnson applauded Mami Onami for using her son's interests as a guide. "Using student input and student passions to drive learning is vital for both parents and teachers," she said. "She is right about that part." But she cautioned that taking such a loose approach to fundamental skills like reading and writing is a dangerous mistake.


"But the bottom line is that reading is a science, not an art," Kancho-Johnson went on to say. "It's not something that happens naturally like [speech] development… The brain is not hardwired to naturally pick up reading."

Kancho-Johnson said that while learning these skills from "environmental print" — words a child encounters in everyday life — is a hugely beneficial way to practice reading and writing, it's simply not enough for the acquisition of those skills. 


🌟 Environmental Print Pocket Chart 📚✨ Discover how everyday signs and logos, from McDonald's to Target, transform into fun learning tools for preschoolers. This interactive chart not only boosts early reading skills but also builds confidence and encourages active participation. Watch your little learners proudly say, "I can read!" with each familiar sign they recognize. Perfect for fostering public speaking and literacy from the very start! 🌈👶

♬ original sound - PreschoolVibes

"He's unlikely to naturally, environmentally learn, for instance, that the word 'jump' is composed of four different sounds, and how to apply that decoding to other words he sees," she explained. And she agreed that the level of writing shown in Mami Onami's son's notebook is "very far behind" where it should be by age 6.


The notion that he is forever doomed to impaired reading and writing skills is erroneous, however. That's not how learning and brains operate. But those skills won't develop without intensive and targeted instruction and practice. It's not so much about missing the boat as about getting on it in the first place.

"Research shows that for every year that a child is behind, it takes two or more years of remediation to catch up," Kancho-Johnson explained. She added that this can be done at home by tutors or parents themselves. 'Lesson plans for this can be downloaded for homeschoolers; it doesn't mean the kids have to go to public school," she said.

But "it's not guesswork," she said. "You have to know how to crack the codes — especially in English, which has so many irregularities."


For her part, Mami Onami seemed unfazed. In response to a commenter who said she was setting up her son to fail, she laughed off the notion that her son needs to learn skills "that robots can do in the age of AI."

@mami.onami Replying to @shaylahc1 Thanks for your concerns, the feeling is mutual. #freeschool #bushido ♬ original sound - Mami Onami

But Kancho-Johnson said this take is missing a major part of why we learn to write in the first place. "The actual act of writing increases memory and comprehension" of all skills. "You lose that… when you deprive a child of those skills." It also severely limits a kid's dreams. "Maybe he wants to be a doctor when he grows up," Kancho-Johnson said of Mami Onami's son. "But that's almost certainly going to be out of reach."


She cautioned that the more likely outcome of approaches like free schooling is creating precisely the thing Mami Onami said in another video she wants to avoid. 

@mami.onami At a time where institution after institution of the dysfunctional democracy crumbles before our eyes, why cling to this one? Isn’t it true that every time it was time for a system to change, the people who benefitted from the oppression of others came out of the woodwork and insisted society would be ruined if we thought differently? That the patriarchy must not crumble or else… I’m not raising cogs in the economic wheel. I’m raising leaders of the future. #smashthepatriarchy #unschooling ♬ original sound - Mami Onami

"You're potentially creating a cog that's just going to have to rely on the system and things like that if he's basically illiterate," Kancho-Johnson said. "I get why they think what they're doing is right ... but there's got to be a balance."

Whether or not the need to know how to read and write is ever actually obviated by AI is still anyone's guess. The future is always a question mark — perhaps now more than ever. As good old Benjamin Franklin once put it, "by failing to prepare, you are often preparing to fail." Every kid deserves better.


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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice, and human interest topics.