I imagine my progeny – he’s a little Tom Sawyer, shirtless, shoeless, laughing, his Aussie Shepherd big brother at his side – running across the backyard with a stick in his hands on a sunny morning. Is he bug hunting? Is he playing gun? Is he spelling words in the dirt? Is he playing fetch? The pup sure hopes so.

Funny thing is, it’s a Tuesday morning. And a school bus drives by. Dozens of dazed faces peer out and watch this wild child and pup carelessly weave through the trees in the yard, a few kids jealous, a few kids too tired and sad to care. They’re on their way to a place called SCHOOL, while my kiddo has an entire backyard to explore. He has no SCHOOL; he has his LIFE, instead. And he will likely learn a lot more important things with a stick and his inner-voice than he will with a number two pencil and a slew of adults he only knows by Mr. or Mrs. Last-Name.

Some people call it Unschooling and some people call it Real World Education. It’s a world of self-directed learning and pursuit of passions, of adventures and trouble-making, critical thinking and problem-solving. There are plenty of moments alone, plus plenty of time for mentors – men and women in the community the child can meet and call by first name. More importantly, there is time for childhood to exist.

“But Rich!” some people say. “’Wild child?’ Are you insane? Your kid will likely reject all the magical ideas you have and want to play video games all day or be a total brat who doesn’t know how to read or add or name all the state capitals!” To which I reply, “Name a kid who isn’t like that.” It’s interesting to me that people who hate to read, hate to think critically, and prefer to zone out on mindless entertainment all the time all went to public school. Then they elect Trump and Clinton and wonder how that happened.

And no one cares about the state capitals. Most of them are terrible places, anyway.

There’s that whole “socialization” argument, as well, as if the kid was a puppy who would hump your leg if it wasn’t introduced to other puppies at the proper age. Ben Hewitt, author of the memoir/unschooling manifesto Home Grown: Adventures In Parenting Off The Beaten Path, Unschooling, And Reconnecting With The Natural World, retorts: “No, we are not worried about their socialization. Don’t you worry about what schoolchildren are socialized to?” Watch the school bus drive by, their little brain-dead foreheads pressed against the glass, the sugar highs from their cocoa puffs wearing off before the day even begins.

Ben Hewitt’s two sons, Fin and Rye, live on acres and acres of farm and forest in Vermont. They raise goats, they carve bows and arrows, they hunt, they hay, they have relationships with all the neighbors and help them on the farms, they practice fur-trapping (they even passed the government-sanctioned tests at ages under ten!), and when they cut themselves building cool stuff in the barn with ridiculous tools, they go into the kitchen and grab the tea tree oil and bandages and clean themselves up. The best part is when they realize that sometimes other kids think they’re a bit “different” (a.k.a. weeeeeird), Fin and Rye don’t care. They laugh about it and run off to play with their real friends, who don’t care either.

But Fin didn’t start reading books until he was seven – so he should have been put in school instead, some people say. I’ll still bet he reads more now than any student does. And he gets to sit out in the sun or by the woodstove, if he wants. No bony school chairs for him!

Does it really matter when a kid learns to read? Or if he sits in a room with other kids his age for 15,000 hours? That’s a high number; it’s haunting to realize I’ve been through it. And now I am seeking a self-sufficient life so I can raise my own future child in a way vastly different from my own raising. Ben Hewitt thinks the same thing and asks the same things:

A question I ask myself with some frequency, and particularly as I struggle with one or another of our parenting choices is this: “What is an education?” And, not inconsequently, “What is a childhood?” Should it be one thing, and not another?” It’s a silly question, really, a bit like asking, “What is a person? Should she be one thing and not another?” But even if it is silly, it grounds me. It reminds me that assumptions we have arrived at regarding education are just that: assumptions. They are stories born of a culture, and like all stories, we can choose to believe them or not. We can choose to listen or not. We can choose, even, to write our own stories.

When presidents get on TV and say things like “We need to improve education in this country so we can have more scientists and engineers and doctors,” not only are they feeding the narrative that the only way the world will not burn down is if we maintain the status quo, they are also getting less of those scientists and engineers and doctors. We sure have a lot of baristas and bartenders in this country right now with degrees, many of whom are burned out on life before they hit puberty. What’s to stop a young person from tending to pets and farm animals and their own knife wounds to find an interest in the medical field? With a solid work ethic from pursuing a passion and a real lack of willpower-sucking classwork and endless sitting and staring at white cinder block walls, we may have a Ph.D. in our midst.

There is more to unschooling – “learning through living,” Hewitt suggests – than preparation for an economy that might not even need you when you graduate (how’s that Communications degree treatin’ ya?). Children need to feel trusted. They need to feel useful. They need to be given responsibility. They get none of these things in public school. These are the real life values that make men (and women) from children. They learn them at home and in their communities.

“When you take responsibility from a child,” Hewitt writes, “he becomes less responsible. And as he becomes less responsible, he is granted less and less responsibility.” That sounds like every kid I’ve ever met or hung out with growing up. Challenges are hard to meet; usually there is someone else to do it; and when there isn’t, f*ck it, right? I’ve said that, too.

I recently roofed my house – the first time I’ve ever tackled a project of this nature and size. I was tempted to jump off the roof a dozen times and pray my neck cracked, but I learned incredible lessons about myself. That I can actually do these things, that I can be patient and quiet and that swearing doesn’t make shingles stick to roofs. That I can call down hearty helloes to neighbors, who are all impressed that I can climb a ladder and hammer nails into my house. That I like being tired and achey and covered in gloopy tar. Things I probably should have learned when I was, say, ten. And I made lots of mistakes, but I’m proud of them. They’re my mistakes. To learn late is better than to not learn at all, whether it’s for myself, or to observe my own future children, as Hewitt does now:

It’s taken me a long time, probably longer than it should have, but I think I might finally be learning to let go. To let my boys saw and hammer. To let them negotiate and argue and yell. To let them screw up and start over and screw up again. To let them bleed and to let them stop their bleeding. To let them follow the spark of an idea and see where it takes them.

What do my children most need from me? The answer is humbling: They need me to let them be.

So if my own little kiddo wants me to come out with him and help him identify the plants in the yard, or count the trees, I will gladly join him. If he wants to get in a little trouble, get a little dirty, perhaps poke the dog with the stick and get a nip and a friendly reminder not to do that again, his choices will offer important lessons. “Unschooling is not about the discovery of any particular body of knowledge,” says Hewitt. “It is about the discovery of self.” That’s some powerful stuff. Someone in touch with himself will learn everything he wants to learn and do everything he wants to do.

It is the true difference between someone who takes the time to be alive and experience his own life and someone who salivates at bells and gets salisbury steak in a styrofoam container instead. The former will usually feel meaningful. I hope my kid does, too.

Maybe he will; maybe he won’t. The fun part of being alive is you can’t predict the future. And the future is less predictable – meaning, more fun – when a child can grow up the way he ought to grow up: free. And it turns out, Hewitt concludes, when they’re free, they want to learn more and do more and be more:

…the more freedom and autonomy I allow my children to follow their passions and to learn on their own terms, the more passionate and eager to learn they become. The more engaged they become.

And it turns out, in that case, so do we:

And, inasmuch as I grant myself the same freedom and autonomy, the more engaged I become. The more I learn.

I’ve always thought the term “unschooling” was silly if the kiddo has never been sent to school, but now it’s starting to make sense.

For now I have to daydream about the kiddo, my wild child running shirtless in the yard. Someday he’ll grow up a bit and put a shirt on. Perhaps his stick will be replaced with his dissertation, his ballcap with a graduation tassel – or perhaps a wrench and a mechanic’s hat. Or something else I can’t even imagine yet. If he’s happy with himself and his life choices – if he feels free and autonomous – I’ll be happy for him, too.