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Book Review: The Call of the Wild + Free

Before reading The Call of the Wild + Free, I had no idea who Ainsley Arment was, nor had I ever heard of the Wild + Free community. I ordered the book intending to review it here. I am forever consuming blogs, books, vlogs, and podcasts about homeschooling in an effort to learn more, so I assumed that I’d learn a few new tips I could utilize and maybe read some relatable anecdotes along the way.

I did not expect that this book would fundamentally change me in the way that it did.

This post isn’t going to be the lighthearted review I planned for it to be. As a matter of fact, it’s not much of a review at all. I can say with complete seriousness that this book substantially changed how I parent and homeschool my children. In this post, I’m going to explain how that happened and why I now recommend The Call of the Wild + Free to every mother I meet.

Before I can explain how profoundly this book affected me, it’s important for you to understand who I’ve been for as long as I can remember.

How I Became Me

My little brother and I were raised by a single mother who worked hard to support our upper-middle class lifestyle. Mom worked long hours and was barely home. As a result, we grew up fast. Like my mom, I became a routine queen, workaholic, and perfectionist.

I measured my self-worth by my productivity, striving to work harder and outperform everyone else.

By age 25, I owned two successful businesses and had published my first book. I was being paid to speak at major conferences all over the country. I was (and still am) one of the youngest experts in my field. My book and products sold so well that I was able to semi-retire before I turned 30. At 32, while pregnant with my fourth child, I expanded one of my businesses into two locations and built a membership program and consulting practice for the other. I also published my second book.

I was miserable, but my restlessness and competitiveness wouldn’t cease. My kids were growing so fast yet most of the time, I treated them as a distraction or an inconvenience. I may have been home with them all the time, but I wasn’t present the way I should have been.

Why did I feel it necessary to keep doing something that made me so unhappy?

Because I felt that a mother without a career was not serving her family.
Because I bought into the “constant hustle” narrative.
Because I believed that your AGI determined whether you were a success or a failure.
Because when I was growing up, I—like so many women—was told “you could do anything,” but heard, “you have to be everything.”

Because I had my childhood stolen from me.

“…in the interest of giving our children the very best of everything—education, experiences, safety, gadgets, clothing, and toys—we have traded their souls for a life in the rat race. We have forgotten that for everything gained, something is lost.”

Ainsley Arment, The Call of the Wild + Free

When we decided to homeschool our kids, I changed my schedule but not my behaviors. I applied those same attitudes and practices that made me successful professionally (but miserable personally) to our homeschool. Every day was planned to the last minute. I assigned the work, set deadlines, and even enforced a dress code. Needless to say, this approach made our homeschool days stressful for everyone involved.

Silencing the Voices of “The Others”

Every mom has a voice in the back of her head that compels her to do what she knows is right for her kids, but that voice also has to compete with dozens of other voices—experts, friends, family members, and strangers who enjoy sharing unsolicited advice—that demand she do the opposite.

My inner voice was telling me that my kids were being robbed of their childhood. It was telling me to relax and let their curiosity lead their education, but the competing voices were telling me that a strict, rigorous approach to education was the only way to ensure success.

About 50 pages into The Call of the Wild + Free, it was like a switch flipped in my brain. I finally saw how ridiculous and damaging my expectations of both myself and my children were.

A series of realizations came all at once. I now fully understand the phrase “snap out of it,” and what that feels like. It was as if a loud, constant noise suddenly fell silent. I truly saw myself for the first time, trying in vain to please a legion of people–both familiar and faceless–who not only lacked knowledge of my family and their needs, but likely didn’t have their best interests at heart.

When my children are babies, I am a crunchy mom by every measurable standard. I am a baby wearing, co-sleeping, cloth diapering, on-demand breastfeeding, homemade baby food-making, cuddle-that-baby-all-damn-day-if-it-makes-him-happy kind of mother—and I do not care what anyone has to say about it.

When my children were at their most vulnerable, I didn’t need permission to follow my maternal instincts. Why did that change when they grew older?

In The Call of the Wild + Free, Arment recounted a similar experience, writing,

“I followed my gut. I gave him my heart. And our souls were knitted together in an unbreakable bond. We were inseparable and perfectly content.
But then the questions came.”

Every parent knows what questions she’s referring to. When our kids are babies, the questions are always about feeding, napping, and milestone development. (“He’s ten months old and still isn’t walking? Have you considered physical therapy?”)

When they’re older and home educated, the questions are about the legitimacy and quality of their education, the impact homeschooling will have on their future, and—of course—“socialization.” (“She’s six-years-old and isn’t reading yet? How will she ever get into college?”)

“We’re conditioned to deny our instincts, outsource our expertise, and become numb to wonder.”

Ainsley Arment, The Call of the Wild + Free

Getting Permission

When it comes to our kids’ education, the stakes feel so incredibly high. The thought of accepting full responsibility for their schooling can be terrifying, but what’s the alternative when they aren’t thriving in the public education system? Do we leave them to flounder for 8+ hours every weekday because society thinks it’s best?

“Dear friend, don’t let a bustling culture determine the needs of your own children.”

Ainsley Arment, The Call of the Wild + Free

I finally feel comfortable rejecting the status quo. I’m able to laugh at the ridiculous expectations and feel empowered to point out how unreasonable they are.

Did I get those tips I could utilize and enjoy some relatable anecdotes while reading The Call of the Wild + Free? Totally. Over half the book provides practical advice for finding a rhythm, evaluating different methods, and figuring out what’s right for your kids.

The most powerful message Ainsley shares is written explicitly in the first and second sections, but is whispered between every line from then on: You’re qualified to raise your own children. You’re allowed to listen to your instincts.

The Call of the Wild + Free

Since reading the book, I have been listening to every episode of the Wild + Free podcast, starting from episode one. While I’ll likely never be able to forsake my beloved boxed curriculum, I have been more intentional about unschooling my kids for half the day and allowing them the freedom to learn through play and exploration. More importantly, I’ve become an almost entirely different person. I feel more confident and capable as a parent, and far less stressed.

So, do I recommend this book? I recommend it so much, I consider it a must-read. Secular parents: unlike other homeschool books, The Call of the Wild + Free contains no proselytizing of any kind, nor will you feel excluded by excessive religious references or content. In addition to being secular-friendly, full of useful content, and so easy to read, the book itself is delightful with full color photos, beautiful watercolor paintings decorating the margins, and a heavier paper that feels good to touch.

Without question, this book is the best I’ve read all year. Buy it immediately. You can thank me later.

“Our kids will have many opportunities for careers, discipline, and hard work. But they only get one childhood. So let’s make it magical.”

Ainsley Arment

What I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Homeschooling

I started homeschooling three of my five kids in February of 2019 and have learned a whole lot in the last seven months. Here’s what I wish I had known on Day 1.

The first 6-8 weeks are rough, especially if your child has developed negative attitudes towards schooling.

Unless you have a saint for a child, you’re likely going to come up against some opposition during the first month or two of homeschooling. Additionally, you’re probably going to feel adrift and anxious at times. You’ll worry that you aren’t doing enough, or that you have no idea what you’re doing.

Parents who worry they aren’t doing enough very likely have no reason to be concerned. Research the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably get so disheartened at times, you’ll lock yourself in the bathroom and cry once (or five times)—particularly if you’re working to correct bad habits and fill knowledge gaps. (Let me do you the favor of recommending that you immediately read Ainsley Arment’s book, The Call of the Wild + Free. I’ve reviewed it here, if you’re interested.)

Your child’s progress will be shocking.

After we made it through our first two months and settled into a routine, I was astounded by the speed at which my kids made academic progress. They learned so quickly! When we started homeschooling, Thomas (4-years-old), wanted to participate, so I let him sit with us as we did our lessons. At that time, he could not hold a pencil properly, let alone write. He knew his alphabet but hadn’t yet been taught the letter sounds.

By the end of Week 10, my son could not only write all letters and numbers properly, he could also do single-digit addition problems independently. Now, he knows almost all of the basic phonograms and is beginning to sound out (and sometimes outright recognize) words.

No matter how well you plan and prepare, you will make changes.

Don’t beat yourself up over expensive mistakes. Every homeschooling parent I’ve met has thrown money into programs, products, workbooks, and curriculum that turned out not to be a good fit for their family. It doesn’t seem to matter how much research you do, how many reviews you watch/read, or how careful you are in your selections. What looks great to you may not resonate with your child, and that’s okay.

You know what else is okay? Dropping things that aren’t working and trying something new.

Before we settled on our current system, we tried Torchlight, Oak Meadow, Power Homeschool, and Time4Learning. We also used Spelling You See for 15 weeks. It took that trial and error period to discover what actually worked, and I don’t regret a bit of it.

During your trial and error period, try to keep your materials in like-new condition. Should they not suit your family, you can sell them.

You don’t need a boxed curriculum and shouldn’t attempt to duplicate public school at home.

It’s true. You can design your own curriculum or forego curriculum entirely. Because structure suits our family when it comes to academic subjects (and because I have way too many kids and too few hours in the day to create my own program), we use:

In the beginning months of our homeschool, I made the rookie mistake of attempting to duplicate public school. I had a schedule, lesson plans, and a dress code. It was a stressful, counter-productive mess. I felt as if I had to be teaching them for some arbitrary amount of time every day, so we were working from 9 am until 4 pm, Monday through Friday.

Now we have a routine, not a schedule. We spend anywhere from 4-5 hours per day on academics, Monday through Thursday. (The length of our school day largely depends on how many questions Lillian decides to ask. She’s extremely inquisitive, so around an hour or so is spent following whatever rabbit holes she wants to chase.) After lunch, the children are free to spend the rest of the day learning about whatever they want. They can do an engineering project from one of their Tinker Crates, code one of their BitsBox apps, choose a painting or sculpting technique to try from one of our art lab books, or just go outside and create their own adventure.

You don’t have to teach everything at once.

I have to remind myself of this damn near every day. Try to limit yourself to four or five subjects at one time. When I started homeschooling, I had the kids doing spelling, reading, grammar, vocabulary, handwriting, writing, math, science, history, health, typing, digital citizenship, and emotional intelligence journaling. It was way too much. Combine lessons where you can and plan to do those extra subjects sometime in the future—not simultaneously. You’ve got time.

You will discover benefits to homeschooling you hadn’t considered previously.

When we began home educating our kids, we had several valid reasons. Now, I have a lot more:

  • My kids have become more responsible. Each of them has always had age-appropriate chores, but I’ve noticed that I’m having to remind and correct them less. They’re taking initiative and doing a much better job than they were previously.
  • The solicitation has finally ceased. We’re no longer receiving automated phone calls, flyers, and notes from the school. I’m not sure if the PTA at our local public school happened to be run by a group of extremely motivated parents, but the fundraisers, meetings, and school events were obnoxiously frequent. We were constantly (and by “constantly” I mean “daily”) solicited for donations and to volunteer our time. While I understand the necessity of it, I’m glad to not have to deal with it anymore.
  • Our days no longer begin with an hour of chaos. Although the older girls would be out of the house by 9 am, the hour preceding their departure were a loud and hectic race against the clock as they rushed around trying to gather their shoes, homework, backpacks, and lunch.
  • No more homework. The volume of homework the kids were expected to do each night completely unreasonable. As someone who has personally experienced the damage caused by the toxic, “constant hustle” narrative imposed on Millennials, I worked hard to establish a work life balance and establish boundaries to keep work from consuming every waking hour of my day.

I do not want my kids to think it’s normal to come home after work and do an hour or more of additional work.

When work ends, it should end. We deserve leisure time. Work is something we do for compensation. If we aren’t being compensated to answer emails, take phone calls, and complete projects after hours, we should not be doing those things. (I spent ten years of my career advocating for workers, so I can’t get started on this topic or I’ll never stop. Suffice to say that I very strongly oppose anything that gives our kids the impression that constant work is not only acceptable, but a virtue.)

Homeschooling might end up consuming your life, in a good way.

Educating my kids became a full-time job, but it also became a passion. (If it hadn’t, this blog wouldn’t exist.) I am constantly looking for activities, books, games, and crafts to supplement their learning. By Thursday afternoon, I’m usually relieved that our school week is over, but by Sunday evening, I’m eager for Monday morning. I’m enthusiastic about all things homeschool-related. I spend my free time devouring books, blogs, and vlogs. When I’m not consuming them, I’m creating them.

Don’t be shocked if you experience the same.


Why We Homeschool

“If not for religious reasons, then why do you homeschool?”

I’ve found that most people don’t understand how loaded that question is. If you’re a homeschooler, you know that our reasons to home educate our children can be deeply personal, and because some people have intense opinions about homeschooling, you never know quite what you’re going to be up against if you provide them with an answer.

I’ll admit, my defenses go up immediately whenever someone raises the topic. Part of me wants to shut the conversation down and move on to something less likely to result in an argument. The other part wants so badly to convince the person asking that #notallhomeschoolers [insert their false assumptions here].

“So, if not for religious purposes, why? Do your children have special needs? Are you located too far from a public school? Were you home educated yourself?”

My kids are average in every way–physically, developmentally, and psychologically. They require no unique accommodations of any kind. Unlike rural families living in remote areas, our house sits less than a mile from a public school. My husband and I were both educated in public schools, so we’re not continuing a family tradition.

We became a homeschooling family by accident. Here’s how it happened.

By 5th grade, my oldest child was barely literate and nobody considered it worth addressing.

When Nicole was halfway through 3rd grade, we became concerned when we realized she spent a considerable deal of time on math and almost none on reading, writing, spelling, or vocabulary—and it showed. She spelled “school” S-K-U-L and wasn’t using age-appropriate vocabulary. While she could read grade-level books confidently, she only understood a handful of the words.

When we brought our concerns to her teacher, we were told not to worry. Nicole was performing above the district average. Her deficits in English would naturally be corrected over time. Essentially, her teacher said, “She’ll figure it out.”

My husband and I aren’t professional educators and we didn’t want to be “those parents,” so we decided to trust the experts. In retrospect, that was our first mistake. We should have involved more school staff and received more opinions instead of blindly trusting a singular teacher.

Halfway through the following school year, we hadn’t seen any progress at all. We were also noticing that Nicole’s attitude towards school was changing for the worst.

So, once again, I raised the issue. Again, we were told we were overreacting. Nicole’s 4th grade teacher laughed when I suggested seeking additional help. She said, “Kids learn at their own pace. Relax. She’s doing fine. She’s testing above the district average.”

This was a second professional elementary educator telling us not to worry. A second teacher telling us Nicole was “above average.” So, not wanting to be a pain in the ass, we took their advice and stopped worrying, even though we felt strongly that these teachers were wrong and our daughter’s situation was not okay.

A quarter of the way through 5th grade, my husband and I were outright alarmed. Nicole wasn’t struggling anymore—she had given up. She hated school, hid assignments, and was apathetic about learning. Each year, her attitude about school had eroded, along with her confidence. That was when I hit my breaking point and started planning to home educate her, at least for the summer. Coincidentally, this happened at the same time that legislators in the state of Florida lost their minds…which brings me to our next reason.

The stakes suddenly became too high—almost overnight.

February of 2019 marked the first anniversary of the Parkland shooting. I was among many parents who were hopeful that this tragedy would lead to legislative reforms designed to curb our serious gun problem, and for a time, it seemed that we had good reason to hope. Finally, it looked like mental health care would be prioritized, at-risk kids would get the help they needed before resorting to violence, and actual change would occur.

Then, all any legislator could talk about was the Guardian program—and possibly arming teachers. I don’t want to make this political, I just want to point out that Florida legislators have a documented history of not honoring the will of the voters, so we considered armed teachers an inevitability, despite the opposition, and despite the fact that we had statistics and multiple (1) cases (2) proving (3) this (4) to be (5) a (6) terrible (7) freaking (8) idea (9).

We asked ourselves, “If the worst were to happen to one of our children, would we be okay with that?”
The answer was a hard no.

We couldn’t ignore the data.

Once we realized institutionalized schooling wasn’t going to be an option for our family (at least, not here), we started doing a ton of research, looking into homeschool outcomes. Honestly, I was shocked at what I found.

Home educated children:

With such a low student to teacher ratio, those results shouldn’t have been so astonishing, but I realized that the handful of homeschooling parents I had known were the type who make a strong case against homeschooling—controlling, anti-government religious zealots who strongly believed absurd public school conspiracy theories.

Obviously, we aren’t those people, and thankfully, neither are a lot of other homeschooling parents.

The public school in our district didn’t appear to have the resources to effectively or efficiently serve its purpose.

In the folder of assignments Nicole would bring home, many answers were marked incorrect, with no explanation as to why. That, in and of itself, wasn’t a big deal. What was a big deal was the fact that when Nicole asked for help, she didn’t receive it. Her teachers were understandably busy, being expected to cover a ton of concepts in a very short amount of time. With 30 students to manage, I can’t even begin to determine how anyone could find time to discover, let alone address each student’s individual deficits.

After moving into our new house, I developed friendships with several public school teachers in my neighborhood, two of whom previously worked at Nicole’s school and left public education for good due to what they considered to be unreasonable, unrealistic expectations. They felt that these expectations created an atmosphere that made providing an engaging, high-quality education impossible. More than the low pay, long hours, and district politics, these teachers left because they hated feeling as if they were failing the students. Public school was no longer about the practice of educating, they said, but supervising the completion of worksheets and preparing for standardized tests.

Reviewing my daughter’s schoolwork made me sad. Instead of bringing home colorful origami birds, a structure made entirely of toothpicks and marshmallows, or a fledgling bean sprouting from a styrofoam cup, Nicole brought home a folder full of xeroxed worksheets covered in red X’s.

“I completed the most amazing packet of worksheets in school today!”

No Kid, Ever

Up until these issues became evident, I had never really appreciated my public school experience. I have vivid memories of finding and analyzing rocks under a magnifying glass in 1st grade, acting out book chapters during dramatic readings in 2nd grade, carefully collecting tadpoles in plastic containers in 3rd grade, spending hours making a model of the solar system in 4th grade, putting together my first real science fair entry in 5th grade, and creating mountains of artwork, dioramas, and poster board projects throughout it all. I may not have always loved school, but I loved learning and doing, and took great pride in my work that carried through to my adulthood. Nicole’s experience was nothing like mine and neither was her work ethic, or her passion for learning.

The concept of institutionalized education stopped making sense.

Like a lot of parents, I did what I was expected to do. Nicole and Lillian both attended preschool. I enrolled them in public school. I didn’t question the process. I attended and graduated from the public school system, so I never stopped to think about whether or not allowing my kids to attend was the right thing to do.

Around the time Nicole entered 4th grade, I realized that my husband and I were the products of a very different public school system, and the pressure being imposed on kids today from such a young age are not healthy or appropriate.

Every educator agrees that kids learn at their own pace, so why are we standardizing education and expecting them all to learn the same way, at the same time?

While the structure of the public school system is practical and convenient, it isn’t logical. In many ways, our approach to education defies scientific evidence and creates an environment that, in my opinion, is harmful to our children’s mental health. After all, we’re forcing them to act against their instincts. Kids want nothing more than to play, but we’re locking them up indoors for eight hour shifts, presumably to begin training them for adulthood…but who decided that this training was necessary from the age of six? Who determined that this approach to educating our kids was healthy or developmentally appropriate?

When the outcomes aren’t supporting the method, we need to reevaluate and make changes, but that’s not happening.

I value evidence-based decisionmaking, and the evidence isn’t favoring public schools. Kindergarten is the new first grade, and our children are being robbed of their childhood. While I highly value education, I’m not willing to subject my kids to this current iteration of institutionalized schooling that sacrifices art, music, nature, and play. I’m not willing to allow them to be the subjects of an experimental education system that expects them to read by age five and understand algebra by age seven.

My kids wanted to be home educated.

We had options other than homeschooling. We could have enrolled Nicole in a private school or charter school, but she was burned out on public schooling (and truthfully, so were we). She and I agreed to spend the last few months of the school year and the summer trying out homeschooling and revisiting the conversation once she was back on track.

Six months later, that time came. After seeing how much progress she had made and how much happier she was, I honestly hoped she wouldn’t want to return to public school. She didn’t. She loves being homeschooled. As long as she continues to love it, we’ll continue to do it.

The constant illnesses and behavioral phases were driving us insane.

Okay, while this alone wouldn’t have been enough to justify homeschooling, it definitely did rank highly enough as a benefit to make the list. With Lillian in kindergarten and Nicole in 5th grade, we were constantly sick. I’m not sure if we just happened to get very unlucky, but we were afflicted with one thing after another from August until May. First, a cold. Then, a respiratory infection. Next, ear infections. Then, a new cough and another ear infection, plus conjunctivitis…

I was pregnant with Micheal and at my wits’ end—but not just because of the illnesses.

Lillian began speaking in this obnoxious, cutesy baby talk in preschool. Over the summer, we managed to get her speaking normally again (mostly), but the first day back from Kindergarten, she was back at it. I cannot express how profoundly annoying this was.

Nicole came home with her own bad behaviors too, like rolling her eyes, talking back, and stomping up the stairs angrily. Honestly, I expected these behaviors since they’re typical of preteens, but they ceased completely within mere weeks of leaving public school. What I had attributed to the onset of puberty and peer influence was actually a manifestation of her low self-esteem and growing hatred of public school.

Nicole thought she was stupid, an assumption reinforced hour after hour in public school, where she felt lost and left behind by a seemingly apathetic system.

She took those frustrations out on us and her siblings. Had I known then that her attitude was not hormonal, I’d have pulled her out of public school a lot sooner and we all would have been better off for it.

Since we’ve been homeschooling, I’ve noticed additional benefits I hadn’t even considered before making our decision. I’ve covered those in this post, if you’re interested.