No school, no exams, no bed time, no meal times, and certainly no rules. It sounds like every child’s wildest dream, but for Dayna Martin’s four children – Devin, 13, Tiffany, 11, Ivy, seven, and Orion, four – it’s a daily reality.
The controversial 39-year-old mum and her husband Joe, 42, have made the bold decision to raise their kids in an ‘unschooled’ household – and they believe that they’re healthier and happier for it.
Dayna explains, “We live life like every day is a weekend. The kids have never been to school and we don’t force them to study at home. We treat them with the same respect as adults – there’s no punishments or chores. They can have ice cream for breakfast and go to bed at 4am if they want. They’re smarter
and better behaved as a result.”
The Martins’ unusual approach to parenting is perfectly legal in New Hampshire, US, where they live. Dayna started following it when Devin was born in 1999.
“At school, Joe and I hated being told what we had to study and resented not being able to concentrate on things we were interested in. I was depressed and rebelled.
“My grades suffered as I simply wasn’t interested in what I was being forced to learn. My parents were frustrated, but when they understood why I was behaving the way I was, they were totally behind me. I graduated high school, unlike Joe who dropped out three months before he was due to graduate.
“I didn’t want the same experience for my kids. We wanted them to be partners in our lives and treated as equals. We wouldn’t tell them what to do, but left them to make their own decisions.”
The mum, who runs a toy-making business with Joe, keeps her kids at home but doesn’t attempt to monitor their reading, writing or maths with tests, instead leaving them to their own devices.
Although there is no structure to their days, she and Joe, who makes the wooden toys for their business, get up at 8am, while the younger kids snooze until 10am and Devin until 2pm. Then Dayna will prepare a breakfast, which generally consists of a buffet including cereal, fruit, eggs and toast.
But she happily admits they are free to have whatever they want. The kids also choose their own clothes, and as far as washing and brushing their teeth are concerned, they’re allowed to make their own decisions about this too.
“I have taught all the kids about the importance of hygiene and brushing their teeth, but it is their responsibility to do it, and if they don’t want to, that’s fine,” says Dayna.
“With Orion, as he is so young, I help him brush his teeth at night, but I would never force him to do it. There has been a couple of times where he has resisted, so I have let him go to bed without doing it.
“At the end of the day, teeth can be fixed, so it’s not something I am going to get hung up on. There might be times, if we are visiting friends or family, when I might suggest to the kids to put a brush through their hair, but again I would never force them.”
Once the kids are awake they do whatever they are interested in doing that day.
“Orion is loving Lego at the moment,” says Dayna, “so I am trying to embrace that by buying him Lego sets, magazines and we even cooked a Lego-shaped cake and visited a Lego museum.
“We have snow here right now, so the girls have been spending their mornings outside making snowmen. And Devin is usually baking or making clothes or jewellery, as he has an online store where he sells the items he makes.
“We don’t believe in following set meals, as who are we to decide the children should be eating three meals a day? So instead I make things throughout the day and there is always food out for the kids to pick at. I love exploring healthy eating, so I generally put out fruit- or vegetable-based snacks and the kids seem to love it. But if one of them wanted something less healthy I wouldn’t shame them into having my healthy option. I would let them eat whatever it was they were craving.”
And there’s certainly no TV ban in the Martin household, instead, Dayna sees it as an educational tool. “I wouldn’t mind if they wanted to watch TV all day,” she says. “Not so long ago Ivy got really into watching a mermaid show, and for two hours every day she would be glued to the programme. I would nurture this by bringing her food while she was watching it.
“There are no restrictions on what they watch, and they have never wanted to watch anything that I might be concerned about.
“The only example of when we had to have a conversation about this was two years ago when Devin said he would like to watch a US crime drama called CSI. I was worried about him watching a show with lots of dead people in it, but we sat down and discussed it and agreed he could watch it with Joe.
“And I am so happy he did watch it, as he learnt so much about investigating crime scenes and autopsies that he would never have known about before.
“If I would have limited that show, I would have limited his learning. The same goes with computer games and the internet – there are no restrictions.
“The kids all have ipads and if they wanted to play on them all day, that would be fine. Devin really got into playing a game called Minecraft at one stage, and he’d go for days on end doing nothing but playing that.
“But Joe and I had absolutely no problem with that, and really encouraged him to be so focused on it. We even took him to Las Vegas to a games convention so he could meet the creator of the game. But eventually he got bored and moved on to other things.
“As parents, it is our job to make sure the kids have all the tools to follow their passions,” says Dayna. “We’re raising entrepreneurs, and already Devin has his own business selling jewellery online and Ivy does pet sitting.
“All of my children are smart individuals, and they can all read and write, but we have no interest in testing the kids ever.
“We don’t believe in prying into the kids’ minds to find out what they know. I don’t think that tests are accurate, and to me, memorising things and regurgitating facts are not indications of how much someone knows.
“All I know is my kids are full of joy and have many, many interests. We supply them with books to do with whatever interests they have at that particular time in their lives.
“And for us, maths is not about studying from text books, it’s about using it in every day life. So it might come when we are baking and looking at the fractions of what ingredients we need in the recipe.”
Dinnertime is never at a set time in the Martin home, and quite often Devin will be eating lunch at the time when everyone else is having dinner. “Most evenings everyone wants something different,” Dayna says. “So I cook or they cook exactly what they want, and they can eat it whenever they feel like eating. If that is peanut butter and pasta, then so be it.
“None of the kids are fat, and I believe that is because there are no restrictions and the kids have become interested in healthy eating after watching me cook with all these great fresh ingredients.
Freedom of choice
“I’ve found giving kids the freedom of choice has worked out perfectly as they don’t tend to crave bad foods, because they can have them whenever they want.
“In fact, at the moment they are all going the other way. Devin is following the Paleo diet, which is about eating whole grains and grass-fed meat, as he had heard about it and wanted to give it a go to improve his fitness. And the girls are currently vegetarian.”
“Every week we all go to the supermarket together, but instead of having one trolley between us, we have one each. We give the kids $15 [Dh55] each, and they are free to choose what foods they want to spend their money on. If they want to spend it all on ice lollies they can. And one time, Orion did put a whole load of lollies in the trolley. But for the most part, the kids like to load up on fruit and they all
After shopping and playing games or watching TV, the children go to bed when they want. “The kids come and go as they please, because who am I to tell them when they have to go to bed?” says Dayna.
“Devin’s at that age where he loves talking to his friends until the early hours of the morning, so he generally gets to bed most nights at 4am.
“The rest are a little earlier, and are normally sleeping by midnight. We never have tantrums at bedtime.”
Fortunately for Dayna, her parents totally support her philosophy, but she says that Joe’s parents are not quite so understanding.
“It is sad, but Joe’s mum and dad just do not understand how we are raising the kids. Of course this is upsetting, but it is their choice and we fully respect that.
“Funnily enough, the older the kids get, the more understanding they become, as I think they can see that they are growing up to be great human beings.”
The children are popular and don’t lack friends because they don’t go to school.
“They have a great circle of friends who are also all unschooled,” Dayna says. “We always have a house full.
“Devin is free to come and go as he chooses, but he always lets me know where he is going and if he wants to see a movie late at night, no matter what time it ends, I am happy to go and pick him up. There are no curfews, because we live in a community where I am comfortable that the kids are safe. ”
And Dayna says she’s not concerned about the children’s futures. “I’m not worried in the slightest that if any of the kids want to go to college they will be behind as they are as bright as any other child their age.
“If the kids want to go to college, then they will just have to sit the equivalent of a high school exam, but more and more colleges are actually embracing unschoolers, as they are recognising how self-motivated most of the children are.
“For now, we’re not going to obsess about what profession the kids will have and what they are going to do when they’re older – we just enjoy every minute.”
And she says the stress-free lifestyle makes her kids healthier. “Nobody in our house has been ill once in the past five years, and I truly believe it is because there is so much happiness and joy in our home.
“To me, your emotional state is everything, and when you are happy I think that you are physically healthier.
“It’s incredibly difficult for parents to retrain themselves into not telling their kids what to do, but once you have got the hang of it, it gets easier and easier over time. I think if more parents took our approach, the world would be a better place.”
l Dayna Martin, 39, of New Hampshire, US