PAM: Hi everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Gwen Montoya. Hi Gwen!
GWEN: Hi Pam.
PAM: Just as a bit of an introduction, I’ve really enjoyed reading Gwen’s updates on Facebook for the past few years, and in fact, it was one of her recent stories that inspired me to ask her to chat with me today about this topic! I’m really looking forward to digging into it with you, Gwen, so let’s get started.
First, I was hoping you could share with us a bit about you and your family and how you guys came to unschooling.
GWEN: Sure. Well, so, my kids—my oldest is 15 and my youngest is nine—we’ve been, depending on if you count when we started from age five or if you count from when we started at age seven (because I know different people will count it in different ways) we’ve been doing this for either ten years or eight years. Either way, it’s a really long time.
GWEN: (laughs) So when I had my oldest, I decided not to go back to the job that I was at because the daycare would’ve eaten up all of my income. And so my ex and I started switching schedules; so he would work during the day, and then we would switch and I would go work at night. And as my oldest got older, I realized that we were learning, we were having a really great time, and I wasn’t really interested in putting him into any kind of daycare or preschool.
I went to a Montessori school when I was very young and I loved it—I loved the theory and the philosophy and the hands-on aspect—so I brought a lot of that into our daily life. And then it just sort of became, “Yeah, I think I’m going to try this homeschooling thing—I can do this. I can totally do this. I’m already working and taking care of him during the day so I can totally handle this homeschooling thing.”
And then as he got older, you know, those worries and fears around age four and five were, “Oh, now he has to start reading, and now he has to figure out math.” And so, I remember sitting down and trying to work out a curriculum, like, you know, on Mondays we will learn about this and on Tuesdays we will learn about this, and we’ll do a whole week on studying this topic, cactuses or whatever, because we were living in New Mexico. And that lasted for about 3 days, despite the fact that I spent like a week and a half putting it together. Because I realized what happened is that we were getting so interested in things that I felt like I had to stop learning to go learn about the thing that I had decided a week ago that I wanted to learn about.
It just seemed so counter-intuitive. Like, “No we can’t learn about this thing that you’re really interested in. We have to put that away so that we can go learn about this other thing that you might be interested in.” And so, we just sort of continued that way, and I didn’t know that it was called unschooling.
As he got older, again around four or five, I wanted to find homeschooling groups to hang out with, just so we could have friends, and that, you know, the socialization thing. And we went to a couple of different homeschooling groups in Albuquerque, because that’s where we were living, and we just didn’t find a good fit. There was a lot of parents being mean to kids and yelling at kids, and a lot of punishment, and a lot of, you know, parents on one side of the park and kids duking it out on the other side of the park. And I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted. It just felt really feral. And so, somehow I found this unschooling group, and I didn’t know what unschooling was, but I was like, “you know what? If they’re nice, we’re going to go make friends.”
And so, we went to these park days, and what I saw was parents really being kind to their kids, and kids being kind to each other, and different age groups playing without, you know, fighting and without being mean to each other for the most part (you know, because “kids”). And I just remember thinking, “That’s the relationship I want. This is the relationship I want with my kid and so if that is unschooling, if that’s what makes that happen, then I’m going to do that.” Because it was just—it felt more natural and more nice. Because I didn’t want to be on a blanket in a park complaining about my kids. I wanted to be in partnership with them, and learning with them, and that’s what unschooling is, that’s what I found in that unschooling park group—kindness and generosity and connecting with their kids. And kids ages from like three to ten would play together, and they would make up the games, and then they would stop playing together and then they would come together in a different group of kids. And it just felt so gentle and flowing. And I just loved that. So that’s how I found unschooling.
PAM: Wow, that’s so interesting. I love that story, Gwen.
GWEN: Yeah, it was amazing.
And then I had my youngest, when my oldest was five. So then I had a baby—I was wearing a baby—and my five-year-old, and so we’ve just always been unschooling since then. They’ve never been to school. We’ve always been at home. And then, so, from age five for my oldest until now, and he’s 15, we’ve been unschooling.
PAM: Well that’s beautiful.
I’d love to hear a little more about your kids and what they’re up to—what kinds of things are they interested in right now, and how are they pursuing it?
GWEN: Well, my oldest is, like I said, he’s 15, and I think from my observations of unschooled teens it seems to be a rite of passage to get really interested in manga and anime at some point. So I knew that was coming.
GWEN: I knew that was going to happen. And he is, he’s very interested in manga and anime. He’s reading a lot. He’s watching the shows—he’s watching them in Japanese with subtitles, so he seems to be picking up some Japanese. Whether that will—whether he’ll pursue that further, I don’t know. Again, I know that’s a really common thing for a lot of unschooled teens to do, is to start picking up some Japanese so—if that happens, that happens. He’s also an artist. He’s been drawing since he was seven. He started out with paper and pencil, and then he discovered digital art, so he taught himself GIMP, which is kind of like Photoshop. He’s taught himself Paint Tool SAI, which is like Photoshop but more. He spent hours watching tutorials and learning and practicing. Whether or not, again, whether or not he’ll pursue that, beyond just a hobby, I don’t know. But that’s what he’s really into. He’s a science kid; he’s always been a science kid. For his 12th birthday his biggest wish was to go see Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he was in Portland. So that was his 12th birthday present.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome!
GWEN: It was. He was an amazing speaker. It was a really great night. And then my youngest sort of gets drug along for these kinds of things also. She enjoyed it too, not probably as much, but yeah, he’s really into dinosaurs and history and—I’m raising really geeky children. It’s just happening.
PAM: (laughs) I think it’s our nature.
GWEN: I think it is. I think they follow the kind of stuff that we’re interested in. So yeah, we listen to podcasts like the StarTalk Podcast and some other ones. I’ve given him the option and told him about Coursera and the MIT classes that he could take online if he was interested. He hasn’t done that yet, he’s not really—neither of my children are really interested in classes. I’m always offering because I think the classes sound really cool. I would like to take the classes. But the kids are like, “No, not really.” He took taekwondo for six years, so he’s a black belt in taekwondo. And I think that got all of the classes that he would ever want to take. He just did it that way. So yeah, he’s very much into the manga and the anime and pursuing the interests as they go that way. So whatever he’s interested in, that influences his drawing. So he draws a lot of wolves, he draws a lot of anime characters now. It’s sort of interesting to watch.
My youngest is nine and she is apparently a crafter, which is interesting because I am not. We went up to a local place called Art a la Cart. It’s sadly closing at the end of the month, and it’s sort of a big open art studio with all sorts of materials and—I mean, I’m a homeschooler, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I thought I had a pretty good art stash of stuff to, like, spark creativity, but it was nothing like this place. And we’ve spent hours there. She loves it. So she likes to build things, and create little—especially the miniature kinds of things—so she’s a very big fan of a YouTube and blogger person called My Froggy Stuff. She’s amazing and she does these little intricate crafts from scratch, like you make a little TV for your Barbie, or you make a Harry Potter book for your Barbie. So we do a lot of crafting. Which again, I am not a creative person, so how I managed to create two creative people is kind of …
PAM: I know! (laughs) My husband and I are engineers and yet we’ve got all these very creative kids.
GWEN: Yeah, it’s really interesting to see what that is and how to support that because it’s so out of my realm. I’m finding I’m doing a lot of research to figure out how to do it. Because I’ve never owned an X-acto knife. And now we do this together. And it’s really fun, and it’s really fun to see her creativity grow. Because sometimes she will follow the instructions and sometimes she will take it and create something entirely new. That is really beautiful to watch. So we spend a lot of time at Michaels, we spend a lot of time (laughs) watching videos of the crafters. She really likes one where they play with the little toys. One is called Disney Car Toys—she loves that one—where they do silly things with the toys. And we’ve made some stop-motion animation videos. We’ve made some other little videos. I just made an iMovie for work—I’m teaching myself iMovie—that seemed to really get her attention, like with the filters and the sound. She got really excited about that, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that was maybe her next interest, is if she started making some little movies and photography things. We just saw the Lion King on Wednesday night.
It’s in town, and that seems to be sparking some things. The puppetry—she really liked that—and the costumes and the staging. So we’re watching some Lion King videos, like the behind-the-scenes stuff. You just never know where they’re going to go, with what they’re interested in.
PAM: I know. It’s just so much fun to watch them, isn’t it?
GWEN: It is, and I would never have predicted that she would be—she’s made little houses out of cardboard where she makes like the couches out of cardboard and covers them with fabric and all of these things. And a couple of months ago I never would have imagined that that would be her main interest right now.
PAM: I’m going to pass on some of those videos that you were talking about to Lissy, because that’s something that she continues to enjoy doing at 22 now. She builds so much stuff for her doll houses.
PAM: She has a couple that she’s gotten over the years. In New York she didn’t have them, because they were too big to bring from home, so she built them—built one out of cardboard boxes—which she decorated from curtains to rugs to furniture that she builds all on her own. So yeah, it’s really fascinating stuff.
GWEN: It is. And I think one of the things that Zoe I think really—she’s much more interested in learning about the relationships between people—she’s very much more observant about that kind of thing than Jamie ever was. And the My Froggy Stuff is actually a mom and a daughter doing it together, and the Disney Car Toys is a mom and kids doing it together.
PAM: Oh wow!
GWEN: And it’s really fun to watch. They’re so sweet—the interaction between everybody is so sweet and so much fun, and I think that really appeals to her.
PAM: Yeah, Lissy would love that piece too, because relationships, the interactions, yeah, that’s something that she’s always been fascinated by. So, thank you! That’s very cool!
I was wondering if you could give us a bit of an idea of the general needs that flow through your days at home with the kids. Are you guys pretty similar personality-wise, like, introversion/extroversion scale, or is there kind of a wide range of needs that come up during the days?
GWEN: Thankfully we’re all very similar. We’re all introverts. Very much so. Which means that when we go out and we are active and we’re doing things with friends I know that the next day needs to be a home day, it needs to be a recharge day, which means it’s easier to meet everybody’s needs for the most part. Because I don’t have one that is desperate to go out and one that is desperate to stay home. Because as a single parent, I really don’t have that option, although it’s easier as they get older.
But for the most part, we tend to be on the same page as far as introvert and extrovert. We are long time cat shelter volunteers—I think this is our seventh year—so that is, you know, we have some solids in our week that happen every week and we work around those. But beyond that we’re mostly on the same page, which is really good. Their sleep schedules are mostly matched up, which is helpful. We joke that our interest level is either off or 100%.
So we’re similar in that way too. If we’re interested in something we are very, very interested in it, and almost to the exclusion of other things, and we tend to all work the same way. Which means, it’s pretty easy if somebody—we all tend to get interested in something at the same time. So, you know, Jamie may be in one corner doing his thing, and Zoe will be in her corner doing her thing, and I’ll be doing my thing. And we’re interacting, but we’re also focused on our own things, which is really nice.
PAM: Oh yeah, that sounds nice.
I imagine, though, there will be times when some conflicting needs or desires arise, and I was wondering if we could talk about some of the ways you work with your kids to explore the roots and the parameters of what it is that they’re looking for.
Like, if they want to do something and it turns out to be at odds with something else that’s going on, maybe your shelter time or something, it helps to feel out how they might feel about waiting a day or even a week and so on. I know that’s what I felt, is to dig in to understand their need a little more, because that also helps discover the room that we’ve all got to play with the possibilities, to find a path that works for everyone.
So I was wondering what that process looks like for you, and if you’re more likely to do that kind of stuff with your kids individually or everybody together as a group trying to work things out? That kind of stuff.
GWEN: Yeah. So, my youngest is not to the point where patience is the thing yet. She’s not very good at waiting until next week. But, because I’m self-employed and I work from home, it’s fairly easy for me to rearrange my schedule. So if it’s something really important, I can just rearrange our week, and we can do it real fast.
We did have an instance at the mall on Sunday. She wanted a smoothie from the smoothie store, but the mall was closing in ten minutes, and the smoothie store was at the other end of the mall and I knew that we couldn’t get there and back in time. And she was really—she was very upset that that was not happening. And so, a lot of times we work together to come up with a solution. I’m older, so I have more experience and practice with that, but the kids are just as likely as I am to come up with something because they all know that we’re working towards the same goal, which is the best outcome. So Zoe’s solution was to come back to the mall the next day to get the smoothie. Which, I didn’t really want to go back to the mall the next day (laughs) because I was tired of the mall. But I knew that it was really important to her, and I also knew that Jamie, my oldest, would be fine with going back to the mall because then he could do something that he didn’t get a chance to do. So we spent a lot of time at the mall this week, which is more (laughs) than we normally get…
Building the little bits of trust—I mean, it’s not big things that happen; it’s not giant big grand gestures of trust. It’s every single day; it’s little things that build on each other. And so knowing that she could say, “Well could we come back tomorrow?” and I would say, “Okay, sure.” And then she would trust that I would actually take her back to the mall the next day to get the smoothie. And that’s all she wanted was—there was something about the smoothie and that’s just what she needed at the moment, it just wasn’t going to happen that night, and so figuring out a solution. And honestly, I was stuck on the solution of, “The store is closed, we can’t possibly go there, that’s the end of the story.” And Zoe is a little more flexible in her thinking and so her solution was, “Wait! We can do this tomorrow.” Which was really cool because I was feeling very stuck, and she was also feeling stuck but then she could also come up with a solution that worked for her. And she still wasn’t happy about not getting it that night, but knowing that we were coming back made it easier to transition.
And I think that there’s a lot of things that happen like that where we work together to come up with a solution that works for everybody. My kids are really different people. They get along—I’m really blessed that they get along really well, most of the time. And they like to hang out with each other. But sometimes one person wants to go one place and somebody else wants to go to another. And so sometimes that looks like, you know, we go to one place and then we’ll come back and go to another place another time, or sometimes we can squeeze them both in on the same day, depending. But I think they’re patient with me because I’m patient with them. And they’re patient with the situation because they understand that I’m doing my best, and there’s only so much we can do in a day and I can’t—I don’t have a clone yet; I haven’t mastered that technology.
So we just have to work together. I’ve been a single parent for six years, so I think we’ve really established a rhythm, and built up a lot of trust around making things work.
PAM: I think that that trust piece is so important and I love the point that you made about how it’s not—trust isn’t really developed in the sense of us agreeing to their ideas. It’s in the follow-through, isn’t it? It’s not so much in the, “Yes, we can come back tomorrow,” if you don’t actually come back tomorrow, right?
GWEN: Exactly. And you know, as a grown-up it would be so easy to say, “Yeah I know I said that, but I’m not really going to do that.” But that doesn’t…
PAM: Yeah, the next day you just say, “Oh, I’m busy, sorry, can’t go.”
GWEN: Yeah, and I know that’s a really common response, but it’s not fair to them. I wouldn’t promise somebody that I would do something with them and then flake out—with an adult. I wouldn’t do that to an adult. So I definitely wouldn’t want to do it to a kid, because they need that trust level even more than an adult does, as they’re growing up. We joke about, you know, “grounding.” I’ll tease them, “I’m going to ground you!” And they’re like, “Really? What does that mean?” (laughs)
GWEN: Because it’s so far out of their realm of experience, that I would take something away from them just because. So it’s very much a trusting—and we play with it a lot. Because I don’t want them to get out into the bigger world and not understand the cultural differences that we have with other people, as far as, you know, punishments and that kind of stuff, that we don’t do, but I want them to be aware of it. And so we bring it up in joking and fun ways. And they get it too from TV, I think. Especially Zoe with the Disney shows and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, it’s just—we all want the best outcome and that’s what we’re working towards, even if it’s not in that exact moment. It may take a little bit longer. Zoe isn’t always especially enthused about going to the cat shelter, but stopping for pizza afterwards means that she’s got something to look forward to. And once she’s at the shelter she’s really happy; she likes it. I think it’s just a matter of getting from Place A to Place B. It’s sometimes a hard transition. So adding a little bit of extra something that is enticing to her makes it a lot easier.
PAM: Yeah, I found that a lot over the years as well. It was kind of part of really digging into, you know, so if one kid wanted to do X and the other wasn’t really interested in coming along, you know, I could ask them, “What do you think might make it interesting enough for you to tag along for this piece?” And then, things like, you know, pizza, or stopping at the park, or, you know, a million things will come up. Because, as you said, it’s amazing the ideas that they come up with.
And that actually leads kind of to the next question, because I had the same experience as you. As you know, you feel stuck, it’s like, you know there’s a plan, and I don’t see any way past it, and yet our kids see so much more. So, especially when parents are first getting started with unschooling, it can be really hard to think beyond those conventional approaches to a problem: “It’s closed; we can’t go get a smoothie.” So, that sets up situations such that there’s kind of a winner and a loser. Or if two people want to do something, really often all we can see is, “Well, we’ll do yours now and we’ll do yours tomorrow, and that’s that.”
What tips do you have for people when they’re starting to explore brainstorming creative ways to meet everyone’s needs, to find that kind of win-win path through a challenge?
GWEN: I think—I don’t want to say “staying flexible” because I don’t like “flexible.” I think being limber…
PAM: Ahh! Nice!
GWEN: … because there’s such a give and take, if you let it happen, between parents and kids, where you’re both learning, you’re both growing, you’re both exploring, you’re both figuring out the solutions. I think anticipating is really important. Tonight we’re going to, because it’s the Perseid, so we’re going to a star party near our house, and there’s been some debate between the kids and I about, well, how early do we go. Because we know that Zoe will get bored after a certain amount of time, and we know that the best viewing is after this time, and those times aren’t really going to overlap, if we’re not careful. So there’s been some discussion of how early do we go, how long do we want to stay, what kind of things can I bring to make it easier to stay. And anticipating what the needs are going to be before we get into the situation, I think, is really helpful. Staying limber in the thinking.
When you come across a solution, or you come across a situation that doesn’t end well, I think replaying it in your head and finding the solution so that next time that comes up you already have that solution ready in your toolbox, I think is really helpful. When I first started unschooling I was reading a lot on Sandra Dodd’s groups, ( Always Learning email list and Radical Unschooling Info FB group) and those were so helpful to me, even if it was a situation that, like, my kids weren’t that age yet, I wasn’t going to experience that for several years. But reading that and reading the solutions that other parents offered, that other moms offered, and taking that in for myself, and thinking, “Okay, how would I react in this situation? What are the options in that situation?” before I even get there, meant that when I did, I had already sort of had a little bit of a grounding in it. And I could move forward with some information that, if it had just happened out of the blue I wouldn’t have had.
PAM: I love that point of the grounding, because you know when I think back, that’s true. We managed to get introduced to so many different situations and to just see other people’s brainstorming in action, right? So that helps feed us too. I think the two points that really struck me were: anticipating the needs—well I guess that ties into—the other point I was going to say, understanding each other. So, as we get to know each other more and more we can understand, kind of, the motivations that are behind it, so that we can come up with more creative ways to address it. And, that piece that you said—the anticipating—that was always such a big piece, right? Playing it through in your head and imagining all the different things that could come up and, you know, bringing along something for them to do when they get bored; bringing along some food, or some drinks, if you think it’s going to be a while and people are going to get hungry. Just anticipating—and you know what? It’s just being nice to them, right?
GWEN: It is! And it’s not that hard. I mean…
GWEN: You know, if you would do it for a partner? I mean, that’s one of my favorites—if you would do it for a partner then why wouldn’t you do it for your kid? If you’d remind your partner, “Oh you need to bring this thing with you,” or you would bring it for them, to be kind, so then why wouldn’t you do that for your kids?
PAM: Yeah. Michael’s 19, he’s the youngest, and it’s funny because, he started working a month and a half ago, and right now is a busy time there, it’s a Medieval Times Dinner Theater, and so the summer is very busy with shows every day. Anyway, the first few days he made his lunch, got himself all ready and everything, but I noticed that he was running out of food—it was empty when he came back. And all of a sudden all these hours were piling up and he was exhausted, because it’s a heavily physical job. Anyway, I offered to make him lunch. And I know people would made cracks, “Oh, you know, they’re adults now, he should be getting used to this work world, and he should be taking care of himself entirely.” And as I thought about it, I’m making him lunch, gathering some stuff that he needs at the door, we’ve got a little bit of a routine going, and you know, I would do the same for my husband. I would do the same for anyone that was in my family. That’s just something we do for each other, helping each other out, supporting each other, to do the things that we’re trying to do, rather than trying to, “teach them a lesson—they need to be able to take care of themselves.”
GWEN: Oh I hate the lesson learning.
PAM: I know! (laughs)
GWEN: It just seems like such a cop-out: “I don’t feel like being nice, so it’s going to be a lesson.” And I would be nice to my kids, because they end up being nice to each other, they end up being nice to other people, they end up being nice to me, which is lovely. It’s just—it’s so much better when you’re nice to your kids.
PAM: It really is! And they do, it’s—the way you treat another person is the way they you treat you back. It’s so easy to see now that, you know, if a parent insists, for “the lesson,” that their kids take care of this, and then they turn around and ask for help, well, what do you expect? (laughs) “No! take care of yourself!” You know?
GWEN: Oh. Yes. I see that. A lot. Yeah, and I get complimented on how nice my kids are. You know? So it’s a really beautiful compliment that somebody thinks that my kids are really nice, and thoughtful, and kind. Like, I’ll take those compliments.
PAM: Mm-hmm! (laughs) Yeah, and it’s funny that my impression, from comments from parents, is that they kind of think you’ve insisted that they act that way, right? Rather than treating them that way. And that’s how they’ve picked it up.
GWEN: Yes. Yeah. A lot of people—I don’t know why. I’m generally considered a really nice person, but strangers will assume that I must be pretty hard line because my kids are so nice, which is …
PAM: Right! (laughs)
GWEN: It’s like when they ask the kids if they get summer off from school and the kids say, “No. We go all year.”
GWEN: (laughs) And then people respond with a look of shock. Like, “Oh my goodness! Your life must be so hard! To go to school year round!”
PAM: (laughs) Yes, we had many of those kinds of questions. (laughs)
You shared the mall example earlier, which was wonderful.
I was wondering, maybe, do you have another example that you might be able to share, where you guys were facing conflicting needs, and what kind of workable path forward that you found that everyone was pretty comfortable with?
GWEN: Sure. Yeah. Actually I’ll share the Pokemon Go story that I put on Facebook because I think it’s a really good example.
GWEN: So, my oldest has loved Pokemon for years. Like, at least seven years, if not longer. It’s probably his first big intro into gaming, and into research outside of the game, you know, with the Wikipedia stuff. And so Pokemon Go is really—as soon as it came out he downloaded it, he was very excited about it. And then, of course, if my oldest is doing it, my youngest will probably show at least some interest in it. So I downloaded it onto my phone. And as it turns out, I love the game. It’s so much fun. And we live in the suburbs, so there’s not a lot of Poke stops near us, which you need. And you don’t get anything interesting where we are, so you sort of have to drive to a different area of town to get something good. And one of the things that we discovered is that in our little downtown area there’s actually a ton of Poke stops. And in fact, a couple of weeks ago I arranged a get-together of Pokemon Go players that I’ve never met before, I just put it out on the internet on a group and said, “We’re going to be at this place—if you wanna come and walk with us, to play Pokemon Go, please come.” And I think about 15 people showed up.
GWEN: Yeah, that was really fun. Almost all adults. Only two children. (laughs)
PAM: Cool! (laughs)
GWEN: So if you’re wondering what the demographics are, it’s adults.
GWEN: But that was really cool, and the kids got to interact, and they were talking, like, you know, unschooling does that—there’s no barriers between, you know, “you can only talk to somebody in your age group.” They were talking to people who were in their 30’s and 40’s, and they were talking to people in their 20’s, and they were interacting with the littlest kid who I think was four or five, and the middle kid who was 11. So it was just this really neat experience of everybody doing something they’re really passionate about, and the age didn’t matter. So I love that.
But having discovered a really great trove of Poke stops, I knew that I wanted to go back, and I knew that Jamie, my oldest, would want to go also. Zoe, my youngest, was drawing at the time, and she didn’t want to go. And I thought, “Okay, so what if we did the drawing in the car?” and she said, “Mom, I can’t possibly draw in the car. It will be bumpy.” So I was like, “Okay so we can’t draw in the car. What if you play on the iPad in the car? Would that be interesting?” And she said, “No, that isn’t going to be interesting.” Okay. “And I don’t want to walk.” “Okay. So what if we drove past the Poke stops and you don’t have to get out of the car.” And she thought, “Well that’s kind of interesting.” But she still wasn’t quite sold. So I thought, “Okay, so what if we do the Poke stops, and then we do something that you want to do?” And that was the one that was interesting to her. So it was a way for her to go out and play—because she doesn’t really care about Pokemon, like the managing the resources. She actually says, “I’m not a resource management person.”
But she likes catching them, and she especially likes catching the rare ones. So, to be able to do that, and then we would go, you know, drive through the areas, and she wouldn’t have to get out of the car, and she could do the things in a level that she was interested in. And then she wouldn’t have to do the stuff she didn’t want to do, but we could do things that she wanted to do afterwards. And she really liked that idea. And that worked. That kept everybody interested, it kept everybody happy, and I think we ended up with milkshakes at the end of the day, so that worked also.
PAM: (laughs) I know—once that level of trust has developed in that, you know, they know that when you kind of come up with a plan, everybody’s going to follow through, and/or bring up any new issues that arise along the way. I’ve just found, they’re so willing to bounce ideas around, aren’t they? They’re so willing to try and see if everyone can find a path forward, aren’t they?
GWEN: They are. And we tend to do it, I mean, we’re always together, so we tend to do it in a group. And it’s very—it doesn’t feel like we’re all going to sit down and now we’re going to bounce ideas off. It’s just—it’s very casual and organic. It’s always growing and changing, which is great.
They take turns riding in the front seat of the car because there’s only one front seat, and two children, and they both like riding in the front seat. They figured out that pattern on their own. And they’re just as likely to give up their front seat turn if they feel like the other one needs it more. My oldest gets car sick, so he will take the front seat on longer trips. And my youngest is fine with that. She doesn’t mind. But they’ll also, sometimes they’ll both be trying to give it up at the same time, for whatever reason, just to be nice to each other, which results in “No, you take the front.” “No, no, you take the front.”
GWEN: “Just, somebody get in the car!” (laughs)
GWEN: Sometimes they’ll both sit in the back seat. It’s very strange. Which is not my experience. When I was growing up, getting in that front seat was a big deal. My brothers and I would race each other to the car, you know … (laughs) … shove each other out of the way to get to the front seat.
It’s just—it’s things that were a big deal when I was a kid as far as, like, permissions and who has more power; it just doesn’t come into play with my kids.
PAM: When my kids were younger, maybe because my kids went to school until, I guess Joseph, the oldest, was almost ten, so I don’t know if it was from that, or maybe it’s personalities, or with three kids, I did find for a while in our first couple of years, as we were getting to know and trust each other more, I found it helped to talk to each of them individually when we were trying to work something out, because then I could totally hear what they were saying, there weren’t interruptions—somebody else trying to interrupt or, you know, trying to get their message across. And I could also use that time to share a little piece of information about why the sibling really wanted to do this, because that helped them learn more about each other as well. And as you said, it’s not like a sit-down-we-need-to-work-this-out. It’s just kind of in conversation, you know, “Oh, hey, you know, your brother wants to do this. What do you think about that, or what would you like to do?” And then I’d go back to the brother and say, “Hey, he’s okay with that, as long as we do this too, does that work for you?” You know, it was just kind of conversations that would evolve sometimes even over a day or two if we were trying to set up plans that were later on. So yeah, that’s interesting to see the different ways we learn about our kids, right, and how things work for them. However those kinds of conversations are going to flow for each family, eh?
GWEN: Yes, and I do that also. I’ll say, “So Zoe is feeling like she wants to go do this.” And I’ll talk to Jamie on his own, so that he gets his input put in in a way that he wants to have it put in. Or sometimes, you know, we’re dealing with a teenager and a pre-teen, and so sometimes there’s hormones that are coming into play, and crankiness, you know? So I’ll say, “Okay, so, your sibling is feeling, you know, they’re feeling really touched out right now so let’s give them some space.” Or, “They’re feeling there’s too much noise, so let’s go, you know, give them some space so they can feel like they can recharge a bit.” Or, you know, “They’re feeling really uncomfortable today, so let’s give them, you know, let’s be more supportive.” And I find that my kids will jump to do that, which is really awesome. Because, yeah, teens and hormones, and pre-teens and hormones, and all of those changes, it’s a little bit of relearning. Because things that didn’t used to bother them will bother them now.
And they’re at different levels, and shorter tempers, and so being more patient is really good. Especially with my youngest; she’s very passionate. And I say she gets angry like a summer storm; it comes on really fast, and it’s really intense, and then it goes away. Like it never happened. And so, my job in that instance is to be the center, to be the ground, and to not move, and just let her sort of storm about, and then, when she’s ready, to go talk to her. My oldest, anything that goes through his head he will share with me, at any time. My youngest is more of a mystery in a lot of ways; she doesn’t share. So a lot of it is more observation. And I think if we weren’t homeschooling, especially if we weren’t unschooling, I think I would miss a lot of things, a lot of cues, to make her transitions easier. Because she’s not going to tell me that she’s upset about something. She’ll bring it up three weeks later, but she won’t say anything in the moment. And so, really being in tune and observant has been really, really helpful.
PAM: That’s a great point, yeah, because my kids are a wide range too, of ones who will share a lot of information and let you know how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, up front, and then ones where you’re looking for more cues by seeing what they’re doing and what choices they’re making and that kind of stuff.
And yeah, the conversation a month later. (laughs) So yeah, it’s really cool. And you know what else I found is that they’re quite open to hearing those little tidbits of information about—because I imagine you too are sharing those tidbits about yourself, about your children, and everybody’s just kind of learning more and understanding each other better, right?
GWEN: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And with my youngest, because she’s not likely to verbalize something, I find that I verbalize it for myself for her, and she’ll be comfortable opening up about it. Like, the Lion King was amazing, but at the end it got louder and louder, and she’s very noise sensitive. And so by the end she was watching it, and loving it, but with hands over her ears. And I knew that she wouldn’t say that it was too loud, so, you know, casually, walking out, I was like, “Wow, that just kept getting louder and louder and that felt like it was hurting my ears.” And then she would say, “Yes. It did. It was really loud.” But if I hadn’t led the way and given her—and this is something that I just learned in the past year or so—if I hadn’t done that for her, if I had said, “Oh was it too loud for you?” and she would say, “No it was fine.” Because that’s her personality.
PAM: Yes. Yes. I found that too, you know. When you pose a question, it’s more of—I was going to say imposition. I’m not sure that’s the right word. But yeah, when you’re just sharing observations, that invites conversation so much more easily, doesn’t it?
GWEN: It does. And she tends to take—it’s just a personality thing—but she tends to take a question as an accusation. So then she immediately gets defensive. Which, for a long time, that’s the way I work, it’s not the way my oldest works. And I had my oldest for five years before Zoe came along …
PAM: (laughs) Yeah.
GWEN: So I was trained differently; I was trained to be a Jamie parent, not a Zoe parent. And so it took some time. And because I’m also somebody who will say anything that comes to my head, and Jamie is the same way, so we’re similar in that way, so working with somebody who doesn’t approach it that way was definitely a challenge. And I’ve also figured out that if you ask her, if you ask Zoe a question, she gets defensive. Immediately. And it doesn’t matter what the question is. “Are you hungry?” She’ll say, “No.” But she is hungry. I don’t know, it’s a thing. (laughs) So we just approach it a little bit different, because each child is different and so the parenting, and the reactions need to be different. Parenting is definitely not a one-size-fits-all.
PAM: Yeah, that’s a great, great point.
I was just looking at the next question, and I think we’ve mostly covered it—it’s been very fun. (laughs) I’m going to read it out, see if there’s anything else.
I was wanting to talk about the high level of trust that develops when everyone’s confident that their needs are going to be considered by everyone in the family. As I mentioned, I found that my kids would notice when their sibling is really invested in something, like you mentioned with the car seats and stuff, and pretty happily back off. They knew that a time would come when something was super important to them, and the others would return that favor. So that’s another consideration of the person, not just the activity in front of them. So I was just wondering if you’d found that give and take in your family?
GWEN: Very much, yeah. Jamie just turned 15 so he had some birthday money to spend, and their dad took them to Barnes and Noble so that Jamie could get his manga fix. And Zoe was waiting patiently. And Jamie mentioned that a couple of days later, that Zoe was very patient, and so he didn’t mind waiting while she did something else. Which, I thought was really cool. And some of that is maturity, because he’s 15 and he can see that kind of stuff, maybe in a way that he couldn’t have a couple of years ago. But, I think just the constant trust and the constant learning together, the constant adjustments as they need it, as far as how much input I’m giving them versus how much, you know, they’re giving me.
All of that kind of stuff, it just really builds up, and they’ll definitely give each other space when they need it. If it’s super important to one, the other one will tag along and bring something else to do. When we’re going to Art a la Cart, which is an amazing space, and Zoe loves it, it’s really not Jamie’s thing. He could’ve stayed home. I mean, he’s old enough, he’s 15, so he could have stayed home. But every time we go, he chooses to go with, and he’ll just bring his iPhone and his headphones and his own little art supplies, and he’ll just hang out, because he knows it’s really important to Zoe. And he’ll get bored, but he’ll go because he likes hanging out with Zoe. He likes hanging out with me. He likes being in the family. And he knows it’s really important to Zoe to stay as long as possible and make as much stuff, even if it’s not his thing.
And Zoe’s the same way when Jamie’s in an art store looking at art supplies; his pens and his paper and, like, testing everything, or looking at manga. You know, Zoe will just wait. A big part of it, I think, is personality. Our personalities really mesh together for the most part, really, really nicely. And they get along, which is exciting. I mean, there’s a five year difference—I know that doesn’t always happen, kids with that age difference, or even closer, don’t always get along. But they seem to really enjoy each other. They seem to really enjoy overlapping when they can. Yesterday they were playing Toon Town together, and then later Jamie was showing Zoe how to play Pokemon on the DS, which she has never been interested in. But, Jamie realized that once Zoe could customize the characters and change their outfits (because Zoe’s very much a fashion girl), that suddenly made it more interesting. So that was fun to watch.
PAM: I think your point about age is a good one to make, because, you know, when you’ve got younger kids, and we’re talking about these kinds of relationships, these are relationships that develop over time. So, not only are we learning about each other, and having all these experiences to develop the trust; we’re also growing and getting older, and more mature, as you said, over time. So it’s not something like, “Oh, I have young kids, I’m starting unschooling now, and in six months we should have these close, awesome, thoughtful relationships.”
PAM: (laughs) You know, you have to consider their age and consider who they are, and give it time to develop.
GWEN: Well, and sometimes I feel like—I mean, I’ve really lucked out with kids that get along. I know that not everybody has that. And so I wouldn’t want somebody new to unschooling looking at my family and thinking that they’re going to get that exact same result, because every family is different. I just happen to have kids that are very similar on the introversion scale. They are similar in the way that they get interested in things, which means that they are interested in something and they don’t want to talk about anything else until they’re done with that interest. And they also really like each other. So that combination of things makes for a really peaceful household. But I know that that’s not everybody’s experience. Because kids are different and parents are different.
And I think that part of it—being a single parent, we’re much more team-oriented for the past six years, I think, than we would’ve been otherwise, just because there’s just the one of me. And so, I just have to manage it, and we have to manage it together, and so it’s very much of a cohesive group kind of idea, rather than individual people, when we’re working on a project together. And I think that that makes a big difference. Not every family is going to be like that.
And I don’t think that all siblings necessarily have to like each other. They don’t necessarily have to grow up to be friends. I hope that my kids will grow up to be friends, but I know that that is fairly common, also, to get to a certain age and then, you know, sort of lose interest in your sibling. And so I would expect that to maybe happen also, maybe, in the future. I don’t know.
PAM: Yeah. Well, if I think about it, my kids are definitely very supportive of each other; the give and take was, and is, awesome. But they don’t, you know, share a lot of interests. So yeah, they spent a lot of time doing their own things. So, you know, they can still develop close—“close” as in, they understand each other and they’re thoughtful and supportive of each other, even though they don’t particularly do a lot of things together. I mean, there are some things—we found a few things that everyone mostly enjoys. So, you know, once in a while we would do that. Mario Party was like, our family video game, right?
PAM: (laughs) So, you know, when we had been, like, as you said, all pursuing our own interests for, you know, a week or two, and it’s like, “Hey, you know, we haven’t done too much together. You wanna have a Mario Party party?” And, you know, we would just all hang out together for an hour or two and have fun. But, I didn’t find that the need to share interests was kind of a precursor to having a thoughtful and caring kind of relationship.
GWEN: Yeah, and one thing we do almost every night, and we’ve done it as part of our sleep routine, is that we watch a show together. Which is a really lovely way to end the day. Right now we’re watching Scrubs.
And there’s been times when that didn’t happen, because they couldn’t agree on a show, to the point that they would rather not watch anything than find one that they could agree on. But Scrubs is tickling everybody right now. Zoe doesn’t remember watching it. She’s seen some of it when she was much younger. But it’s all new to her, and it’s refreshing for Jamie and I, and it’s just a really nice way to close down the day, and hang out together, in a really low-key, low-stressful way, which is really nice.
PAM: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Before we go, I had one last question.
I thought it would be fun to hear from you a bit more about how you weave your working from home—you’re working in the digital marketing space, which is very cool—so a little bit about how you weave your work into your unschooling days.
GWEN: Oh boy. Ha-ha. That’s where the real trick of balance comes in. So, yeah, I work with small businesses to figure out their marketing. How I got here is very much an unschooling kind of thing. I took a look at things that I was really good at and really passionate about and saw something that wasn’t available for people who needed it. And I sort of created a job for myself out of thin air, which is lovely. So yeah—when things go well, the kids will sleep later and I will get up earlier and then I’ll have time to work during the day. As they get older, it’s so much easier. When they were younger they would have to go to meetings with me, so I would pick coffee shops that had really good treats; like their favorite treats. There’s a coffee shop that does amazing cinnamon rolls, so I always made sure that my meetings were at that coffee house, so that I could get them a cinnamon roll to snack on while I had my meeting, and that worked really well. And then afterwards, you know, there’s an art store next door, so we would go to the art store, and there’s a board game store, and we would go to the board game store. So it became sort of a half-day outing, rather than just mom being boring and doing her thing.
I do a lot of work online via Skype or email, or I have a small marketing group that I run every month, which means I can do it through Facebook and email, which means I don’t necessarily have to leave the house. I’ve set up my work so that I can do it from almost anywhere. Almost anything I need to do I can do from my phone these days, which is lovely. So even if we’re on a road trip to the coast, when we pull over for a snack break or a bathroom break, I can hop online and do some work really quick for 10 or 15 minutes, and then get back on the road, and my clients don’t feel that I’m letting them down, and the kids don’t feel, usually, that I’m letting them down.
So, that’s how I work it. It definitely gets easier as they get older. Technology is amazing—I love it. I love that I can work almost exclusively from my phone, as long as I have a good Wi-Fi connection. So, yeah. That’s how I’m doing it. It’s definitely a challenge. The balance—that’s where it comes in. And I have some days—I only take client appointments a couple of days a week so that I have lots of kid time. So that’s how I’m doing it.
PAM: Wow, that’s brilliant. I loved hearing that. It is—I guess—I don’t really use the word “balance,” because it brings the word “equal” to mind.
PAM: But definitely—well I didn’t mean for you—I meant, because I was about to say … (laughs) … it’s the flow. I’m going to go with the flow. You know, to be able to, like you said, you know, when you’ve got 10, 15 minutes here or there, when you’re stopping, you can flow into that work, and—I love the cinnamon buns story because that’s like my favorite treat. (laughs)
Well thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with me, Gwen. I had a really, really great time.
GWEN: Oh, I’m glad. I really enjoyed talking to you, Pam.
PAM: That’s awesome. And before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
I’m on Facebook, Gwen Montoya. If you find a picture and it’s a person with a cat on their back, that’s my business page. There’s a cat at the shelter that likes to climb on my back, and I love that picture. It’s not very professional, but it’s my favorite picture. And there’s another one, another Gwen Montoya in front of a colorful wall, that one’s me. If you want to friend me, feel free.
PAM: That’s awesome! I will share that information in the show notes. Thank you again, and have a wonderful day.
GWEN: Thank you. Bye Pam.