PAM: Hi everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Grace Koelma. Hi, Grace!
GRACE: Hi Pam, how’re you doing?
PAM: I’m doing very well, and you?
GRACE: I’m well, thank you.
PAM: That’s great. Just as a little intro, Grace studied primary school teaching at university but after a year of teaching she became disillusioned with the mainstream schooling system and pulled the plug on that career. She then followed her other passion, writing, working as a journalist until she eventually figured out a way to weave together her passions for education and schooling and writing. In mid-2015, she and her husband Eric started Mulberry Magazine, an Australia-based digital magazine, which aims to include perspectives from all styles of homeschooling, unschooling and alternative schooling.
I’m really looking forward to hearing more about that, but to get us started, Grace, can you share a bit more about you and your family?
GRACE: Wow, what an intro. (laughter) Hopefully I can live up to all that, it sounded a lot nicer how you said it. Anyway, yeah, so my husband and I have been married for almost five years, actually tomorrow is our anniversary so yes, five years.
PAM: Happy anniversary!
GRACE: Thank you, I don’t know what we’ve got planned yet, you never know what you’re going to get. Anyway, so we’re married, we have one child so far, he’s 18 months old, his name’s Leo. And we live in Australia as you mentioned. We live kind of just North of Sydney on the beaches, it’s a really beautiful area, lots of natural beauty and bushland and obviously gorgeous beaches.
But we’re kind of in a weird stage of life at the moment, over the last year in 2016 we have been looking at what it means for us to live authentically. I guess for us in this stage of life, we’re living, literally, we own a house with a white picket fence, so that kind of suburban lifestyle, living with a baby, Eric was working full time and I was trying to run the magazine and we were both pretty stressed out and busy and overworked. Not having enough time together as a family.
So, yeah, we spent a whole year digging into that. At times, I’ll be honest, distracting ourselves from it because it was “what are we going to do? I don’t know what we’re going to do.” And then you get back into the business of life and you forget about it for a while, but eventually it came around enough times, the question of “are we doing what we want to be doing? Is this right for us in this season, now?” When our son was very small it really was right for us but it became not right for us very quickly.
My husband was commuting so long every day, he never got to see us, so we decided to take a huge leap and we rented out our house and we sold almost everything we have and, at the moment, we’re kind of camping in with my family and Eric’s family, and housesitting—a bit nomadic. And we probably should get used to that because next year we’ll be travelling the world. We’ll be buying one-way tickets and, I don’t know, we’ll be in Asia, Europe, America, Canada, we’re kind of looking to hit almost every continent at the moment.
So yeah, it’s a pretty crazy time.
PAM: Wow, that is very exciting!
GRACE: I don’t know if I mentioned that to you earlier.
PAM: You did not! (laughter)
PAM: So, well, you’re getting some plans underway then.
GRACE: That’s right, it’s a challenge for me because I’m a planner, and with a baby, I’m constantly wanting to know every single place that we’ll visit with him, and whether there’ll be fences and will there be balconies, all of that, so it’s going to be a bit of a fun one for me as a bit of a control freak and trying to let go of that a bit and just experience stuff. But my husband is the opposite, so he levels me out.
PAM: Oh that’s awesome, and I do remember that, there was something about having kids and being with my kids really helped me with that because I did always like to be in control and have plans and follow through on them, that was just my personality, but I got to see through them with their much more open approach to their days as things came up and looked interesting we did them, and it was really cool to realise how much more there was beyond what little schedule or routine that I had in front of me. There was just so many more cool things in the world if I was able to be open to it.
GRACE: Yeah, totally. It’s a bit of a mind shift once you figure that out. It’s a fun journey.
PAM: It definitely is. Well, let’s step back a bit for a second.
You mentioned that you studied primary school teaching at university and taught for a year. I was hoping you could chat with us about what you discovered about children and learning through that experience.
GRACE: Yeah, so much. To start off with a bit of a picture of it all, I come from a family of teachers. My dad taught for 20 years and he was an amazing teacher. He actually taught me at one stage in his class, in sixth grade. So, I guess I saw how he was as a teacher, he was that sort of wild To Sir, With Love teacher, just to name one archetype. You know, all of those Robin Williams-style teachers that you get in the films. Just really inspiring and outside the box.
I saw myself as someone who loved learning and loved to see children learn and I didn’t have any kids of my own at that point, I was only 19 or something, so I thought I’d study teaching and pursue that passion. But I was very quickly disillusioned with all of it really, even just in university alone, just the way that education was presented to us as just being something that you tick off the list, a whole lot of rules and regulations, a whole lot of exams and tests, teachers were taught to be able to assess children.
And just the way my lecturers taught us about things was just hypocritical. They’d be teaching us about engaging students and they’d be doing it from the front of a lecture theatre with black and white slides and would be sending us all to sleep. They hadn’t set foot in a classroom for 25 years probably. They were very academic and it just didn’t feel like the love of learning that I’d experienced and I wanted to share.
So I stuck it out for the four years, and I did my practicums in schools, and I had some really … interesting teachers, let’s put it that way, as my mentors. I seemed to always land the assistant principal, so the person that was kind of the level of the principal in terms of responsibility, but still in the classroom. Which meant that they were constantly out of the classroom and just using me as their casual teacher to teach, and they were really jaded and the way they spoke about their students was just … yeah, I don’t know, it just didn’t put a lot of confidence in me that they were there to see their students thrive.
And let me just caveat this by saying I’m not at all against teachers. I have been one, I know how hard many of them work, I just happened to see a few of the ones that should have retired. So that was all pretty interesting for me and I was really starting to lose all hope in the education system, but I gave it a year, and I did some teaching.
I actually got my own class first year out. A year four class, so 9 and 10 year olds in Australia. And the school I was in was a really different experience again, it was in Western Sydney, a lot of different cultures in Western Sydney, kids from all over the world. I got told on the first day that I had been given the hardest class in the school. So that was a great way to start my career with that knowledge.
And oh, I threw myself into it, I told myself it didn’t matter, I would love the kids anyway, and many of them were gorgeous kids. But the system wasn’t supporting me, and I had kids that were really violent to be honest, just came from a really violent upbringing or had seen a lot of violence. A lot of them had older teenage cousins or older brothers and sisters that were out on the streets. They brought that into the classroom and I felt unsafe, I felt I couldn’t keep the kids safe.
In the middle of a lesson I’d prepared and I’d thrown my heart and soul into and I really wanted to see the kids have those amazing moments where they understood things and learned things and loved a particular subject, and I would be constantly interrupted by a child strangling another child. It shouldn’t be on any teacher, let alone a first year out teacher.
I stuck it out, but I was slowly being broken down by it, and I guess the hardest thing, beyond seeing violence by the kids, was seeing kids who didn’t think they could do it, because they’d been told, because of the grading system, because of the assessment and the standards that they weren’t meeting, they were told a message that they were stupid. These kids didn’t think they could do things, and I would always be wanting to see these students discover that they could.
I remember repeatedly sitting with one girl, she was in grade four as I said, but she’d been told she had the reading level of a grade one child and she just never thought she could do anything with reading and we were sitting there reading together and she had this amazing breakthrough, she discovered something about words and connecting the dots and it all made sense, and her eyes just lit up. And I was in that moment with her thinking, “This is why I studied teaching.”
I love seeing that moment, which unschooling parents would get to see all the time, of course. The nature of the one-on-one or one-on-two interactions. And I saw that with her, and the split second where I saw it I was pulled away, I was called in to manage another fight happening across the classroom because I’d been focusing on her and the rest of the class had gone crazy, and that was the end of my patience with that. I just thought I can’t do this any more, it’s not for me. I need to invest in children on a much smaller ratio, 1-30 doesn’t work.
It’s not the fault of the teacher often, it’s the fault of the faulty system. So that was my journey with that, and I guess I learnt through that that learning, it can’t be boxed in, it can’t be scheduled, it can’t be time-limited. Otherwise children become either disengaged or if they think that they’re academic, if they’ve been told by their parents that they’re an academic child, you see those sorts of children memorising. Rote-learning. Not truly taking anything in. What is the quality of learning if it’s not sticking with you, if it has no purpose? I really started to consider those things.
PAM: That’s quite the experience. I really like the point, well a couple of points there. One thing that has really stood out for me lately is how much they’re not even really negative messages, but just from your grades and the impression that kids get that they’re not good at this or they’re not good at that and how that really stifles them ever even trying it soon after.
GRACE: Absolutely. The love of learning is so quickly squashed when you put a test in at the end of it. And I think that’s even true for adults. So it’s not only kids that this relates to, I think that all of us want to learn and enjoy the process of learning and not be tested every single time.
PAM: It really helped me to think about my own learning when we started unschooling. Because, you know, I did well at school by those standards. But I could look back and see well how much of it do I remember, which did I enjoy, and so much of it was just working the system, it wasn’t about learning. Certainly before high school it wasn’t about learning it was just about the process, doing well at the process because that was what we needed for the next step and the next step. To start looking and just focusing on the learning itself and saying, you know what, it’s the learning that’s important. That was a huge step for me when I was deschooling.
GRACE: It’s sink or float isn’t it, with a lot of kids.
PAM: Well let’s take the next step from when you decided you were going to leave teaching.
I was wondering how you went from feeling disenchanted with the formal education system and leaving it to embracing the unschooling lifestyle, because even that’s a big step too. I was wondering what deschooling has looked like for you?
GRACE: I think it’s a great question and I know it looks different for everyone. For me, I really enjoyed reflecting on this question because often deschooling happens subconsciously. You don’t sit down one day and say “I’m going to deschool myself.” I didn’t even know that was what I was doing, I only heard of the term deschooling about a year ago.
But yeah, I definitely had a bit of a unique three-stage-process. The first stage was my disenchantment with school. It wasn’t even just an adult or a parent reflecting on their schooling. It was partly that, but it was my disenchantment with being a teacher in a school system. So I didn’t even want to do it as a career anymore. So that was my first step, get out of there as quick as you can. What else can I do to spend my time and earn some money?
I’d always wanted to be a writer, so I had the amazing opportunity to start writing for an Australian news website. I was able to write all kinds of stories but I started as being their go to person on education, and I wrote several articles on the education system and criticising it. So that was my first step, getting away from the school, starting a different career.
And then I had a kind of natural second stage that came with pregnancy. I think a lot of mums would really acknowledge and agree the fact that when you get pregnant something switches in your brain, it’s really interesting. I found that I suddenly started thinking of my child, my unborn child and what I would do for him, and what I wanted for him. The whole world shifted, it wasn’t just about me any more and what I was able to cope with. It was about what I wanted for his upbringing and his education.
So then I started researching homeschooling and I started off just with homeschooling, and I guess I was always going to be more open to that because I was homeschooled for a few years growing up by my parents and with my siblings. We did some school at home type approaches when I was in primary school for a few years and I also did some homeschooling years with travelling around Australia in a caravan. So that was school on the road, much more informal, bit more haphazard.
So I had already experienced just glimpses of this amazing way of life and learning. I loved the idea of it, so I started researching it and of course I had my husband who had only ever been to a public school his whole life, he was just thinking, “Whaaat? I was ok with you being homeschooled a little bit, but the idea of us homeschooling our son…what on earth are you talking about, that’s the craziest idea ever,” he said.
It’s funny though, how people’s reactions can change, now he’s 100% for unschooling actually. So I went through that, as a part of that I just chatted to heaps of homeschooling parents for the magazine. That whole thing was just an amazing opportunity for me to just learn from people who were five years, ten years ahead of me in all kinds of approaches.
And then I read those key books that most unschoolers have read, like John Holt’s, John Taylor Gatto. I remember reading Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto and just…I wanted to tell everyone all about it, but I realised I just can’t, it’s too huge, and most people find it too confronting I think, to think of the school system like he explains it. I don’t know how different it is in Australia also, that’s the American system and how many similarities. So it’s sort of hard to read that and go “that applies exactly to what I had in school.” But even just the discipline and those sort of things, a lot of it rang very true. The coercive nature of school I guess and the training people in a mass mentality, I guess.
And then finally there was that incredible TED talk that most people reference as well by Ken Robinson on how children learn, that was really instrumental in shaping my opinion and really helping me develop a more adult response to what I saw education as being, and what it wasn’t as well.
And then from there, I took the leap further from homeschooling to unschooling. I remember the first time I heard of unschooling, I read about it in a news article when I was a journalist. The news article was just completely cynical of it. So that helped shape my opinion of it originally, I was really still coming from that teaching at home, setting up a school at home kind of perspective. I was thinking, “How on earth can you not have any text books? How on earth can you not have any curriculums?” I was really quite taken aback by that concept, but again, learning and listening to unschooling parents…I call it natural learning, I prefer to use that term. Natural learning and childbirth learning, that really started to get my attention.
I saw unschooling as quality over quantity, so instead of rushing through a curriculum, getting a quantity of information in the year, it was more quality of what the child was learning. They might spend three months on something that interests them, but even though they may not be covering as many topics in a year potentially, that quality was far better than the quantity. It was depth over memorisation, it was relevance for the child over a forced, imposed curriculum that they wouldn’t have chosen because it wasn’t what they were interested in.
So I started seeing those aspects of it and really being drawn in.
PAM: That’s very cool, I love the way you describe that. That’s one of the things I find fascinating, watching unschooled kids, you see what they choose to dive into deeply, what catches their interest, because it’s different for everybody. And what they choose to dive so deeply in and get attracted to, it’s just so fascinating to see.
I was wondering if you could share a little bit, because you were talking about your husband, how at first he thought it was crazy until you started learning more. So how did you share it with him, to help him start to learn about the stuff that you were learning about?
GRACE: My strategy, I’m not sure if everyone could emulate it, but I got him to proofread our magazine. Obviously that’s just very unique to our situation, but I would put together an issue and it would have all these interviews and all these stories from homeschooling families and I would say, “Hey honey, can you proof?”
And it wasn’t even that he wouldn’t have read it, it was just that he was quite busy, and he didn’t have a lot of time for leisure reading, but if I said to him, can you proofread this for me, it was a job, it was something that was necessary to get the magazine out on time.
So he’d sit on the train, and there was no ulterior motive really. That was just me wanting his help. And later on he told me that he was amazed at all the things he was reading in the articles and it completely helped over time to change his thought processes. So, I guess because I wasn’t berating him and hassling him and saying, “Honey, let’s talk about this!” Our son at this stage was only 8 months old, there was no rush. I was learning about it, he was learning about it, and we were sharing what we discovered.
But that’s not something that everyone can emulate I guess.
PAM: Well you worked with the circumstances that you have, and I think one of the things you alluded to, one of the most important things was asking for his help, or for other parents, maybe sharing information, but doing that without expectation. You’re not berating them, you’re not like, “I expect you to read, understand and agree with this,” it’s sharing interesting bits, the way they like to hear it or as you had a purpose.
It’s funny, actually, when I interviewed Roberto, who did the Spanish translation of Free to Learn, he did the same thing. He was hoping his parents would understand unschooling a little bit better, and so he asked his dad to proofread his translation. It’s just a way to share information, and people are certainly willing to help when the can. And certainly they can give that editing help, that proofreading help, and if the information they are reading actually connects with them, that’s great.
The next question …
Children really are intrinsically hardwired to learn, right from birth. And when we focus on our connection with them through an attachment parenting style and support that drive to learn right from the moment they are born, that can flow rather seamlessly into unschooling, can’t it?
GRACE: Oh, definitely. And again, attachment parenting was not something that I had in my vocabulary, I was just focusing on getting through those days in pregnancy. And even in the early days with a newborn, you’re just in survival mode a lot of the time, very little sleep, and when my son got to an age where he was much more self-sufficient, he could play by himself for longer periods of time, he didn’t need constant watching every second, I felt I could start to talk and discuss and investigate different styles of parenting.
I think it’s one of those things, if you come across an idea, whether it’s conscious parenting or attachment parenting, any of those labels, and if there’s something in the very nutshell of the idea that you just completely agree with, that resonates at a deep level, that you just go for it, you gravitate towards it, and that’s what happened. It was stuff that I’d already been thinking about and I didn’t know how to articulate. Things that I felt that I wanted to be as a mum and ways that I wanted to see my son learn and facilitate and encourage that learning and development I guess.
One of the books I read that really shaped it for me was Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. I’m not sure if you’ve read that book but it basically talks about the importance of parents being architects of our family’s daily lives. I think it’s great before you start unschooling to still see your role as a parent as being a very vital one in shaping the environment that your child is learning and growing in, even from the second that they’re born.
Through that book, the whole book basically talks about simplifying environments and schedules and taking away toys, not all toys, but a lot of toys that distract our children and overwhelm them. I started to see by reading that book that I wasn’t really giving my son great messages.
He’s only 18 months but children soak in information and soak in everything we are doing, they observe everything and I just realised, that kind of like what I was saying earlier, that I was overworked, I was busy, I was distracted. I was constantly looking at my phone and he was noticing that. It was a bit of a shock to see my 14 month old race, every time he saw my bag at his height, he’d race for it and the first thing he’d go for was my phone. I thought, oh my goodness, I have never said to him my phone is important, my phone is really special, my phone is valuable, and yet he knows. And I thought, what messages am I sending?
That kind of started off my journey into attachment parenting and being more conscious about what I do. Obviously I still have a phone but I choose to use it at different times, when he’s asleep, or I try not to look at it very much anymore. I measure the success of my day in that regard by how much battery power is left on my phone by the end of the day. So if it’s at 75% I think yep, I’ve done it, I haven’t checked my phone too much. And if it’s at 20% or it’s dying, I think, uh oh. It’s about being present.
Another thing I’ve learnt about parenting through all of that is that there’s a bit of a fallacy, people tend to panic and go toward one end of the scale, so they either stimulate their children with too many toys and they fill their space with these light up gadgets, closed-ended, one-use. And babies don’t know what to do with them. If they play with them, they play quickly and move on. So I looked carefully at my son’s space and I took out the things that I felt weren’t helping him move on or explore deeply and I just left the things that he loved, that he spent the most time with. The things he could manipulate and change.
And the other thing I did is I took away the expectation on myself to always be with him, asking him questions and stimulating him with my presence. Because as important as it is to be engaged and connected with your child, I mean one of the best quotes I read early on with a very young baby is that they don’t need toys, what they need is you. They need their parent, they need their parent looking at them in the eye and talking to them, and all of that is so important, and I do have times with my son regularly when I do that and it’s amazing.
The other thing I learnt from Simplicity Parenting was particularly when children get to that age between about a year and 18 months when they can play more independently, by themselves, they go into this thing that Kim John Payne calls a deep meditative play, and it’s like they’re in a trance. I suppose that’s when they’re really learning very quickly or very deeply about something, they’re experimenting, and it’s almost…if you were to call their name they wouldn’t turn around.
And I learnt that it wasn’t necessary to go into those moments where Leo was doing that—he’s a very focused child, he’s always been that way, he can spin the blades of a helicopter for half an hour, you know? I learned not to go in every time and ask him and try to make it into a learning experience by my standards. I’m still deschooling, it takes a while. I learnt to just watch and that was so freeing, to learn that I didn’t have to rush in and he was self-sufficient, he was getting everything he needed from spinning the helicopter blades.
PAM: I love that, I really do, because I would call that in older kids, or whatever, being in the flow. Being so deeply engaged in what they’re doing that they don’t hear their name being called. If they had a sense of time, it would be like time flies by and you don’t even know where it went, you’re in an act of flow.
I would spend a lot of time trying not to interrupt them, right, because you’re breaking them out of all these connections and just their engagement with their activity, even if it looks like they’re doing the same thing over and over and over, it’s amazing. I think the really exciting learning is happening there.
And you know what? Certainly, when you come to unschooling, you’re really looking for the learning because then you know it works, but later on, just start looking for the fun, for the engagement, finding the things that they are engaged with.
Because you know that the learning is happening so eventually you don’t start looking for the learning and you don’t feel like you need to justify or prove to yourself that the learning is happening. But it does really help to realise that when you’re first understanding how unschooling works.
I think that was such a great point, even when they’re really young, when they’re engaged and in the moment, we don’t need to interfere. Even if we think we’re stepping in, “Oh look when you turn it this way…” No, they’ll turn it the other way when they’re ready, when that occurs to them. We don’t have to point out the other five things that they can do in that moment.
GRACE: Yeah, totally, and it makes me think of a quote, I think it’s a John Holt quote but don’t hold me to it, he says when you teach a child something you forever take away the chance of them learning it themselves. [NOTE: I did a bit of digging and it was actually Jean Piaget, “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.” (1972)]
That’s paraphrased, but I really do think it comes back to trusting your child and we can probably talk about that later, there’s more to say about children and how we treat them but from the get-go they’re very attuned, they know exactly what they need. Even newborn babies can very loudly and clearly express what they need. Children are very highly attuned to it, they’re very in touch with their senses and with their needs, and if we learn to trust them, who knows what could happen if you trust your child. I’m still learning!
PAM: Yes, it’s beautiful.
Ok let’s move on to the next question.
You wrote a great post you shared with me about the 11 biggest myths around homeschooling. And there was one in particular that I wanted to chat with you about. And that was ‘homeschooling parents are micromanaging helicopter parents.’ Now I know it can sometimes look that way from the outside, but our engagement with our children is coming from a completely different perspective isn’t it?
GRACE: Yeah, it is. I think to answer that question you first have to delve into why people see, and who perceives homeschooling parents as micromanaging helicopter parents.
When I wrote that article I was trying to get into the mind of people who said these things so I could debunk the myths. I think the first thing that comes to mind is that we are now living in a culture of outsourcing. Finding an expert who can do it better than us, in many situations. We have accountants, and we have housekeepers, get our shopping delivered, we order it online and get it delivered to our house, and if we don’t know where to put our couch or which painting to put up, we get a home decorator. Not all of us can afford that, I certainly can’t, but a lot of us do, and I think into that category falls education.
Most parents in the world outsource their children’s education to the experts, to the school teachers, and that’s the norm. The way that that then plays out is that teachers are the experts and parents are made to feel in some settings, not every setting, but what I observed from my teaching experience and other settings, is that parents are made to feel like they actually don’t know anything about how their children operate and what their children love learning about and how to see their kids succeed.
They take their kids to the teacher for the parent-teacher interview and the teacher lists off a whole lot of big terms about reading and phonics and pedagogy and connecting and synthesizing and all these words that might make parents feel like learning is complicated and hard and they couldn’t do it at home with their kids.
I don’t know why that is, I think I know why that is, but it’s a big generalisation to say teachers separate themselves as experts because I think they want to remain relevant, they don’t want their jobs to become obsolete. And that’s teaching at a much higher level, not just teachers in an individual classroom, it’s a systemic thing.
Teachers have invented this language of education, and I think that to that, homeschooling and unschooling parents come as a fair bit of a threat because they’re not subdued by the school system, they’re not running to the teachers every time they have an issue with their kids. I’ve heard many stories where parents went to their school principal when their kids were enrolled and said we want to take them out and homeschool, and the principal just went crazy at them, and said you’re a helicopter parent, you’re micromanaging them, you’re controlling, you’re a control freak, you’re not letting your kids be free, you’re keeping them under your thumb.
Which I think is interesting, because I feel the same way about school. Not every school, but yeah, and not every principal is like that, but it’s interesting, as soon as you start to threaten the norm and step out in a new direction that’s counter-cultural as a parent, straight away it gets labelled as micromanaging or helicopter parenting or control freak, whatever you want to call it. And I just wanted to address that, that it’s not necessarily that that’s what’s going on, it’s the cultural expectation around that and going against that.
I think that from the inside, and I haven’t actually unschooled or homeschooled yet my son, but from what I’ve learnt from talking to people, parents are really just putting their kids’ best interests first, they’re trying to do what’s best for them. I’ve seen a lot of times, parents helping their kids explore different mentors, different people that can give them a broader perspective.
Another of the myths I addressed in that article was that homeschool always happens in the home, that kids are bubble wrapped and inside and never let into society, unsocialised, and actually, in fact, they’re often outside more, with other adults and meeting people and seeing a different perspective their parents are there to help that happen. They’re by no means indoctrinating them or feeding ideas into their heads by any means, so it’s just a misconception.
PAM: The way it visualises in my mind when I think about helicopter parenting vs. unschooling…helicopter parenting I see it as coming from above, because the parents have certain expectations of their children and they’re trying to control the situation so that their kids meet their expectations. Whereas unschooling parents, yeah, they’re around their kids a lot too but they’re there from underneath, they’re providing support for their kids to accomplish what the kids are wanting to do.
So even though both kinds of parents are engaged with, are interacting with their children regularly, one’s coming from a top-down controlling perspective, and one’s coming from a below support, I’m going to help you out kind of perspective.
GRACE: Yeah, it’s a very visual way…yeah, it’s really helpful. Thank you for that.
PAM: Oh no problem!
Another term I’ve been hearing more about lately is childism, referring to a systemic prejudice against children just as a group. Stemming from a belief more that children are property and should be controlled and should do what they’re told. I was wondering if you could share some of your thoughts around that, because I think that’s a topic close to your heart.
GRACE: Yeah it is, and it’s a new topic close to my heart. It’s another piece of the puzzle. When you start to discover, surf blogs on these topics and you find something else…something else…something else, yeah childism has risen up in the last few months, even, as something I’m aware of now, and something that I felt very strongly about but couldn’t articulate.
For me, for what I’ve understood of childism, it’s basically children receiving the message that they’re less important, that they’re less intelligent, less deserving of respect, unequal and inferior. It’s just things like dismissing their opinions and disregarding their preferences.
So, if a child doesn’t want to hug their uncle and a parent says, “No you have to hug your uncle, that’s what we do in this family”; that’s childism. It’s wanting to control them, it’s using emotional and physical bribery to do that. And that’s a really harsh way of putting it. But childism is something that’s so accepted in our society and it has been the done thing for centuries really, that it takes strong language to shock people out of it, and it took that for me. That kind of strong language. It’s when an adult believes that they deserve respect because they’re older, but they don’t in turn respect the child.
And what I found through thinking about this further is that childism isn’t only limited to how we treat children. It sort of flows on into how an adult, a young adult perhaps but an adult, is treated in the workplace. I found that a lot of workplaces I’ve worked in have just felt like school again. Like your boss is your teacher and they think that they know so much more than you that nothing you have to say matters. I say that to emphasise that it’s something that’s very deeply rooted in our culture, and it starts with children.
If we don’t fix it, it’s just going to continue, the cycle is going to continue, because the parents that are currently treating their children like this are probably those that were treated like that when they were kids. They had to suffer in silence, to be trod on and stepped on and have their opinions disregarded for the first 15-18 years of their life. And now it’s their turn, when they become parents, it’s their time to be the parent and I guess that perpetuates the cycle. It’s something I’m still exploring.
PAM: It’s got a lot to do with the power dynamic, right? You said now that they’re finally an adult, it’s their turn…so many times even as kids we hear, “Well, when you’re a parent, when you’re an adult, when it’s your house you can make those decisions, those choices, you can have a say. But now you’re in my house so this is the way it is.”
I think that has been around for a long time, as you say. But it’s interesting to see a generalised term come up recently. It just helps group it together, not just saying be nice to your kids, but I think it helps to encourage conversation around it. As you’re finding, as you’re digging into it, it’s like, “Oh, yes.”
Because so much of it is the way we’ve treated children for decades, for a long time. The way we were treated, the way our parents were treated…so it’s really interesting,
I think what it can do when you can get a term like that, is it can just spread awareness. Some people don’t even realise that there is another way, right? This is just how we raise children! And to see that, oh geez, there are people who have a completely different relationship with their children that isn’t power based, that isn’t adult power over children, wow, how does that work? It can start raising questions.
GRACE: Definitely. And it’s always good to start at questions and see where that leads you.
PAM: Exactly, and you know, I even say that about homeschooling, because I hadn’t heard of homeschooling when I first had children. Just knowing that other possibilities are out there helps people realise that this is a choice they’re making. I would tell my kids, “Sorry, you have to go to school, let’s make it as good as we can.”
I worked a lot with the schools, with my kids’ teachers and everything to make the experience more enjoyable, until I discovered there wasn’t a law, that there were other possibilities, other choices. So just letting people know there are other choices, other possibilities out there so that when they’re ready for it, when they’re ready to start asking questions, they know there are other possibilities. That’s really interesting.
GRACE: And I think that’s key, it’s when you’re ready, that’s why I’ve learnt never to push my views on people, as excited as I am about all this stuff I’m learning. I will casually mention it, if someone asks why I’m speaking to my son in this certain way, or why I give him freedom to roam in the park and try things, I don’t rush over to him when he falls over.
There are things that I do that are very different and people notice. If they ask me, I’ll tell them. But I’m certainly not going to say what I just said on this podcast, I’m not going to just throw that at people. And I think just because I’m in a headspace where I’m learning about it doesn’t mean they’re ready. And it can just do more damage if you throw it at them before they’re ready.
I think it’s just always a case of waiting until people are ready to hear it.
PAM: Because if you don’t, it just puts them on the defensive, right? Which closes them off to being open to other possibilities.
I always just figured we’re just out and about in the world, living and people can just see other possibilities. They can just see how you are different with your kid, and if they’re interested enough to ask questions, or even when they go home to talk to somebody else. Instead of confronting people, we just live the way we live, out in the world, and it’s just another example for people to notice or not.
PAM: Our last question:
You and your husband founded Mulberry Magazine, it’s a quarterly magazine that as I said, covers homeschooling, unschooling and alternative education. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about how that came about. I love hearing about some of the different ways parents are supporting their unschooling lifestyle. That’s always really interesting, there’s such a wonderful variety.
GRACE: Yeah, for sure. It’s been a fun journey. I guess it started off with me as I said, when I was pregnant, googling homeschooling and looking for things, and there is so much, as I’m sure you know in the US and Canada, because it’s huge over there. Something like one million kids are homeschooled in the US.
So it’s just something that I felt like I wanted to hear more stories about where I grew up. I knew there were people here doing it, so I just really started talking to those people in my local neighbourhood and looking for Australians in stories to add into the mix.
It’s just been a really amazing journey of connection, to be honest. Particularly in our Instagram community which I just started, because I love that platform personally and I just started connecting with homeschooling mums on there. They have been a great support, even though we’re not physical friends in my life, I still feel like we are friends. We all share that like-mindedness that comes, that passion for all that kind of stuff that we’ve been talking about today, you could talk about it with them for hours.
I think particularly because I started off the magazine, actually I started off feeling very inadequate and very underqualified, thinking, “What the heck am I doing, I’m not even homeschooling yet.” All I’ve got to add some form of legitimacy is that I have been homeschooled – story of success, if you will, she turned out okay.
I just felt, why am I doing this, and I thought, well, number one, no-one else is in Australia, no-one else was doing our kind of magazine and reaching our audience with our visual kind of medium that it is.
And the other thing I thought was well, I know what it feels like to be at the beginning. And sometimes when you’ve been doing homeschooling for 10 or 15 years, I could imagine that it might feel like, ‘oh, isn’t everyone in this headspace? I’m so used to it now and why on earth are you worried about that particular thing?’
So starting from the beginning literally with the magazine and the beginning of my journey into homeschooling has just really given me a perspective on what people might need, particularly people who are exploring it in the early stages of having a baby, and people do start exploring it three or four years before their kids reach school age now.
And the whole thing about convincing your partner, or not even convincing, but getting your partner on board because I think it is a decision that should be mutual with parents. It shouldn’t be forcing that decision on your husband or partner. You want that support. We’ve been through it all in our family and I’m able to then share that drive to learn with everyone that reads it and with the people I connect with and get to interview.
So it’s actually been an amazing privilege for me to get to be able to do it, and connect with people and be so inspired even before I start formally when Leo turns five.
PAM: I think that’s a great point, I mean I can see how your perspective would be learning as much as your readers are as well, so you know the kind of questions that they’d be interested in because they’re right on the tip of your tongue and you can use that position to reach out and get the kind of information and talk to the kind of people you’re interested in. And that would be so useful for your readers too, right?
GRACE: And I think another thing that comes to mind is having worked in the media industry I’ve seen the way that homeschooling—not even unschooling, people don’t dig that far in, it’s always just homeschooling—and I’ve seen the way it’s positioned and sold as a headline. I know what people think about it. And I’ve had to sit in many meetings and just be quiet. I worked for a parenting website too where the topic came up a bit more frequently and I had to bite my tongue a few times at the comments they would make about crazy homeschooling parents.
I really do come at it from the really strong desire to just basically show people that it’s not like that. It’s actually amazing and beautiful and it can be visually beautiful as well, so in the magazine we try to show that side of it as well. There is a lot to be said for the beauty of home learning as well and connecting people, helping people to feel less alone. To feel like they’ve got a village around them that thinks the same way.
A lot of people do have family around them that disagree or directly oppose their decision, and that would be really difficult if you announced that you wanted to do that to your family and they all just said well that’s a completely stupid idea, why would you think of that. And a lot of people express that that’s what’s happened to them, and when they find a community of people on Instagram or however they might find it, yeah, that’s exactly what they needed. So that keeps me going. Those sorts of stories keep me going.
PAM: That’s awesome, that’s awesome. And yeah, I think that’s such a great point, from your background in journalism as well, you already have a good feel for the way it’s being seen outside, from the outside looking in, so that’s very cool. And I must say, it is a very beautiful magazine.
GRACE: Oh, thank you.
PAM: It’s such a great job, thank you guys for all the work that you put into it, that’s awesome.
I do want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me because it’s been tons of fun, I really enjoyed hearing more about you guys!
GRACE: Thanks for the opportunity Pam, it’s been awesome to chat with you.
PAM: Before we go, where’s the best opportunity for people to connect with you online?
GRACE: Our Instagram account that I mentioned where we connect with heaps of homeschooling mums is Mulberrymagazine, all one word, and the same for our website, www.mulberrymagazine.com.au, so those are the main places I hang out, when I’m trying not to look at my phone of course. Taking that into consideration, so that’s where you can find me.
PAM: I will share links to all those places and that article in the show notes, and I’ll look up that Simplicity Parenting book as well.
Thank you very much for your time, Grace, have fun with Eric and Leo!
GRACE: Will do, thanks, Pam, catch you later.
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