PAM: Hi everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Sandra Dodd. Hi Sandra!
SANDRA: Hi Pam.
PAM: I am so thrilled to have you back with us!
For those of you who are newer to the podcast, Sandra did a wonderful Ten Questions episode earlier last year which I will link to in the show notes and there you can hear lots about her three children, Kirby, Marty and Holly, who are all now adults, and their unschooling lives.
SANDRA: Every time I speak I think I say too much and then I think I don’t say enough, because every person wants what they want, you know, so it’s hard to guess. Some people think, “oh that was so long’ and some people are like “oh I wish she’d said more!” So, in advance of today I could not decide what to put in, so I just guessed!
But some of the notes from today came from a talk I gave in the UK, and sometimes I just copied, cut and pasted something, and I realised the difference is, in the last interview I was really talking to you. I wasn’t working from notes, I was really just answering questions directly to you, but this time I’m going to end up addressing the listener sometimes. So, I don’t want that to confuse people, when I say “you” I’m probably not talking to you, Pam. Sometimes I will be! But I didn’t want to change all the notes to “If one were to have…” you know, that’s sort of stilted. So sometimes it’s going to say, “if you could do this” and I’m going to know, you’ve already done that!
And then I’m ready.
PAM: I love that, that’s awesome. And there is a difference in that kind of approach so I love that you took a moment to focus that for the listeners.
And for this episode, what we’re going to do, because we spoke about this earlier, we’d like to focus on the changes that we go through as parents as we live this unschooling lifestyle with our children. Because there’s a bit of a pattern it seems to the kinds of questions that people have along their unschooling journey that seem to break down reasonably well into beginner, intermediate and advanced topics. And I thought it would be fun to break our questions down into each of these areas. So, to get started …
I recall when I was beginning unschooling, my days were typically a mix of learning about how natural learning works and starting to question a lot of the conventional wisdom I’d absorbed growing up. There are many ways that preconceived ideas and prejudices can limit people’s thinking and get in the way of moving to unschooling, aren’t there?
SANDRA: There are quite a few things and they come up gradually. For a child, deschooling is just the time to relax and get used to being home and with Mom, a child who’s been to school. A child who hasn’t been to school has no deschooling to do. But for parents, deschooling is detoxification from a lifetime and recovery from all of their schooling and whatever teaching they may have done. And it’s also a start of a gradual review of everything, but if we tell brand new unschoolers, “Okay, here it is, you need to review everything that’s ever happened to you.”
They don’t need to do it in advance, they don’t need to do it right at first. So, it’s so big, but it’s also so gradual, it’s just like living and breathing and eating and sleeping. Because every day a little more can come to the surface and be examined as it pops up.
The parents need to learn mostly how to learn without books or classes or teachers. Because the kids have already been home and doing that. And even a child who went to school, say a child who went to fourth grade or so, and has been in school four or five years, that won’t take them long to get over that. A few months? And they’ll be glad to be home. So, it’s the parents who need the big deschooling, and some of the problems are covered in your introductory materials, I think that’s wonderful, that they can get your free book and begin to methodically dismantle the structure they grew up with so they can start to see differently. I’m glad that resource is available, thank you, I recommend it all the time.
Different people need and take in and understand and use different things, just like trying to plan a talk like this and not knowing who will listen. And how much time they’ll have and what mood they’ll be in, but when anyone goes to the same introductory materials, each person sees it differently because they have different needs, and that’s all right.
One problem that comes up is efficiency. The idea of the glory of efficiency can be a problem. Because people get competitive, we’re all keeping track of how quickly we got into university and how soon we got out. Or how many minutes we take to get dinner on the table. “Oh, well, I can do that meal in 30 minutes!” “Well, I can do that meal in 20 minutes!”
Unschooling isn’t like that at all, even in the long term it’s not about the completion of a project at all. It’s about becoming the sort of people who see and appreciate and trust that learning can happen. And who can travel with children, not just drag them along or push them along, but who can travel with children along those interesting paths together not until you get there, but indefinitely.
And for beginning unschoolers that sounds also a little esoteric, a little foofy. And not solid. They want to know what do I do when the kids wake up in the morning? So, the beginning information is very often, “What do I do?” But the information that will get people from the beginning to the intermediate is why. Why do we do this?
Negativity is another problem that can keep people in the starting space for too long. If they prize their indignation and their pessimism and that’s their identity. It would be okay for childless people to be that way, but people with children really can’t unschool if they identify with outrage and they’re proud of anger. They really need to find a way to be happy. I’ve seen people try to do it, to cling to that and say “Well, that’s just the way I am.” But their kids end up increasingly unhappy, or without the benefits that so many other families’ kids are showing. The other parents are in there really happy about what surprised them, that their children are doing things earlier or more willingly than other families, but the pessimistic and negative families aren’t seeing that very readily, if at all. So it’s another thing that people need to dismantle.
Long ago on a group far away, I don’t remember which one, I could guess at some but it’s gone anyway, someone posted a request for people to share their worst days. Could we all share one of our worst days when things went totally wrong. And Pam Sorooshian was a moderator and she jumped in there right away and said, no, that’s a bad idea, we’re not going to do that, because people have bad days but what’s really helpful is to share good days. And I was so glad she had been there because I was away from the computer for a while and those started to pile up.
It’s possible to depress people, I could do it. I have enough stories in me that I could just tell stories until everyone in the room was suicidal or ready to kill me or both. And I don’t tell those stories. There are a lot of stories I know about things that went wrong in people’s lives. And it’s just best not to recite those things. Because children need peace and joy and love. And if the parents are going to be their sole providers in this home environment of learning, they need all the peace and love they would need from their parents and they need all the peace and love they were going to get from their teachers.
When a family is very negative, with a very cynical parent, they’re sacrificing the chance that maybe the teacher would have been happier than they are. So, they need to be twice as peace and love as they might have been if they weren’t unschooling. Which irritates some cynical people. But they may need to sacrifice their wallowing and step out into the sunshine emotionally and morally and sometimes physically.
Another problem is the need for support and approval, which happens with women more than men. And if newcomers can get over that, they level up easily. It’s very easy in an online discussion, especially, to get props and praise from absolute total strangers. And the most popular praise this season in North America is “You’re an awesome mom.” People will write that to anybody, they don’t know what that woman’s doing on the other end of the phone.
It’s also a way that moms have to complain in public and have others grant them permission not to grow or change. It’s a way that moms have to shame moms that are trying to do better and to celebrate with those who don’t bother. It’s not at all good for unschoolers. And in case what I said is confusing, I know that from having been a kid in school who got As that the other kids will try to make you stop doing that. Whether the teachers are grading on a curve or not, it’s very unpopular for a kid to do well. It’s better if everyone agrees to meet in middle and do a concerted group half-assed job. And I think that happens with parenting, too, out in the wild. Not in unschooling groups, when you’re lucky, but for people to go, “Oh don’t worry about it! It’s hard, you’re doing the best you can do. Everything you’re doing is awesome.”
That is something that a lot of women need and want because the way women learn traditionally is to share their stories, to share their stories about birth and housework and all of that, and that’s how women learn to do those things. So, when it comes to something like parenting or unschooling, the first instinct is probably to just talk to other moms who are about your grade, who have kids who are about the age of your kids. But with unschooling it’s a little bit more of a specialised skill set, so if you hang around with women who say, “Don’t even try to do better, why are they telling you to do that? You don’t have to do that.” It might be better to hang around for a while—until you catch the rhythm of unschooling—to hang around with more experienced unschoolers.
One of the best things I’ve found to help new unschoolers to understand this kind of learning is to get them playing with trivia. Collecting or discussing something entirely unrelated—they think—to learning. We’re just playing, we’re just goofing around, we’re just going to talk about words or songs or wheelbarrows. And while they’re distracted and they’re applying and what they consider doing nothing, they start to see that they are comparing things and connecting things.
Trivia means it won’t be on the test. It literally means a small little insignificant thing, a useless thing. In our culture it means trivia, it will not be on the test. And so, when they find out they’re having fun with the names of Pokemon or with which country which marital arts are from and why, after a while they start to see that this ties in to all sorts of things, to geography and technology and clothes style and art and architecture and religion and home appliances and fashion trends.
I’ve had company and we’ve been driving around and I’ve been telling them about the post war housing. Those sinks were pink—in those houses that were built in the 50s, a lot of them have pink bathtubs, pink sinks, pink toilets. Nobody would get a pink toilet these days. So, you can kind of date things by those features if you know enough about it. What colour are washing machines now? Cool ones are black, but who had a black washing machine in 1960? Nobody, that’d be crazy. So, if people know about any one thing, whether it’s trailer hitches or anything, that knowledge ties into a lot of other things. When parents get that from just playing and goofing around they calm down. They start to see just from their playing that it doesn’t have to be something that came out of a book, it doesn’t have to be something that was on a curriculum for it to actually be useful.
Probably every town…I don’t know about Canada, I’m sorry I should have checked, but American servicemen that survived WW2 were all promised a house loan. And it was a certain amount. So, contractors back home started building those houses that you could get a loan for with that particular loan. There are all these many, many neighbourhoods of three-bedroom tract houses. With a bathroom and a half. And one garage, you know. And they’re everywhere and there are big neighbourhoods up in Albuquerque and Marty lives in one of them. So anyway, that ties into a lot of things about finances and benefits and World War Two and who went and how old were they and how old are they now, all that stuff. It’s cool, I love that, I’ve always loved that sort of trivia so that may be why unschooling came easily to me.
Some people get all that easily and some don’t. Some get a toehold and they begin to climb the first day they hear about it. Some get a vision they can move towards and they’re happy and some get a desire to learn more. And because we’re talking about something intangible, metaphors like that, climbing or moving, are useful, but some people don’t like metaphors, they don’t like my examples, they want a graph and they want a checklist and then they want measures and proofs, so unschooling might be a problem for those kinds of people at first. Or they might prefer voices other than mine.
They might want to read Joyce Fetteroll’s site. And I have a page on my site called Other Voices: sandradodd.com/othervoices, all one word no caps. And that’s where I have links to pages on other authors that are popular, have been popular, some are gone, not around any more, but I still have their good stuff collected. And sometimes people just find a voice that they love! They might love Meredith’s stuff. Or Karen James. So, I have provided them a shortcut to more of it.
PAM: I’ll definitely put that link in the show notes.
I could sit here and just listen all day. So many things connected for me as you were talking, I’m just going to say a couple of them. The idea of seeing it in action, instead of telling them? Trying to explain this is how it is, this is how natural learning works, these connections. Just playing games and having fun—I think that’s why we talk so much about taking the first six months or a year off and just playing, like a vacation with your kids because it’s really the experience of those things happening, it’s the looking back and going “Oh, hey, look, it went here, here, here, look where we are now” that’s when it really starts to make sense, how this natural learning works.
And the piece about negativity, I remember…I have a talk, where I actually said, I was going to list out all these more negative perspectives on these situations, but I really couldn’t do it. That’s just not a place to go, there’s no value there. And I remember somebody was listening and she came up to me after and she said, “When you said you were going to go and explain all this negative perspective on this, I was so excited to hear how that was going to be compared, and then you said you weren’t going to do it and I was like, arghhhh! But then at the end it all made sense.”
But, yeah, that’s a really, really huge thing, which I think also ties in when you’re newer to unschooling. I remember my parenting questions—I stopped asking people I knew in “real life” because I wasn’t getting those kinds of answers that I wanted now. I would only take my questions to the online unschooling groups because that’s the perspective and the information that I wanted right away because I wanted to make that shift quickly. I didn’t want to commiserate with the other parents whose kids were going to school and they were spending all their time complaining about their kids and teachers and everything. That was really getting in the way for me, because it would keep pulling me back into that. But I would go to the unschooling forums where you were and get so much more helpful information.
Okay, question two.
When you’re starting out, it can be hard to figure out whether to trust a source of unschooling information at first. Especially now, I mean, back then when I started there were very few places to go and it was lovely to find them but even within there you found the voices that connected and resonated with you and that you learned to trust, like you have your list of other voices that we’ll link to as well. What tips would you give to help?
SANDRA: The first really vibrant, busy, every day forum that there ever was, was on AOL. And we used to joke because we couldn’t in those days send photos. If we wanted to see photos of each other we would put a snapshot in an envelope and mail it in the mail. Because the internet wasn’t to the point that you could load a photo. And so, it was all just text and we all looked the same, we joked maybe we couldn’t tell that one of us was a 70-year-old childless man in Florida! We used to joke about that, if something seemed a little implausible or too exciting or wild or something we’d say, “it’s probably that 70-year-old guy.” But we used to talk about that seriously on the side sometimes, “What if? What if it was?” If the advice was really good, how do we decide if we need to know in advance who this person is and what they’ve actually done. And that’s an interesting thought to have.
But as the years passed and we…oh, maybe I’m about to rat myself out for wanting efficiency, but it seems easier sometimes to just know solidly that someone actually is a good resource. I don’t have any interest at all in the world in certifying anyone or having ranks, that would be a nightmare because then people would start cheating and lying to get the rank. I’ve seen it in some other clubs. So that’s not what I’m looking at at all.
What I think is that each person will find voices they like and—to use a school analogy—when I was in school, there were teachers I loved, LOVED, that other kids my age in my class couldn’t stand. And vice versa. Sometimes somebody else’s favourite math teacher was a guy I didn’t want to see. I don’t want to hear his baseball analogies, I don’t care, I don’t know, I don’t like his accent, whatever it was! And the other kids are like, “He’s so cool!” So, it’s that way with unschooling writing too. Someone is just going to be wild about somebody because her writing is soft and flowy and not so scientific and somebody else they’re going to be going, “Yes, Jo Isaac will give us the links to studies!” Somebody else is going to say, “I’m not going to read a study. Forget it.” So, knowing that makes it individual.
But then there’s the balance of not having any idea who the person is and saying, “Okay, well, then I don’t want to hear anything she says,” because that would be wrong. Then there’s the other side where you go, “Oh, her kids look cute and I like her hair so I’m going to believe every word she says.” And that’s a disadvantage of being able to look at photos. Because people can choose by looks. And that’s a new oddity, a new problem that people will look back on and see.
So, it should be some and some. Until you learn gradually which direction you like, or which way you’re going to go, which way you’re going to lean in or scoot away from, just listen. Just read and be aware that some of those will become favourites and some of those you might avoid in the future, you just skip over their posts. When somebody looks around at a lot of sources, some of them try to believe everything and try to incorporate everything, which is another problem, because there will be contradictions and clashes, not all unschooling writers agree. And some people will say that what they’re writing about is unschooling and it’s not quite.
To use a more mainstream example it would be like saying “Well, I’m a liberal, so I believe everything that all liberals believe.” That’s not going to last long. Or, “As a Christian, I follow the doctrines of all churches equally.” Yeah, that’s not working either. So, anyone who’s listening could add the political group or religion that they know the most about to see what the problem is. Because if that was a possibility there would only be one political party in the whole world, one lawyer, one doctor. There wouldn’t be anything to argue about if everyone could agree so easily. That’s not how it works.
And it’s the same with unschooling. Because some people will say “it’s child-led learning,” and then there’s a wonderful article by Pam Sorooshian saying it’s really not child-led learning. But if someone starts in a group where they always say, “child-led,” and then they come over to my group or some other couple of groups that are fans of Pam’s writing they’re going to say, “Yeah, but child-led is a problem. Because some parents sit around in their recliner watching action films waiting for the child to lead them somewhere.” So, from the point of view of my group we just say if the whole family is doing things together, learning’s happening, no-one needs to lead. It’s not about leading.
And then some people say, “Oh, unschooling’s freedom and we’re going to be free and my kids are going to be free, and I’ll be free and we’ll have all the freedom we can eat!” And there are problems with that, some serious problems. Because parents make their kids promises they can’t keep. You know, you can do anything you want to! “Now that we’re unschoolers you can do anything you want to!” Well, no you can’t, not even in your own home. And definitely not in a store or a restaurant.
So sometimes people come with these preconceived images and then they come to one of my discussions and they say, “Well, since unschooling is freedom I told my child to do whatever he wants and now we have problems.” Or “We’ve been waiting a whole year and our child didn’t take responsibility for his own learning so we’re thinking of putting him back in school.”
They grab a concept from one source and they try to return it and get their money back over at a different group. Like they’re frustrated if we say, “But you didn’t get that idea in this store. You didn’t get that idea in this discussion, so let’s start back a few steps.” They’re really angry because they think unschooling is monolithic. And that they can pile everything on it and the more ideas you have, the bigger and better your unschooling. But what happens is, the more mismatched ideas you chuck in there, the more confusing it is and it may not work at all. And sometimes we say you need to start back at the beginning. And that irritates them. And I don’t know what to do about that.
We’ve had people come in who were stuck and confused about authenticity. They used that word so much and all the time that they weren’t able to see outside of that. Or autonomy. In the UK they have had problems with autonomous unschooling—or autonomous home ed. And it causes unreasonable splits, so okay, let’s chuck that word and start in a clean place. Or there are worthless combinations like Waldorf/Steiner. People come in and say, “I’m a Waldorf/Steiner unschooler.” And we’re like, yeah, dump the Waldorf. Dump the Steiner. They don’t even match.
Or homeschooling/unschooling. It’s just noise. It’s a waste of pixels. Someone said recently and I wish I had found who said it, that you can’t drive two automobiles at the same time. So, when people are starting with unschooling they need to find a group. Look at a lot of groups and find one you like, and stick around and read it a lot. Don’t just come when you have a problem. I wrote this yesterday about my website and I thought it was kind of useful here,
“No-one is ever likely to read my whole website and I don’t ever need them to. It’s not written to be read from one end to the other any more than a pharmacy is intended for someone to start at one end and eat, drink or inject every substance in the whole room. If you find a page that does help you, guess what? It will help even more if you read it again after a year or two. And if you read it after you’ve been unschooling for five years it will seem that the first time it was a black and white postcard and now it’s a technicolour movie. Because you’ll understand it better and you’ll see the subtlety and the artistry of what people wrote and maybe you’ll wish you’d been able to understand it better sooner.”
PAM: Okay, I have goosebumps from that because that is such a huge piece, going back and revisiting ideas a few months later, a year later, a couple of years later. There’s something new to get out of these ideas every time you visit because where you are in your learning curve changes all the time.
I love the idea of going from black and white because in the beginning we’re looking for the answer, we want to know, “Tell me how to do it! Tell me how to do it!” It’s black and white, but then, oh my gosh the nuances that come in, and when you can take those principles and apply them to your unique children, your unique family and see them blossom with your kids. Like all those connections we were talking about in the first question. I mean, wow, yeah that just brings so much more colour into your lives.
I had to laugh because Pam Sorooshian’s child-led learning post, we actually talked about it, I linked to it in the last episode.
SANDRA: Yeah, it’s good. It’s really good.
PAM: It’s awesome!
SANDRA: And then I think, she should have written that a whole long time ago! We could have used that 20 years ago, but things come when they come and I’m glad that they do.
PAM: It’s the critical thinking piece that comes in. I posted recently on my blog about that, how, you know, yes when you don’t know the answers when you’re first pursuing/interested in any topic, unschooling being a topic, you go find a whole bunch of groups. And then you’re going to start resonating with how people write, the language they use to describe things, whether or not they use metaphorical language, what kind of resources they like to bring in with their answers etc and actually thinking about what makes sense to you from your perspective and what is starting to make sense with your kids and what you’re seeing happen with your family at the same time. All that comes together to help you start to build trust in the resources and also trust in unschooling as a lifestyle.
SANDRA: A practice.
PAM: I like that, a practice.
SANDRA: The people I’ve seen do best found a discussion they really liked and trusted and they stuck around and read actively for a couple of years. Some people don’t think it’s going to take a couple of years. Some people stay there for many years and help other people like Joyce has, like Pam Sorooshian, like you have.
The people who first come there, sometimes they mistake it for something like a university and they think every speaker has been vetted, or that every person who writes is equally good. So that’s another thing to watch out for when you’re new. Remember not every post is great. Stick around long enough to figure out which writers you like, and also which ones are respected by the other people in there. Some people who have failed to unschool or have veered away from doing it well, joined a group but they only came if they had a problem.
This happens to us every day at Radical Unschooling Info on Facebook, someone comes in and asks a question that was asked just a few days ago. Because they’re not actually reading the group they just want to use it like a fix-it shop. And it doesn’t work as well because their problems tend to be worse every time they show up. Because they’re not getting better, they’re just getting a band aid. The unschooling didn’t have a foundation of principles and understandings.
I think the best thing to do is to first shop around and then find a home or two where you can hang out. Even if you’re reading problems that don’t apply to you it’s still going to be useful to think about what you would do or how you would advise if you were one of the more experienced ones. I like it when people say, “Well, I thought that you would probably say this and Joyce would probably say that, and I was right!”
So, they use it kind of like a test or a game for fun to guess what’s somebody is going to write. And that can help too. But when someone posts a problem that I never had, I feel gratitude. I feel lucky or fortunate that problem has shone a peaceful light on a place in my life. So that’s another benefit, even if the topic is not about you, or, you know what I mean, not about a problem you have or need that your family has, it can still be really useful to remember that some unschoolers have problems you didn’t have to worry about. And that’s a part of what abundance and gratitude are about, about seeing what you do have. I think if people will read a little and think about the ideas every day a little bit, they’ll have fewer problems and their deschooling will be smoother.
You mentioned critical thought, I was going to mention that, and I won’t. (laughs)
PAM: I think people dislike the idea of reading every day, I think that’s a huge piece because I remember I would specifically get up early, before the kids, every morning and go visit the couple of Yahoo groups at the time. And what you said about considering it every day, digging in, seeing what answers would be to problems maybe you haven’t had yet or questions that hadn’t occurred to you yet. I was so grateful to all the people who were asking questions because I didn’t need to.
Actually, somebody just posted that on Facebook, because I shared the Q&A episode that went out today, and she said, “I love these because so often they’re questions I would have asked but I haven’t had a chance to yet.” And that’s the point of immersing yourself in it when you can because it helps you build your picture and your understanding so much more than just coming when you have a problem. Because you don’t get as many of the connections, you don’t learn those other pieces that can inform so much of your day. And it allowed me to bring things in before I even needed them so that I avoided the problem in the first place.
You recorded a great 5-minute video a few years ago called “Doing Unschooling Right.” [NOTE: also subtitled in in Portuguese and in French]. I want to share a short quote: “My definition for unschooling is creating and maintaining an environment in which natural learning can thrive. The environment I’m talking about—what we sometimes call an unschooling nest—is not just the physical home, it’s the relationships within the family and the exploration of the world outside the home by parents and children both. The emotional environment is crucial.”
We’re approaching intermediate unschooling here, where natural learning is reasonably well understood and now there’s a dawning realization of the importance of our relationships. As you say, the emotional environment is crucial so that our children feel safe and secure. Why is that so important for unschooling to thrive?
SANDRA: Children are dependent on the parent for more than they would be if they were in school. So, love and trust are what make unschooling work. It may not seem like that when your question is, “What toys do we have to buy, should I let them play on the video games and ipads” but it’s the love and the trust that will help them learn. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, something that all teachers and psychiatrists know about, talks about what’s needed for learning to take place. So, unschooling parents need to keep all those conditions in mind and provide them because the child has no other outlet, no other back up. And on my page, on my site sandradodd.com/maslow that has that chart.
If the child’s in school and the parents are negative there’s a chance for the kid to have a happy upbeat teacher—might not, but could. But if the parents are there all day, are the child’s all day all night adult, and the adults are dark and depressing, the child has no-one else to go to, nowhere to escape. Having a relationship with a negative person is not going to be at all the same as a relationship with someone who’s cheery and open and curious and happy to hear your questions. So that’s part of the environment that I’m talking about, that it’s not just a physical environment it’s an emotional environment. A better life involves parents being better. That seems so trite, right, it seems like I’m saying water makes things wet, but I’ll say it anyway. A better life involves parents being better.
Better according to who and what, people say, you don’t get to say if I’m better. No, I don’t get to say it, and I don’t care, in a cold-hearted way. Because what it means is better than before, according to your child. Better than before, according to your partner. And, if you’re being honest then, better than before according to yourself. Because if you’re not doing better than school would be, put your kids in school. If what you’re doing is not the best thing you can do, or a better thing than would be happening otherwise, then don’t do it. It’s a waste of time, it will just frustrate everybody.
So being better is relative to some other markers and it’s different to different families. Maybe their kids never were in school, and it’s subjective. Subjective doesn’t mean it’s worthless, in fact it doesn’t mean it’s without measure, different people’s starting places and potentials are different. Better than it might have been otherwise. It’s important for more experienced unschoolers too, the intermediates we’re talking about, to find ways to check themselves and not to need to ask others all the time, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Am I unschooling yet?” Don’t be fidgeting around in somebody else’s back seat when you can be in front and drive now.
This is a serious, quick exercise that anyone can do, I almost made someone sick with this one, so just brace yourself. Imagine you’re going to be away for a week, not you Pam, the listener we can’t see. Imagine you’re going to be away for a whole week and you need someone to stay with your kids. What attributes should that person have? Mature, honest, attentive? Yeah. Somewhat attentive, kind of attentive, or really attentive? Cause these are your kids there. And you’re going to be on another continent. The person should be fun and happy, maybe, I would think the person should be sober for the whole week. Should be a safe driver and someone who’s willing to cook. Picture that person pretty well and think, shouldn’t you be that way yourself then? Don’t be a person you wouldn’t even leave your own kids with.
So that’s an intermediate exercise, I think. If we said that to the people who first showed up they might cry because they’re all stressed already from the huge decision to depart from the mainstream. We’re talking about people now, at this point, who have already been doing this for a few years. They’ve left the mainstream, they can’t even see the assembly line from where they are. But still, if they become complacent and don’t think that they need to do better and could do better, then they can’t do better and they won’t do better. And if they’re ever going to get to be the unschooling parents that their future children need, their bigger, older children with bigger questions and problems, they need to keep getting better.
At an intermediate stage the easy deschooling is all done, but other, deeper messages float up to the surface sometimes and they’re going to look different through unschooling eyes. So, if you saw these problems, these questions when you were new you may not have even perceived it, or been able to think about it. But now, as an intermediate unschooler, they’ll come back up. And now you see them as an unschooler. That’s big, that’s progress. You don’t have to ask if you’re there yet.
One thing people say is, “all things in moderation.” They say it, they write it. Sometimes it’s a put down, sometimes it’s a shield. And they say it to defend their actions, and one day Leah Rose wrote the coolest thing and I’m going to read it, it’s short:
“I’ve been thinking about that saying “all things in moderation”. Next time someone says it to me I think I might just ask them, “do you mean we should have joy in moderation? Should we have peace in moderation? Kindness in moderation? Patience in moderation? Forgiveness, compassion, humility? Honestly, I used to think it sounded like a very wise and balanced philosophy. Now the more I think about it, the less sense it makes.”
And that was Leah Rose and it’s on my site under moderation. Probably, I don’t know.
The other things to review and consider as parents, even when the kids are getting older, and partly because when a child gets to a certain age, is it triggers memories in the parent. So, the parent’s unschooling—deschooling, I mean. The parent’s deschooling even though it might seem like they’re all kind of cruising now, on the downhill, it’s easy, they’re all deschooled, then when the child reaches 12 or 14 or some age at which you had a trauma or a hard year then the parent gets stirred up again about that child being that age. So, there’s always going to be some growth happening, as long as the kids are home, even if you have young adults, they’ll get to an age when I have some mile marker, landmark, problem, my dad died or something and their age stirs my memories.
And sometimes it affects the way I treat them or talk to them or accept nonsense. You know what I mean? Like sometimes we’re all happy, happy, and we can be as goofy as we want, and sometimes there comes a lump in me that I had not yet taken out and dried off. I may not be describing that very well but other people have said too that there came times where they themselves found an unexamined part of themselves, or something they hadn’t dealt with. And it’s good for your kids for you to do that, but you can’t do it all in advance. It’s not time, you don’t have the circumstances that trigger that.
If you don’t understand something, and this is about unschooling or about things that your kids are asking, if you can’t explain it then you probably don’t understand it very well. If there are things you don’t understand, don’t freak out about it, don’t get mad about it. Find some definitions, think of some good examples, look it up.
If you’re a new unschooler and your neighbours or somebody in the elevator or your in-laws said, “So, what is unschooling anyway?” you’ve probably sweated or gotten nervous or said, “I..I..I..it’s kinda like…” But by the time your an intermediate unschooler, you’ve probably got your little elevator talk, your little definition—but it’s okay if you can’t stand up and talk about it for an hour. Don’t feel bad about that as an intermediate, some people never stand up and talk about anything for an hour. But you probably need to have enough in you to answer questions. And some day it’ll be even more, when you’ve done it for more years.
The difference between explaining it when you’re new and explaining it when you’ve done it, is when you’re new, you’re just reciting other peoples’ stories, saying, “Well, as I understand it, people do this.” But, as you have been unschooling for a while and new unschoolers come along, you’re the helpful older unschooler and you might meet them at a park or a conference or online and then you get to practice explaining and clarifying for you. When you can explain anything better you understand it better.
And after a few years of unschooling, you’ll be able to share what you know, what you think, not just what you’ve seen or heard. It will be of your own certain knowledge. You know that it works because your child learned to read, learned to multiply, learned to do schoolish things on top of all the mountain of trivia that he knows which isn’t worth bragging to grandma about. “Well, he can identify every tank in World War One.” and Grandma’s not going to care. Even though that is geography and history and politics and technology. So yeah, sometimes you need those little schooly things.
After a few years, you’ll also be able to step up and give people the confidence they need to come closer to where you are, you become a draw, a resource, a magnet. Even if you didn’t plan to be because they have questions and they want to talk to someone who’s actually done it and actually been there. It’s a step up from the faith and hope that new unschoolers work with to your own certain knowledge. Which is a legal term, an ancient legal term I really like it, “Do you, of your own certain knowledge…” and that’s the people who should be answering questions on discussions, is the people who have their own certain knowledge.
A good goal at this mid point of unschooling after a few years should be, “Don’t mess this up now.” Don’t mess up this child and don’t mess up this opportunity.
PAM: I really love the way you were talking about the experience that they had that they could now be able to share and that they now have answers that they’re comfortable giving when people start asking questions. I think that’s a really distinct change that we can notice. And I remember I became a lot—nervous probably isn’t the right word—but I was more comfortable being out and about with the kids because I wasn’t worried that someone was going to approach me with questions. I wasn’t feeling defensive. It was easy for me to be conversational. I thought that was a really interesting point.
And when you were talking about new things coming up even after years, that’s such a great point. It can be things in our life and it can also be expectations that we didn’t really realise we had, when your kids hit certain ages. When your eldest becomes 16, you’ve never unschooled a 16-year-old before and expectations around that age that you’ve kind of absorbed growing up, that you had no reason to think about before, all of a sudden now start showing up. So, there can always be something.
When I was just starting to feel kind of off, that was always such a helpful question to ask myself, “What does that mean to me? Why is it that I’m getting worked up?” Because when I would look to my kids, everything was still lovely, still learning and pursuing their interests, they’re doing unschooling just lovely, it was all something in my life that was bringing up the issues at the time.
There was so much tucked into your definition for unschooling that I really loved! Another great tidbit was, “the exploration of the world outside the home by parents and children both.” We’ve seen our children’s learning in action, and now we’re realizing the important role we play. Parents need to become unschoolers and that process doesn’t happen all at once. Can you talk about why that’s so important?
SANDRA: I think becoming an unschooling parent is about recovery, and like you were just talking about, it’s different at different stages. They might be totally happy with a child who’s elementary school age but when they become the age of whatever kind of school system they were in—middle school, junior high—then the parents might get nervous again, “Well, shouldn’t you be doing this and this and this?” Based on what? Slow down!
So, the parents, if they keep up with their own progress, they should be still learning about learning, either learning or trying to remember that they once knew long ago when they were little that learning can happen wordlessly. From sound, from images, from touching and playing with things. And even with adults. There are some things you don’t learn through looking at, you know, sand toys or slime, you don’t just look at it, you have to touch it and see what it does. Rocks and shells, they’re no good to just look at. And by the way, if anyone has a rock or a shell collection and you get bored, get a bowl of water, they look so different wet. The plainest little granite rocks can look beautiful when they’re wet. But who’s going to do that? That’s not on the test, not even on the geology test.
Clay, soap, oil, those things need to be touched and messed with to learn about them. And it doesn’t hurt for adults to do that either. Different oils feel different ways. So, looking away from book learning for a while, and not only believing and understanding that learning can happen other ways but prove it by living with it and doing it. Instead of batting away questions and curiosities because you don’t have to know, you’re not in school, you’re grown up—instead of batting them away, turn towards it. And be still in wonder. You don’t have to ask your kids a cool question, you might have your own cool question then at that point. And then sometimes you might share it with your kids and sometimes you don’t.
And this is another level of unschooling where at first the parents are so excited they want to know everything the kids have learned and they want to share with the kids everything they think of, and after a while the kids can get crowded with that and the parents can go on automatic and get a little maybe monotonous. If they get to the point where they can discover something fascinating, go look at it in person, read about it and look at a video about it and not tell their kids, that’s kind of another plateau of unschooling. Where the flow of learning in the house is not just between parents and kids. Learning becomes part of the substance and the air of the way that family lives and that’s going to help again as the kids get older. Set the example of living as a learner.
Perspective changes gradually, not all of it in a minute, or a day, or a year. It’s lumpy, sometimes you’ll have a big epiphany and sometimes things seem the same for a while, but gradually you are further away from the way you used to be and closer to the way you will be. And there’s a tension there. A—tension (laughs)—two words—to remembering where you were and expecting to change. Don’t just quit, keep moving, keep growing, keep living as an unschooler. Progress can be seen by mental comparison to school. How would this child be if he’d been in school? What would he have been doing if he was in school? And don’t just look at it wistfully, like, “Oh, he’d be in band.” That was always my thing, “Oh he’d be in the music program.” But look at the things that he’s getting to do that if he were in school he wouldn’t be getting to do. And that gives some perspective on where you are.
Also run a mental comparison—once in a while, just privately, don’t have a family meeting about it, just think it—to the state of your family before you changed, how was it then, how is it now. How would your family potentially be now had you not decided to be more positive, more gentle, more generous. And sometimes that is way more soothing than a bunch of people online saying, “awesome mom.” Because they don’t know what they’re talking about but, once you’ve been unschooling for a while, you do know what you’re talking about. And your kids know. So, it should be something that’s within your family that your satisfaction and success is measured by the peace and satisfaction of the people in your group, in your home.
It’s not a checklist or a discussion, but the parent’s own internal assessment of better, so keep that “better” going. At this point you’re past how does unschooling work, because your kids are learning, they’re learning all the time, so now you can think of things like becoming more trustworthy. Be worthy of your children’s trust. In whatever way that’s going to be, whether that’s to be there to help them out, or be there if they’re scared at night, whatever it may be. Pick them up on time, don’t forget they’re at karate. Be reliable and somebody they can rely on.
So, you can work on making yourself that sort of person. The sort of person that an older child needs. These aren’t babies any more that you’re nursing and carrying around, these are big kids now that can be away from you for a while, so what does reliability look like then?
And there’s some analogies that people have proposed on this kind of learning where you think, “Oh, I’m done, I understand unschooling, we’re unschooling like pros.” Now it’s like layers of an onion, where that’s finished, “Oh there’s a whole ‘nother layer, cool.” Or “bummer,” depending how you feel about it. When you get to a new layer sometimes people have said level up. You know, they use the game language of, “I levelled up.” Or as a hill to cross and then there are more hills beyond that but you can see a little further every time.
A good way to take theories that you have is to take them out in discussions online or in person. If you think something is true and you start to get an idea and you probably didn’t get it from someone else this time, you’re starting to build your own ideas. Put them into a discussion, see how they survive. Discuss it when you have unschooling gatherings in the park. Talk about things with people and see if your ideas aren’t starting to be as solid as anybody’s. And if your understanding isn’t whole and useful, not just to yourself now but to these other people, there’s some way when little kids explain something that the parents have never heard before, and the parents honestly and sincerely are going “I did not know that,” that makes the kid big. He’s real. He’s doing for you what you had planned to do for him, and that started happening to me when my kids were five and six already, they had learned things from relatives or neighbours and they came and told me and I thought that was wonderful. That I wasn’t going to need to be their sole source of information.
So now as an intermediate unschooler, when people are helping other unschoolers or other parents even, just helping them solve a fight at a playground or helping a mom who’s overwhelmed with three little kids and one’s crying, being able to be calm and whole and knowing some tricks to do, that makes you a bigger, better parent, a bigger, better person than you were before. Not just seeming like that, but you really are being that way.
If living by principles and not by rules didn’t make any sense when you first started unschooling I’m not surprised, it’s a little confusing. It’s something you can recite and not understand. But after a few years it should start to make sense. And so sometimes people want to make a rule or have a principle like, “We’re going to be peaceful and safe.” But if it’s an absolute like that, it’s really easy to fail. You find out you’re not absolutely peaceful and you’re not totally safe, but here’s what you do. You qualify all those statements, it’s a really good trick to learn for when you sharing or speaking or thinking or writing: qualify it. So, you cannot guarantee that you can be peaceful and safe. But here’s what you can absolutely guarantee. You can be more peaceful and safer. And the difference between saying, “As unschoolers we will learn everything we need to learn.” You can say, “As unschoolers we’re going to learn a whole bunch of cool stuff.” Step down from any statements of absolute perfection and say we’re going to do something neat, it’s going to be better than it would have been without. And more peaceful than you were before and safer than you were before you were unschooling.
PAM: I love that idea of shifting away from absolutes at this point too because I really find that that shift away from 18 years, from children, and you notice the expectations that you have that they’d learn a certain set of information, and to be able to move past that and truly realise that whenever they want or need to learn something is when they can do it.
It’s that shift away from, “We’ll learn everything that we need to learn.” Well, you know what, we really don’t know what we might need to learn at some point. So, it’s to be able to release that and say, “Wow, I’ve been seeing my kids do this for years now and I know that they’ll be able to do it in the future too.” And you can release all those expectations that you didn’t think you had, but now a few years on, your kids are getting older and you’re starting to look into that later picture, that future picture.
And the other thing that jumped out when you were talking about trust and reliability, at this stage, those intermediate kind of years. For myself, one of the things that I really found was that it was a time of stretching my comfort zones. Because yeah, we’re living together and taking my needs into account, but I realized as I took a moment to think, so many of what I thought of as my boundaries didn’t really need to be there. And just by supporting and helping my kids, “Hey, you know I can try that, I can support them as they want to try that.”
I learned and grew so much by not trying to hold so tightly onto those boundaries in my life that I thought were safe and normal and nobody would think any less of me for saying, “No, I can’t do that,” or “I’m not going to drive that far,” or whatever it is, but to put in that little bit of extra energy brought so much to our family. So much learning, so much joy, that it was so worth it to take that extra time to stretch on those issues as well.
SANDRA: What I found as well was that I had trusted my kids and they had trusted me, and they became really trustworthy. There’s no denying that some of it could have been genetic, who knows, a lot of this stuff could be genetic, but I have also seen families where there was just so much frustration that there was no togetherness. They wound that kid up like a rubber band plane and he launched as far as he could and just crashed, as far away from home as he could. And so, if you don’t wind them up and launch them, they’re also not necessarily going to pop out of the nest at 18 or 21. And that’s another expectation that a lot of people grew up with or that they’re getting pressure from people around them, “So are you going to start charging them rent? Are you going to throw them out?” No, we’re not.
Marty, my middle kid, is 28 now and he’s at university studying economics and he said it’s pretty well accepted now that 30 is the new 21. That the things that people expected 21-year-olds to do they can’t do any more financially because of the state of the economy and the world, that they do those now at 30. Whether that’s buying a house or a car or getting their first fancy job, their first career job. That people who are expecting this to be like the 60s or 70s or 80s are going to be creating their own problem and might need to loosen up. I was totally willing to let Marty tell me all this stuff that he had learned and read because I didn’t know that.
PAM: I know, I love when they share. Joseph’s very into a lot of that. Sociology, society from that bigger picture stuff, ages and expectations and all that kind of stuff. I learn so much from him and our conversations, that’s awesome.
We should probably move on to the next question! (laughs)
We do a monthly Q&A episode where we answer listener questions and we’ve had a few about the concept of strewing. That was originally your idea, so I was hoping you could share with us a bit more detail about it while you’re here.
SANDRA: The first time the word came up it was descriptive, not prescriptive. I wasn’t saying, okay, everybody let’s do this. Someone said how did you get your kids to learn all this stuff? And I said I strew their paths with interesting things. And it was a response in the moment and then it stuck forever.
It’s like one time when Joyce said, “Always say yes, or something like yes,” and that has ruined some lives. But we didn’t mean to! At the moment it first came up, it was fine, but then it wanders off and causes some trouble.
So, for me what I meant was, living an interesting rich life.
And, over the years, it became discussed. I’d find a pinecone, the biggest pinecone I ever saw and I’d put it on the counter, absolutely. But, I would have done that without unschooling because it was a thing about me, I suppose. But in the 50s when coffee tables first came out and they stopped having all the flowery wallpaper and they got modern houses and they would have a sparse couch and a Danish modern coffee table, they would put a thing there, a little fan of magazines and a conversation piece. And the conversation piece would be a conch shell, or a basket from Africa. Something exotic.
And the purpose of it was for people to say, “Oh that’s cool, what’s that?” And so that was the model I had in my head for strewing, is if you find a cool thing, put it out. If it sits there for a week and no-one says anything, put something else out.
It’s a way to bring some outside stuff in without making a lesson out of it—it’s not a unit study, it’s just a thing. And sometimes things show up and they’re very exciting and sometimes they’re not. But I was never charting it; graphing it to decide if it was worth my time to set something down on the table. But some other people took it and they were harsher with it, they wanted efficiency, they wanted to know that they were on the right path, so they would come and argue about, “Well, I don’t want to strew because I want my house to be really clean.” Nobody said to mess your house up.
The arguments about it have been interesting over the years, and the misunderstandings have been interesting. If it’s a thing that the parents are not interested in, don’t bring it home. Keith and I have brought stuff home for each other, so it’s not unnatural for somebody to see a cool thing and to leave it sitting out. Or when I’m cleaning out the closet, “Oh, I haven’t seen this for a really long time!” and put it out. “Where’d this come from?” “It came from the closet.” “Where’d you get it?” Then it becomes a family story or a story of when you travelled. And it’s the story that’s important, not the thing you chose to put out.
If parents are hoping it’s some sort of substitute for their own deschooling, it’s not. There’s not a substitute for that. Someone with a website about homeschooling with projects, almost unit studies but like project-based, and she used to be around the unschooling discussions from which she stole some good stuff. But now she’s out talking about self-directed learning and how children take charge of their own education. So, it’s not a match, people shouldn’t read both because it will make them unhappy. But she had an article that was critical of strewing and she didn’t understand it well at all. She referred to it as a roundabout way of engaging with your child. And that that it can become, and I’m quoting, “It can become the default way you support their interests, passively and secretly rather than deliberately and openly.”
I couldn’t argue with her because I wasn’t in there with her but it was never intended to be secret or passive, and it’s not supporting their interests. It’s a conversation piece.
PAM: That’s completely different.
SANDRA: Yeah, she talked about it destroying trust between your child if you’re trying to sneak something over them or be manipulative, “at some point you need to make your mentoring visible,” she said. And I just, when I was reading that the first time, like “Whaat?” My mentoring has been visible since I first picked up a crying baby. My children have no question that I am there to help them. They’re sure. There’s nothing that I could set out in my house that would make them think, “What is she trying to pull? What is this woman doing to me?” Because we already had that trust.
It is possible that if someone wasn’t unschooling and started unschooling and the kid was suspicious and resentful and doesn’t want to learn school-wise, and mom puts out a rock the kid might say, “Is this geology, is this a science lesson, what are you trying to do?” But I haven’t seen that ever really, I’ve just heard people talk about it. But I’ve never heard a specific story of a child actually flipping out because a parent put out an interesting toy.
So, it sounds like the woman was coming from an efficiency model. Like, you have so much money, so much time, let’s not waste it. Let’s streamline the way we’re educating our children. The way we did it at our house we had all the time in the world, we weren’t in a hurry, we weren’t measuring it, we weren’t keeping track of it. There was no schedule, we didn’t have to justify any of it. So that’s the difference. The substance of unschooling—if I were writing I wouldn’t use substance and substantial in the same sentence, but I just did—The substance of unschooling is substantially different from anything that involves teaching. Or having a unit where you have a report at the end.
So, I had stopped and thought—mentally started stomping around when I came to that part—and then I went back and looked. And she ended that paragraph with this: “You need to deliberately show that you are listening, recording and thoughtfully responding without attempting to take over.” She’s talking about a whole different world. Because I never was in any situation with my children when they were growing up when I needed to deliberately show that I was listening, recording—recording what?—and thoughtfully responding. If you thoughtfully respond all the time you’re not going to have this problem. So that’s the difference, she’s trying to create a sort of school, and I’ve been helping people live a rich life.
In my picture of a rich life, changing the things that are visible makes sense. Because when the kids are little and in the house, they’re going to be home a lot, so you change what they see, what they come across. And when they get older it might be driving on a different road or going to a different restaurant or a different grocery store. And when they get really older it’s like, “Can I go to this gaming convention in Missouri or California?” “Yes, sure, here, here’s the charge card.” And those things are scary.
You mentioned earlier when the kids get older and they want to do things, but that almost is a continuation of having put a shell on the table when they were little. It’s like, I realize that your life is going to be boring if you don’t see some different things. And so, it eventually becomes, “Can I go on a road trip? Because I’ve seen this town a lot.”
I don’t think it’s manipulative. Some people have said strewing is manipulative. When my husband brings something interesting home, he’s not trying to manipulate me. And if I go to the thrift store and I see something that I know he could use for his medieval studies stuff or for woodworking and I bring it home and leave it on his desk, I’m not trying to manipulate him. It’s a gift, it’s a possibility. And if he doesn’t like it, it’s no big loss. He can give it to somebody else, it can go back to the thrift store.
In no case is this behaviour in our lives manipulation. My kids bring cool stuff in all the time. And I don’t know that it’s because they’re used to seeing it, or if they just would have anyway. But if the relationships and the trust are intact, and that’s your priority, then suspicion and rejection isn’t likely to be a factor at all.
PAM: I was just about to say, that’s why I put this question in the intermediate area, just because it works when you’ve got that trust in your relationship already. That whole idea that it might be manipulative or they might think you have expectations that they react to it or enjoy it or use it, I think that is still when you haven’t got that emotional safe space created quite yet. And you don’t have that trust that somebody just thought that was interesting. They might have been, “Hey, mom thought that was interesting.” And that might be all they take out of it.
I think it’s just a way to show your curiosity and engagement with the world in general, know what I mean? I thought that was cool, and it’s out here. I leave things all over. Because I came across something and oh geez, I haven’t seen this in ages, and I plop it somewhere. So, I can see it, and other people notice it, and conversations start and it’s just fun and cool. It’s just being engaged with my days.
SANDRA: If I’m trying to cause manipulation, if I’m trying to cause a person to act in a way he didn’t want to, and I’m being sneaky and evil, that’s manipulation. But if I put out some paper and a doodle top, that’s not manipulation. That’s not anything like that, I’m not trying to fool them into playing with doodle top. Play with it or don’t play with it. They do, they do!
And I bought new rubber bands and found the geoboards which were up in a box on a shelf. I put the geoboards down, I bought new rubber bands, and, in the morning, I was going to show them to Marty and Holly when they were little. And in the morning when I came in they had already done some very cool stuff. I came in to make breakfast and they were both up at the table making designs and copying the other designs, I walk over and said, “Oh, I was going to show those to you guys,” and Marty said, “Look!” and started telling me all kinds of shapes they were making. And what angles the different lines were. And I’m like, okay well they didn’t need me. But they did need me without knowing it, to buy them some new rubber bands and get the geoboards down. But I wasn’t going to write a report about it, it was just for fun, because I saw rubber bands.
Sometimes people, though, have rules. And this could have gone in the first section about what will keep someone from getting it in the first place. They have rules for themselves that they cling to. Like they have a phrase in their heads, “I will never be manipulative.” That’s a dangerous tool. They’re going to hurt themselves and others with it. Because if they’re not really sure what manipulative means and they have a rule against it, they could easily conflate that with being persuasive or creative. If they stretched their definition of manipulation to cover everything fun, or everything where you would suggest, “You want to go to a new restaurant?” “No! If I’d wanted to, I’d have told you.” Then that’s harmful to the relationship.
If we were to agree. If you and I were to say, “Yeah, let’s give up this strewing thing, people are fighting about it too much,” if we were to stretch manipulating to strewing then it would seem to me like an unschooling family could be criticized for owning a globe, or putting a map on the wall. Like, “Why is that there? Are you expecting your kids to learn geography?” Or, if they put on some new music that wasn’t already somebody’s favourite. “Who asked you to put that on? Are you trying to get me to listen to that music?” That hostility and defensiveness is not healthy. So instead of me defending strewing, I want people to get over their problems, that’s my take. But newness is part of the flow and learning, oldies are good, I love oldies but sometimes you want to roll some new music in there too.
PAM: I love that, I love that. Ok, ooh, our last question.
Now I’d like to talk about the perspective of those who’ve been unschooling a long time—it’s a different mindset, isn’t it? It’s not just the intellectual understanding of the principles of unschooling but also the real-life experience of having seen it in action with your own family, and moving through different seasons and different challenges. There’s an expansive feeling of openness and release that comes at this point. How would you describe it?
SANDRA: I think of it like climbing a big hill. Down at the bottom of the hill some people are climbing and the beginners wander up and they see other people climbing, and they might not ever want to take a step, but they might want to watch.
And then, when you start going up, in front of you all you see is the hill. I’m used to hills in New Mexico, so all you see is the hill and the trail and a bunch of rocks. And behind you, you know you don’t want to go back down there, that’s the place you’ve left. You’ve consciously decided not to be down there, you’re going up the hill. But in front of you it’s just more hill.
When you get to the top and you crest it, you can see the whole world. From seeing dirt and rocks and maybe cactus in front of you. Or whatever you might see on trails in your neighbourhood. Now—this may not even work in your neighbourhood, you may not be able to see very far if there are a bunch of trees on the hills; everybody, imagine a hill in New Mexico—and when you get to the top of the hill, you can see! A lot. That you could not possibly have begun to see before you got there. But you can’t get there without going up the hill.
So that’s what it seems like to me, you can’t be a long-time unschooler without going through all those other stages. And you talked about having the experience of having gone through seasons and having different situations and changes, so that builds a huge amount of calm experience. And you can calmly advise other people, “Yeah, don’t worry, he hasn’t done anything for three or four months, don’t worry about that.” Whereas if it was their first year, they’d be flipping out.
So, when the people who are giving that advice are the experienced unschooling people who really worked at it, who kept that tension going where they were always attentive to be better, then I want them advising people. Just because someone’s unschooled for 12 years doesn’t mean that they are what I consider to be good, advanced unschooling advisors to others. Because some of them have just been twiddling their thumbs and not doing very well. There’s nothing I can do about that except to remind people that the same way that you chose advisors when you first went to discussion groups, keep that in mind later on too.
Because some people get to where their kids are teens and the relationship isn’t that great for one reason or another. And sometimes we can see the reasons, but it’s too late to do much about it. So, I always want to help people do as good a job as they can because you don’t really get a second chance. Unless you’re going to have a whole other bunch of kids when those teens are gone, but that’s so much work.
From that expansive larger view though, having completed that climb in the only possible way which is gradually, your life changes because you’re up there. You can see all the way down. You can see all the places you used to be, if you look back. All that school and childhood, you can see all of that. And you look in front of you and you see the whole big wide world and your kids are ready for it, if you did well. If things went okay.
And your kids are grown, they’re not harmed, they’re not messed up, they don’t have a drawer full of reports from the office, report cards, whatever negative things they could have picked up had they been in school, they don’t have that. And they’ve been out in the world. When people say, how will they get ready for the real world, you’ve been one of those people saying they have always been in the real world, they live in the real world.
And now you’re up at the top and you can see that. And you help them, now you see what kind of help they need now that they’re teens. But I also want to say, some people get to that point and their kids are still in single digits. For some reasons about that family or about that individual, sometimes people with an only child go more quickly. I’m thinking of Colleen Prieto, Karen James, Joyce Fetteroll, Jocelyn Vilter—she’s not writing anymore but she only had one child, so her understanding went quickly. Because she was hanging out with other people with more children, and only children sometimes tend to hang around with adults more than they do with other kids. So, I’m not saying there’s a timetable and your kids have to be 14 before you can be an advanced unschooler. It’s not that, but a lot of thinking and talking and sharing and writing about it helps. I’ve seen that a lot.
Pam Sorooshian wrote the coolest thing, I’m sure it’s been quoted in your talks before and it’ll probably be quoted again because it’s worth quoting. She said this, she wrote this on June 4th, 2007: “As we get older and our kids grow up we eventually come to realise that all the big things in our lives are a direct result of how we’ve handled all the little things.”
It doesn’t work at the beginning level. We show this to beginners all the time, but it’ll be like waah waah waah to them. Because you cannot say all the little things that I handle today with my six-year-old will make him a district court judge some day. Those are the things you see looking back. So, when you look back, you see the path that brought you where you are at the top of that hill, with that experience.
Another thing that advanced unschooling seems to bring to people is the ability to be calm. And maybe it’s because you’ve let your kids go on road trips and they came home, and that sort of thing. But there’s a calming positive sort of energy when families have succeeded in getting to that point peacefully and with their kids whole. They’ve probably learned how to affect their own biochemistry, literally, that they know how to calm themselves down. How to keep themselves from getting upset when children are asking things they didn’t expect or whatever it is.
And the long-term effect of not having learnt calming tricks—which could go back to the people who are cynical and pessimistic and they go, “I don’t have to be any nicer, you’re wrong, I don’t have to do what you say. And I don’t have to be more peaceful” The long-term effect can be divorce, loss of friends, loss of contact with their children. Or imprisonment.
I like the imprisonment part. When I was speaking in England I told them as a preview, “Later in the day I’m going to tell you how to stay out of prison.” And the trick for staying out of prison is to breathe and think and to make the better choice. And I said if you could go into prison and talk to everyone who was in there who stabbed somebody or shot somebody or had driven their car into a building, or something that you just did because of adrenaline—you didn’t think, you just did it. If they could have taken one long deep breath, thought of two things, chosen the better one, a bunch of them would be at home watching TV.
This is important when you have children, that you don’t act in a self-righteous way on your first impression of what you have the right to do or what it’s okay to do. And some people can get to the point where they have unschooled teens and they’re still clinging to their right to get loud and rude and hateful. But they’re not the ones who have the best outcomes, in my experience. If someone wants to write to you and say, “No, no! I’m totally pessimistic and cynical, I ignored everything you guys said and my kids are fine,” well, let ‘em write. But I don’t want them advising people on my discussions. Because of the divorces I’ve seen. Because of the harm I’ve seen. From people who want to cling to their negativity.
So, advanced unschooling ideally the children have also picked up on the tricks to avoid negativity and they can breathe in such a way that they can slow their own heart rate and dissipate their own adrenaline and they too have friends and are not in prison. That’s some unschooling success.
When they get jobs, if they can be calm in a job interview, that’s a benefit. They don’t teach that in school, they teach you how to write a resume and how to dress. And how to sit and stand up and shake hands. Well my kids already know all that, my kids also know to think before they answer. And to breathe and to be calm. There’s a way that applies now back to this topic and to everything in the future that’s an advanced topic and that’s about credits and the points you get to spend or lose in social situations. Not so much with your family now, I’m talking about other people that you might want to influence or to see that your children have this sort of social credit also. You gain or you lose credit with other people by how you treat them. By your trustworthiness and reliability. And attributes and traits that you might have learnt from unschooling like gratitude and a sense of abundance, that will help you with other people.
Sometimes you lose points from prejudices or bad attitudes or sometimes you gain points because you’re just attractive in one way or another, nice voice, cute hair. And that’s the point I was making earlier about not choosing your sources by attraction, but it’s a normal human thing to do. So, if someone’s done something you appreciate, they earn points with you. Whether it was they actually gave you super helpful information or they told you that you were an awesome mom. We don’t know what we’re doing will earn points with each person. And sometimes you earn points from people you didn’t want to impress. You impressed some biker or Klansman because of something you did or said. It’s like, oops, sorry, I would prefer not to have your points.
Points aren’t universal, it’s not like a bank where we can check each other’s balances at all. Although there was a tv show like that where people had social credit, what was it called, Dark Mirror?
PAM: I saw that, that was on…Black Mirror.
SANDRA: That was interesting, Black Mirror. It’s not quite that clear cut, but it’s real. Because people have credit or a lack of credit they have themselves earned one way or another. The way you’re perceived by others, by some people or many people, they are comparing you and you lose or gain.
So that’s worth knowing as your kids are getting older, as you are becoming more senior in unschooling community discussions, meet ups, park days. It’s worth knowing that the value of your opinions is based on what you’ve done and said, what you know and how honest you are. And how reliable. It’s a form of unspoken social accounting and everybody’s got it, but very few people talk about it. When I was speaking in the UK and I was talking about this, about figuring out who to respect. There are things that you respect about people and you just keep your own accounting somehow.
Don’t forget that you could lose all your points by screwing something up. You could lose all your points with your children too. You could have built up years and years of credit and then spoil it, so don’t give up just because they’re 18 or 21. Don’t think now you can let down your guard and be rude or not be receptive to them or not be supportive of them. And that’s the weird thing that you don’t talk about when your kids are younger.
Even a 25-year-old might be really needy of a hug from mom, or for mom to not say anything and not touch him. To just leave him alone. And it’s hard to know that, but if you grew up with those kids every day all the time it’s much easier to know it than if they had been in school, straight to university in another state, straight home, and they’re somewhat strangers to you. There’s an advanced topic that’s awkward and difficult.
There’s a historical term in English called Oath Helper. It’s in English, and also in Norse, and it was a legal term for someone who goes to court—it’s a little bit like a character witness but it’s more than that, it’s like co-signing on a loan, they co-sign on your oath. So, if they lied you’re both in trouble. And that’s kind of the relationship that parents end up in with their children after a long time of unschooling. The partnership becomes almost tangible where if the child is really reliable the parents get credit for it from relatives, friends, professors. All the people around them go, “Wow, unschooling must be great because your child is this, this and the other.” And a lot of parents of teens see that.
I saw it when Kirby got the offer to teach Karate when he didn’t even have a black belt, but he was a teen who was reliable and they put him in charge of the little kids. They didn’t give black belts to kids at that school, to be fair, but he had topped out. He didn’t say, “Gosh, I’d like to teach.” They just said, “Will you please teach this class?” Part of the deal. But there was no-one else available and reliable to ask, so in a way I got points for that, unschooling got points for that.
I’m sure people who are listening to this are thinking of some of their own examples and if not go to my site and there probably are some there. One was successes of teens or stories that teens’ parents didn’t expect to happen. So, at an early stage all those points and trustworthiness are all just within your own family. But as kids get older and move out away from the house, and as you get older and you are being seen as a person whose kids didn’t go to school, that social credit is useful and good.
Another aspect of growth and maturity in the parents is service. Also, not always a very popular topic, or not a common topic. When people just sit around having coffee and doughnuts. There are men’s service groups, you can join one of those, but the idea of service as a part of personality and daily life is an advanced unschooling topic, I think. If a parent can find the humility to see the way that he lived before as now wrong or harmful to some degree or that the way he was raised wasn’t the only way, or perhaps it wasn’t the optimal way, then if the parents can let that harshness skip a generation, and they can do things that their own parents didn’t do. Like be respectful of a child, or to give them choices, or to see a child as a full human being, they level up.
Ideally you could do that without fear and without the hope of future reward or acknowledgement. Just do it because you’re a better person than you were before you learned all these wonderful things from living a big life of learning.
PAM: That’s beautiful Sandra. The idea of seeing the way your kids are out in the world…I’d never really thought of it as social credit before but that describes it so succinctly, you know seeing how your kids are taking this lifestyle and how they’ve learned to be as a person and then bringing that out into the world. I always think of it as ripples. The ripples of the people that they become this way. And their understanding…you know what, trying to think of the right way to describe it because it’s not anything conscious right, it’s just who they are.
SANDRA: It can be waves and particles Pam, it’s okay. (laughter)
PAM: That’s awesome! Okay I want to thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with me today Sandra, I super appreciate it, thank you.
SANDRA: Thank you, it was fun.
PAM: It’s always fun to speak with you.
And before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
SANDRA: Radical Unschooling Info on Facebook is the easiest, but probably the best more solid discussion is Always Learning at Yahoo Groups. And I have a web page which will be linked under this, wherever you found this, sandradodd.com. Some of the pages that I mentioned will be in the links also.
PAM: Excellent, you will share all those links with me and I will pick up any other ones and they will all be in the show notes for people. So, I hope you enjoyed the conversation and thanks so much Sandra.
Have a great day!