PAM: Hi everyone I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Scott Noelle. Hi, Scott!
SCOTT: Hey Pam, it’s good to talk to you finally!
PAM: It’s wonderful to have you. I’m really excited! For people who may not know, Scott is an unschooling dad of two teenagers, an author, and a life coach dedicated to supporting parents who want to move away from controlled base parenting methods. He’s also the founder of the website DailyGroove.com where he shares his practical parenting insight. I’m really excited to dive into his unschooling and parenting experience.
To get us started Scott can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
SCOTT: Sure, and I need to update my bio here because a couple of months ago my eldest turned 20 so I can no longer say I have two teenagers!
PAM: Haha! I was wondering when you last updated that!
SCOTT: I live in Portland OR and that is a good place to be weird. We have a reputation for having lots of weirdos here and we like it that way because we don’t get too many raised eyebrows about being alternative and unconventional because it’s conventional to be unconventional here. We can nurse in public—well, I can’t, but my wife can. When the kids were nursing that was never a problem. And unschooling the same sort of thing. It just seems like everyone is doing something alternative.
My partner’s name is Beth and we’ve been married 25 years. Our kids have always been unschooled. My youngest is 16 and her name is Willow. My oldest is 20 and her name is Olivia. I guess that’s all. I could go on and on and on!
Could you go on and on and on about your family’s move to unschooling? Where did you first hear about it and how did you and Beth decide that’s the way you wanted to go?
SCOTT: We sort of entered parenthood completely unprepared. We very much made it up as we went along. I have to say that a spark of unschooling for me begin at 19 years old when I dropped out of college. I was very disillusioned with the whole educational system and I said to myself, ‘Dammit I can educate myself.’ If there was one thing I knew, I was a very curious person and I always had followed my passions to learn about things.
I don’t know if the word unschooling was coined back then. If it was I didn’t hear of it. I didn’t hear about it until much later. After our first child was born, we were trying to do things as naturally as we could. That was the guiding principle, let’s do things the natural way. We had a home birth. We learned about co-sleeping and we thought that sounded natural. Why isolate our baby and make her cry for us when we could just keep her close? That lead us to finding out about a book called The Continuum Concept which a lot of unschoolers know about, which sort of looks at ancient cultures, indigenous people, hunter gatherers to get clues about what is our basic human nature. That lead us to what later became known as attachment parenting—for a while we just called it Continuum Parenting.
I actually reached out to the author of that book and—this was back in 1997—I asked her if we could put it all online. Not the book, but create a community online because we really needed to share questions because this was back when there was no Facebook, no Web 2.0. It was an email based on a platform called list form. That grew very large and a lot of people who had read that book were inspired by it, wanted to talk to each other about applying these primitive principles in a modern setting. Of course, one of the subjects that came up was education. A lot of people talk about John Holt because he had been a fan of that book. We got John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail, which is sort of a monumental moment in the unschooling movement for a lot of people. That’s the book that convinces them to jump ship from conventional education and go for self-directed education.
So that’s how it started, our daughter was about nearly two by then and then we said, ‘Hey this makes so much sense. Let’s do it this way.’ We really started unschooling consciously when our first daughter was two. We just never turned back.
PAM: Wow that’s really cool. It’s such a cool journey. Were you guys in Portland at that time to? And how did you come across the Continuum Concept book?
SCOTT: Well, that’s a funny story. When our daughter was 2 months old we were trying to do everything naturally—co-sleeping, and breastfeeding. But the one thing that didn’t come to us naturally was this idea that babies expect to be held all the time for the first few months. That’s sort of considered the ‘out-of-womb’—the outer gestational period. Or what Jean Liedloff calls the ‘in arms period.’
Every time we set our baby down, she would start to cry and we thought there was something wrong with her. Aren’t you supposed to be able to set babies down? But she was just very intolerant of that condition. We went to our doctor and fortunately we had a naturopathic type of doctor, a woman doctor. She said there’s nothing wrong with your baby you just need to read The Continuum Concept. We got the book that day and we read it in a day and it was mind-blowing, it opened up everything and everything made sense. We had sort of a compass now that we could use to make decisions about how to navigate the modern world given that we are genetically not much different than our ancient ancestors. That we evolved for a much different way of living and learning and growing.
PAM: I’m just sitting here kind of quietly imagining if I had come across any of these ideas when my eldest was first born. It was many years and all three of my kids were in school by the time I found that first thread. When you get that first thread, it opens up to this and that. Once you’d heard of that book, look where your path went from there.
SCOTT: It all sort of falls into place. But people talk about deschooling being something for kids but, as you know, this it’s as much for adults as it is for kids, if not much more. Fortunately, that part wasn’t too hard for Beth and me. We both had negative experiences with the school system but on opposite ends of the spectrum. She had really struggled just to get normal grades and I had gotten really good grades but I still felt like it was meaningless and didn’t resonate with my heart’s desires. We realized there’s no way to win. We just have to not play the game.
PAM: And to know that’s an option, that’s awesome. Parenting wise, you mentioned this was for before attachment parenting, but that attachment parenting has kind of come to the forefront and is better known in the last decade or so. As you mentioned, The Continuum Concept talks about parenting that way before that.
SCOTT: One of the things that led to my sort of current career as a parenting coach I noticed that a lot of people were applying attachment parenting and continuum concepts on the surface and not really going very deep with it. For example, they would say I’ve been breastfeeding on demand and I’ve been carrying my baby 24/7 and we don’t use punishments etc etc and we co-sleep so why isn’t my child happy? Why don’t we have a perfect relationship?
Then they would describe what was not working and it was clear to me that they hadn’t looked for the underlying consciousness that is a part of, and a different value system that was a part of, our ancestry and, most importantly, it’s what I call a partnership culture. It’s this idea that we’re all connected. We live in a society and culture that undermines that truth and makes us feel disconnected and separate and in competition with each other and so we develop strategies for relationship that leads to lots of various kinds of power struggles and just not enjoyable relationships, especially between parents and children.
PAM: That is such a cool point because, when you think about it from an unschooling perspective, people come to it and think they know the ‘rules of unschooling’: no curriculum; I say yes more etc., and they do those things and life becomes a little chaotic and they ask, ‘Why isn’t this working as peacefully as experienced unschoolers are explaining?’ Again, you have to get into the foundation, and to the relationships in the roots of it, for it to play out that way. You can’t just do stuff on the surface; just the actions. You have to have that deep understanding.
SCOTT: Right. That reminded me of a headline I saw the other day about a baby orca whale that died because it was born in captivity. And I’m sure they did all kinds of things to help it survive but we’re not designed by nature to survive in captivity.
But conventional ways of thinking about education create a kind of prison that really limits us and makes it hard to live according to our nature. That’s what I love about unschooling, that it’s working with children’s nature instead of against it. But in order to do that, we have to learn a little bit about it and unlearn what we’ve been trained to believe about human nature and habits of thought that come from those beliefs.
PAM: Yes, and that lines up perfectly with your point that’s so much of the deschooling is really for the parent because we are the ones that have been immersed in that culture for so much longer than our kids have.
SCOTT: Yes, and I’m still working on it!
PAM: Me too! There’s always something, right? That leads nicely into our next question because I want to dive into parenting with you.
You have a wonderful website DailyGroove.com where people can signup and receive daily emails from you. I know I signed up early on in my unschooling journey. We started back in 2002 and I really appreciated your nuggets of parenting insight. They would show up each morning and I would be diving in—I had something in the back of my mind that I could ponder throughout the day. You call it PATH parenting and I love that it’s not only an acronym but it’s a reminder that the path, the journey, is the destination. I was hoping you can share an overview of what PATH parenting is?
SCOTT: Sure. It began, as I was saying, with this realization that a lot of parents that I was interacting with didn’t seem to get the deeper aspect of parenting—not just the behavior. You can’t just tell someone to change their consciousness. You can say do something different, but to actually think and perceive the world in a different way takes practice because you’ve been practicing your whole life seeing things this certain way, interpreting things a certain way.
That’s what gave me the idea to do the Daily Groove which would be the way you create a groove: one pass at a time, bit by bit. If you just practice thinking a little differently or seeing things differently, then pretty soon that becomes second nature; but I would consider it first nature.
I started that and I thought, ‘Okay, well, it has to be really brief because everyone’s too busy to read a long essay every day.’ It’s just a brief reminder. My creative challenge was, how can I take big ideas and condense them down to under 150 words? I guess I must have been pretty good at that because whole bunch of people started sharing it and signed up for it and that’s how I knew I had hit on something that was valuable.
That was all before I came up with the idea of the PATH framework. I actually had written several hundred of them when I said, ’Okay, let’s see if we can condense this even more into some set of principles that have practical value.’ I went and analyzed all the daily grooves I had written and tried to distill them to certain concepts and principles and group them into things and finally came up with this particular grouping, tweaked a little bit so it would make a nice acronym.
PATH is an acronym that stands for what I consider the four positive Pathways to power. And I focus on power because I found that the problems that people have the most are problems of power struggles and feeling disempowered, and that people, when they try to reach for their power, tend to fall back on the habits of our society which generally are not healthy ways of being powerful. I call that pseudo power. Authentic power really comes from these four pathways.
The first pathway is partnership. Partnership is a pathway to power through connection. When we feel connected to each other then it changes the way we relate in terms of our power. Instead of competing for power we actually reinforce each other’s powers. When I feel powerful it makes my child feel more powerful. When my child feels more powerful I feel more powerful. The only way that doesn’t work is if we pit our power against each other. As long as you maintain this mindset of connection you have this really powerful pathway. That’s partnership.
The A stands for authenticity. Authenticity is a pathway to power through alignment. What that means is most people have their power or their energies misaligned. Like, a part of me is going this way and that way, or part of me wants this and part of me doesn’t, or a part of me is afraid, so there are always ways in which we are out of alignment. But if you tune into what is your most authentic self, your innermost being, who you really are, and you do your best to shed all the aspects that you’ve picked up over the years that aren’t really truly you. There are ways that you think you should be or that people have told you that you need to be and when you can let those things go and connect with who you really are then you get this alignment. All those energies that were scattered are suddenly in the same direction and that creates an extraordinary kind of power that’s kind of, it’s kind of hard to describe, it’s an abstract thing.
You know when you meet someone who’s really what they say and what they do it seems to be a really clear reflection of who they are. Something about that just feels really powerful. It makes you want to align with them too and, as a child, when the parent has that kind of authenticity and alignment it makes a child more willing to be in alignment with a parent. And it works the other way too, of course.
PAM: Just imagine that, you feel like the weight of the pull of, ‘Geez, I should do that and I should do this,’ and you feel like you don’t get anywhere because your power is pulling in all different directions rather than when you’re in alignment—that image is really powerful. You can feel so much more energy to accomplish things, to move forward.
Thinking of it in the other way, with your kids, I found that so much during those first few years—it was so different with them. They would naturally align themselves; they’re naturally in the moment, they know what they want to do and they’re pursuing it. I learned so much about how powerful and capable children are just by watching them. I learn so much more about how to do that myself by watching them. It’s amazing to see that authenticity and alignment—what kind of effect it can have in your life.
SCOTT: For fun, I always encourage people to watch the movie Office Space. It’s a silly comedy but part of the premise is that the guy is a loser and he’s out of alignment with his heart’s desires. He works in a cubicle and he hates his life. He actually gets hypnotized into what amounts to being in total alignment and totally authentic. It shows how everything changes when he decides to do what’s true to him. It’s very funny, of course, because he does all these things that would make him get fired but he ends up getting promoted etc. It’s not a movie you want to watch with your kids because there are some raunchy parts but it is a fun example.
Even though it’s a silly comedy there’s a scene where he first has this shift and I remember that I could viscerally feel that difference. Maybe it was just good acting but that’s the difference. You don’t necessarily know other than by feel when you’re in that state of alignment with your authentic self.
PAM: On our last Q&A episode, where we take listener’s questions, and we talked a lot about when things are feeling off. Just asking yourself how you feel about it, how our kids feel about it, because that energy and that alignment tells us so much. It tells us so much about what’s off in this moment and how you can get that back. That’s really interesting and I’ll definitely put that movie on my list!
SCOTT: You either love it or you hate it. Like I said, it’s kind of raunchy.
T is the next letter and T is for trust and that’s a very big deal in unschooling and self-directed education. We have been taught very ardently by our society that you can’t trust children to learn and frankly that you can’t trust them to behave. That’s the justification for all kinds of control.
The problem with not trusting is it not only justifies control, it creates all kinds of anxiety. When you’re not in a state of trust you’re always worried about what’s going to happen. I’m sure that’s a common experience with a lot of unschoolers, especially if you’re new to it—it’s kind of a leap of faith. You have this anxiety, what if this doesn’t work, what if everybody says that I ruined my child’s life, or my child grows up and hates me because I didn’t make him go to school. There can be this anxiety that really saps your power. So, trust is a pathway to power through understanding.
The reason I think understanding is so important is because when you understand, for example, the true nature of the human species and how they’re designed by nature to work to learn, it makes it possible to release those anxieties and move into a state of trust, a state of ease and inner peace.
That’s particularly powerful because kids—especially younger kids—are very emotional beings, like, what you say is not as important as what they feel. If you’re in a state of anxiety, not really trusting—trying to be a good unschooler but you’re not really in that state of trust, the kids can feel that and that has an effect on them and it can lead to all kinds of unenjoyable effects.
I think of trust as being kind of a particular power, more than just other kinds of power, where it just amplifies things but it’s taking away the things that unamplify it; that dampen our powers. A lot of power gets drained from us when we’re in the state of anxiety, and if we can find a way to move into trust, then it does really transform our experience, and our kids tend to respond in a positive way that leads to easier times, all in all.
I like to think of trust in three levels. The first is trusting human nature, which is what we’ve been talking about and how the human species has evolved to be the animal that educates itself. I can point you to some resources to learn more about that especially the stuff by Peter Gray.
The second level of trust is trusting yourself, in particular, your inner guidance. It has to do with feelings. We are trained to not trust how we feel or our intuition but instead to go with authoritative exterior voices. There’s some sort of research that has been said that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s out of sync with what you feel in your gut, then you need to go a little deeper, ultimately until you have that feeling in your gut that says, ‘Yes, now I understand it, now I can relax and trust.’ That’s an important thing to do and it doesn’t happen unless you deliberately retrain yourself to trust your inner guidance.
The third aspect of trust is more esoteric: it’s about trusting life. This is the kind of thing where you really have to expand your consciousness to see the big picture. Long-term: not even 10 years but a thousand years or a hundred thousand years. Trusting that life has this wisdom that things work out. We can’t control everything and I think we live in an age where for many, many centuries we’ve been trying to see how much we can control life. The school system is certainly one of those major areas as a society we have gotten very elaborate in our attempt to control life in the process.
I think that real power comes from surrendering control. Kind of a Zen way to think about it, just to move into that space and saying, ‘I trust life.’ That can even be confronting big scary things like death. Can you trust life enough to allow your child to take certain risks that could kill them? Anytime you let your child wander outside your front door and be more of a free-range kid you are taking that risk. Of course, if you keep them over protected, then it’s now understood that that makes children less safe because they don’t learn how to manage their own safety. You need to move into trust—whatever degree it takes to minimize the helicopter parenting.
PAM: That one hits home because I remember going through the process. My daughter had just turned 18 and she wanted to go to New York City and live there on her own. So, there were all these fears and everything that was coming up for me and I had to get to this space where it was reminding myself about the trust in our relationship, about who she is and about how important this was to her. And how I could set up the environment as much as I could. Like find her a place to stay, help set up communication, but to get to a point to trust.
When I can look at things through her eyes from her perspective and see why this was important to her I truly could understand that. When you have that understanding you can really get to that level of trust. Death was a fear! A younger person living on their own in New York City and we’re in Canada. So, it got to that point. I had to take myself to that point where, ‘What if the worst happened?‘
SCOTT: I’d say I go to that point on a regular basis. We’re not saying to trust life is being blindly faithful, too never think about safety or anything like that. There are certain reasonable precautions that make sense. But at the end of the day, shit happens, you can’t control it all. Something is going to happen where there was no way you could have predicted it or prevented it other than living in a complete enclosed safety bubble of some kind, which is not really living.
Every time my kids go out, there’s this little tiny part of me, like, I have to remember to trust life. That fate could take my child away from me now and I have to accept that that is part of the bargain of being alive is that we could all die at any point. Once you get very good at making peace with death it’s pretty easy to trust just about anything. And then it’s just a matter of what are the reasonable precautions that allow us to find the right balance between safety and freedom and openness and spontaneity and all that?
So, we have one more pathway. The H is for heart and heart is a pathway to power through unconditional love. I could have just called it unconditional love but then it would have spelled PATU. [laughs]
I consider this pathway to power is like magic more than any of the others. Unconditional love is everyone’s power to create something from nothing. One of the ways we get disempowered by society is we’re trained to withhold love and only open to love when certain conditions are met. That’s what conditional love is.
It’s like if you get good grades then I feel more love for you—the typical schooling attitude. You get more evidence of my love for you when you behave correctly or you jump through the right hoops. The problem with that is if those particular hoops don’t work for the child and the child resists it, then your love is held hostage, your heart is held hostage.
Unconditional love is this super power where we can decide for no reason at all to open our hearts and say, I love you, period. That’s a pretty extraordinary thing. It sounds pretty simple, maybe a little pie-in-the-sky, but my experience has been it’s most magical when I’m in the middle of an argument with my kids or my wife. At some point, there’s this little voice in the back of my head that says you could just stop being offended and open your heart for no reason at all.
Even though this person hasn’t given you an excuse to open those doors, you can do it because it’s your power to do so. And when you do that for no reason it’s like you’ve created something from nothing. I’ve had the experience of it being like a bizarre, mystical, magical thing where I say, ‘What just happened? Are we fighting?’ And it just sort of dissolves and disappears.
I’m not saying you don’t need to work things out and sometimes arguing can be a healthy thing, but most of the time when we argue it’s because we’re holding on to something, we’re attached to something, we’re inappropriately placing more value on being right then enjoying our connection with each other. So, the superpower of unconditional love says, ‘You know what? I’m going to open my heart to you just because I can.’
PAM: I really love that you went through your stuff and found those threads because they align so well with all the threads that I’ve found over the years coming at it from an unschooling perspective and the kind of parenting that supports that.
It’s all about aligning with human nature, how we are as human beings.
SCOTT: So true! I was going to say it’s simple. It may seem like it’s powerful information but really, all it is is being real. It’s the way we’re meant to be and when you take away all the different distortions, what you get is this incredible powerful beautiful humanity. That’s what’s so wonderful about unschooling is it gives you the freedom to really go there to the best of your ability.
PAM: Like you said, you do find these magical times when you manage to use that trust. Whether it’s releasing our need to be right in an argument, or your kid’s doing something that’s making you uncomfortable and you really want them to change and do it your way, when you manage to take yourself out of those moments and just trust and be open to it, it’s just amazing. Places that you could never have predicted—if you stretch your comfort zones and see where things go. Like you were talking about, how understanding leads to trust. If you can take that leap of faith a few times and see where things go, you start to understand the beauty and the magic of that simplicity of just kind of releasing. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
SCOTT: It really is. It feels like the greatest adventure to me. Every time I interact with someone, especially other parents and they’re having to deal with the school system and all the ways that it restricts their lives and all the ways that it undermines their children’s happiness and by indirectly their whole family’s happiness and ease of life, I’m so grateful that we chose this path. It’s just so much easier. They’re definitely challenges and we can definitely talk about those, but overall, you have this power to flow with life and allow all of the good gifts of life to really come to the forefront.
PAM: I think our next question is going to dive into some of those challenges, so how about we move on
We talk quite a bit and unschooling circles about communicating openly with our children and how that facilitates that connection and trust in our relationships. Some kids aren’t big verbal communicators so we’re trying to have a conversation and they’re just not talkers. I really want to talk a bit about how they are giving us messages, it’s just that not a lot of them are verbal. I was hoping you can share some of the other ways that we can communicate and connect with our children if we find ourselves in that situation?
SCOTT: I’m a really big fan of nonverbal communication and part of that is as a rebellion against this over-reliance that we have in society on things that are logical and word-based. There are lots of different communications that are nonverbal, and not illogical but feeling-based, or intuition-based. That tends to be minimized in our society, so we tend to over rely on verbal communication, which taps into this issue of control that we’ve been talking about because one of the things that words are really good at are controlling. That’s why we have lawyers and legal contracts with all kinds of words that are designed to exact control.
That can be a good thing. I’m not opposed to words and I love writing and all that, but I think just because of the culture that we live in we need to go out of our way to develop these other channels of communication. One of the daily grooves I wrote was about The Power of Silence.
What inspired that particular message was something that just happened when my wife got laryngitis when our kids were young. She decided not to talk for a couple of days to rest her voice and let it heal. I was just observing that whole process and how it changes the whole dynamic and the subtleties of communication that were happening that had to take over. It’s like when a person goes blind then their hearing gets better. When you decide to talk less your other forms of communication become more developed and nuanced. I find this to be a particularly important concept when you’re talking about very young children. I’ve seen a lot of parents who talk endlessly with their toddlers. And, if you never talk to them that would do them a disservice because they need to learn a language by listening to you talk. But if you talk to them or at them too much then I think it does tend to overwhelm them—they begin to tune you out.
There are some children who seem to be born with more verbal skills or a temperament for that sort of ability. Most kids under three, maybe two, a lot of the ways that we communicate with them verbally would be better done non-verbally. That would be through touch, empathy, intuiting, being authentic with your own presence so that your body language communicates to them. For example, if you go into your heart and really do what inner process would really open your heart to your child. Then you sit there and stand there and behold your child and you’re making eye contact with them. They can feel that, they can feel the I love you in that.
If you say, ‘I love you’ but you don’t have that congruent body language it starts to make the ‘I love you’ meaningless, does that make sense? So, I think we need to challenge ourselves to look for these other ways to communicate.
You can turn it into a game, like we did when my wife had laryngitis. It became a game to figure out: we all needed to communicate, or what she needed to communicate, without words. So, it’s actually a game I encourage people to do. I say take a day and tell your kids you are going to play a game where you pretend you can’t talk. You’re going to communicate in other ways. Kids love that because then we get to have this really beautiful feeling-based communication where you can feel each other and you don’t need to put it into words. It’s almost a romantic notion, isn’t it? What I love about our relationship is you always know what I’m feeling and thinking. That’s what intimacy is, right?
PAM: You made such a good point, and I’ve seen it so many times, that our children can feel what we’re feeling. They can feel our body language when we’re saying, ‘Okay, sure, you can watch that show,’ but our whole body is screaming ‘No, no, no!’ They can pick up on that. They’re not reacting from what we’re saying, they’re reacting from all the communicating we’re doing, all that’s in our body language. They can easily be thinking, ‘Oh geez, I better stay here and watch as much as I can because I can tell from their body language that they’re soon going to explode and tell me I can’t go near the TV,’ or whatever. They can pick up so much from that. I think your idea of purposely not talking for a bit just to focus more on how we are communicating with all the rest of it would be a really fun challenge.
SCOTT: The other thing is, when we talk, our brain is sometimes ahead of our hearts so we know what to say before we know if it’s the right thing to say. But, if you pause before you talk and you check in with your heart, a lot of the time your heart will say you really don’t need to say that. Maybe it’s true but you don’t need to say it.
PAM: Oh, that’s true. I love that. And when you give more space, when you’re not speaking, it just gives space to unfold more naturally. You’re exerting less control over the conversation. And, oh my gosh, so many times I’ve discovered where my kids were going when you give them that openness and that space to make the next connection and the next one. You see where their mind was going and it was totally different than all the places my mind was going to take them if I jumped in and said X, Y and Z; let’s do this or that. I’m trying to support them and I’m getting all excited for them, but really they’re mind was going a different direction. It’s so cool!
SCOTT: Another thing that comes to mind is this nonverbal communication is something that has been observed by anthropologists in hunter-gatherer cultures. They rely much more on what anthropologists call ‘intuitive rapport’ rather than talking things out. His name is Richard Sorensen and there’s a wonderful essay he wrote called Preconquest Consciousness.
One of the stories he tells is of a group of teenage boys who were hunting together and he observed them acting like—obviously they couldn’t talk because they didn’t want to scare away their monkey they’re trying to shoot out of a tree—he saw them communicating non-verbally and how they could all feel each other. He described the situation: as one person was pulling back the bow, another person was pulling back a branch that was in the way, in the path of the arrow, and someone else was moving into position to catch the monkey when it fell or whatever.
I don’t remember all the details but it described this really extraordinary nonverbal communication. In a way, it’s like dancing. Body-oriented communication is very important—a dance with someone when you need to lead and follow and feel each other. Another observation he made was with toddlers: as a toddler starts to explore farther and farther away from the caregiver, the toddler would just glance at the caregiver as he or she was moving in that direction, and if the caregiver was nervous about where the toddler was going the toddler would just feel it. The caregiver didn’t have to say, ‘Don’t go there, it’s dangerous.’ They didn’t have to verbalize the fear and amplify it, it was an intuitive feeling that was shared between two individuals.
I do think that age makes a difference so, like I said, when you have really young kids that’s when I think it’s most important to develop this non-verbal channel, and as they get older, I can certainly tell you with my kids we talk and work things out verbally all the time. My wife and I are constantly processing stuff. It’s just maybe because of our culture, maybe it’s not such a bad thing, but I think it can be very stressful on a child.
PAM: I guess we should move on to the next question!
You have a great article on your website about holding presence with negative feelings such as frustration or fear. Was hoping you can share by what you mean by holding presence and how we can work to develop that skill.
SCOTT: you’re referring to an article I wrote called, Ending the Blame Game, and it’s where I first mentioned that term, which I made up. This idea of holding presence—because it’s just how I described what I was doing when I was able to transcend that game. Of course, blame is sort of a catch-all word for a lot of different kinds of uninspiring, unpleasant interactions between people. I would say that blame is a kind of catch-all for a lot of different things that are unpleasant, like judgment, accusations, one-upmanship that kind of stuff.
It all sort of boils down to it’s something that we do. It begins innocently enough as something in you feels off. You don’t necessarily immediately put your finger on it but what we tend to do, what we’ve been trying to do, is you immediately look for something to blame for that feeling. If I could get mad at the weather, if I could get mad at the traffic—traffic is making me feel this way and you blame it.
You have this feeling in you that something is wrong and that kind of turns into something is wrong with me and I need to get rid of it. It’s like, I don’t want to be the cause of this bad thing so I need to assign the badness somewhere else and that’s basically what we’re doing when we’re blaming.
Holding presence is an alternative to that dynamic because when you blame someone else two bad thing things happen: you start to destroy that relationship or undermine it; and the other thing is you give your power away. Now that other person is making you feel bad rather than you staying connected to your own power to create positive feelings in yourself. If you’re willing to hold presence with that feeling that something is wrong instead of passing it on to someone else, then you’re open to this process of transformation. The feeling of wrongness is actually there to teach you something if you can stay with it.
Often, it’ll teach you something like, ‘I’m holding a false belief.’ ‘I’m worrying about something that isn’t even real.’ It’s just an illusion, or it’s fear based on something I learned from the media. If you can stay with it, then you get those insights and that either will tend to make the negative feeling go away or dissolve or it’ll transform into something more powerful like determination. If you feel anger, often it will transform into determination and you can use the energy to do something positive. That’s what I mean by holding presence.
The example that I use in the article is that you can practice holding presence by doing something intentionally, just as a kind of a game. Do something intentionally that you would normally try to avoid, that you would normally think of as bad. The example that I use is getting in the shower deliberately with the water too cold. Most people who are sensitive to that sort of thing will have this almost angry feeling about it. ‘This is the shower! It shouldn’t be cold! It’s supposed to be warm! Who used up all the water?’ But if you do it deliberately and you step into that slightly too cold shower and you notice your body saying it shouldn’t be this way and at the same time you’re just practicing, ‘Well, it is this way. I’m just going to approach it with acceptance. I’m willing to make peace with reality, with what is.’ And when you do that that’s basically holding presence. It’ll teach you something, ‘I can handle cold water, it’s not a big deal.’ Or, ‘I actually find this pleasurable to experience a new variety of temperature.’
So, it’s just a silly exercise, but we take these things for granted and they pile on. There are so many things that we think should be a certain way and they aren’t and then we look for someone to blame. And that’s no fun.
PAM: Yeah, there were so many good things in that. That is such a cool example, just to feel what it feels like to stay with it, rather than assign the blame because when we do that we are trying to make ourselves feel better, shift that blame somewhere else. But you’re actually giving away power because then, all of a sudden, that thing has the power over you to make you angry and frustrated. So maybe it’s the size of the hot water tank.
You’re giving them that power so that moving forward, you don’t feel any control. You feel like all these things in your life—like the traffic, the weather, hot water tank—everything has so much control in your life. Whereas, if you can stay with it there’s so much more self-awareness that you can find in there and you realize you have so much more power and control. That’s why you’re talking about it’s so much more empowering because you realize that it’s all within your control. It’s just things that happened. When you blame it all of a sudden you give it power over you. That’s so interesting.
SCOTT: And you pointed out a paradox here by saying your days are within your control because we’re talking about letting go of control and in doing so there is a higher level of control. It’s one thing to try to control life, to control the weather, control nature, to control your children but it’s another thing entirely to acknowledge you do have the power to control your inner world to the extent that you can decide what perspective you’re going to take and notice that when I take this perspective I feel shitty and when I take that perspective I feel more powerful and peaceful. It’s my choice to choose that perspective. That’s very powerful and, in a way, it’s a kind of control but not in the domineering way.
PAM: Yeah, it’s like when you realize you don’t need to control all these things around you, you feel so much more centered. For lack of a better term you feel in control of yourself. It is quite the paradox but it does feel so empowering. Maybe power is the best word, release control, feel power.
SCOTT: I talk about a distinction between pseudo power and authentic power. Pseudo control is what you get in conventional control strategies that we use and it’s not really powerful because it’s always just fleeting and you end up having to defend it. It drains you even more. But authentic power is tapping into these aspects of life that are already and naturally and infinitely powerful—especially love it’s an infinite power. it’s why we have this magical power to create it from nothing because there’s an unlimited supply because all you have to do is decide.
PAM: Let’s talk a little about how easy it is to slip into control.
As our children get older, we touched on this a little bit earlier, we can find ourselves uncomfortable with their choices that they’re pursuing and we start feeling that fearfulness and feeling protective of them and that’s when we so easily slip into control because that is what we’ve lived with—that’s our go-to response in our culture. It’s the parent’s job to say, ‘No, sorry you can’t do that.’ And then to impose some consequences like, ‘If I find that you’re doing X, Y and Z, you’re going to lose this privilege if you disobey.’ I just thought we could talk about how that can damage your relationship, that trust, and what we might do instead when we’re starting to feel overly protective.
SCOTT: Wow, that’s really big. I think the word consequences is ripe for deconstruction. It is one of the most disingenuous words in the whole parenting lexicon. People talk about consequences when they’re really talking about a punishment and it’s just a way to control people. I always say the only authentic consequence is love. It’s like, whatever you do, I love you. That’s the consequence and what that means is if you behave in a way that I don’t like then that means we need to tend to the partnership. That’s why I think partnership is the most central concept that I talk about in being with children and unschooling when it really is a kind of partnership education. You’re partnering with a child and their nature.
But in a behavior situation, the old view is the child is supposed to behave a certain way and I have the right to control that. If you’re in a partnership orientation, then we each have equal dignity. Obviously, we’re not equal in every way because I’m older and more experienced and I have more legal rights etc. But as human beings were equal and I have no more right to control my child than my child has a right to control me. We’re not particularly interested in controlling each other, we’re interested in having an enjoyable partnership.
That does mean that we are interacting. It’s not so much controlling each other, it’s doing a dance together. That means we need to be in tune with each other. We need to understand each other’s needs. First and foremost, we need to be committed to being creative because it’s inevitable that there are going to be situations where what I want and what my child wants are not the same things, and it looks like a win-lose situation. When it looks like that, we have the power to choose a different perspective. It doesn’t have to be win-lose, it can be win-win. I like to say it’s a win-win-win because I win, you win, and the partnership wins. The partnership gets stronger.
In order to create those win-win outcomes, you have to be committed to a creative process. Every time we seem to be at odds, it’s an opportunity to be co-creators and to step into a collaborative process. If we can avoid the reactivity and the tendency to move into blame and hold presence long enough to calm ourselves down, then we can actually move into that creative process and really enjoy it.
We can say, ‘Sorry I overreacted, but what I really want understand is what are you needing here and I want you to understand what I’m needing here and let’s assume in this universe of infinite possibilities there is at least one possibility where both of us meet our needs or both of us satisfy our desires.’ Those creative possibilities that you discover can often be better than what you wanted in the first place. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just different. Or maybe it’s even a little inferior in terms of like what of what would have been perfectly ideal for you but in the bigger picture it’s a better outcome because you have the stronger partnership and that pays off big time in the long term.
I like to say that if your kids are still young and you commit yourself to cultivating a partnership culture in your family, then you have plenty of years to do it and by the time they’re teenagers you don’t have any of the problems or very little of the problems that are typical of teenagers if you’ve made that effort. I’m not saying that we have had no problems but definitely not some of the horror stories that I hear or some of the sad situations that I see where young adults and their parents don’t like each other.
PAM: I think so much of what we’ve been talking about this whole time leads up to this because when you’re feeling the urge to control that’s a great point to try and see that as a clue that it’s time to refocus back on partnership. And that reminds you to look at the situation from their perspective, from their eyes. And not even from what I would do in their situation because I’m not them. It’s to see the whole situation from inside them. From their perspective. Why this is important to them? Because once you have that understanding of where they’re coming from, you can bring that to your whole co-creation conversation. That’s how we can find a path forward as partners where we’re all reasonably satisfied.
Like you said, it may not be the perfect outcome but we can find something where we’re all okay and we say, ‘We can live with that,’ and we can do that and it works. I love that third win because that’s when the partnership becomes more solid, becomes another layer of connected and trusting because you have again found a way of getting through this. I think that’s a beautiful way to think about it as a win-win-win.
SCOTT: Totally, and I would even go a step further for those who are adventurous in the realms of consciousness, I think it’s true to say what would I do and then to remember but I’m not her or him, but on a deeper level you can actually just say, ‘I am her.’ In a more esoteric, new age-y, we’re all one. Cultivate that consciousness of oneness.
It’s a paradox that we are separate and connected but we tend to focus, in our culture more, where we’re separate and not that much in the connectedness. So, you can actually play thought games and decide for the next 20 minutes I’m going to be, I’m going to fully inhabit and wholeheartedly inhabit the perspective of my child. If they love something that I think is meh, then I’m going to love it. Just feel that. And that opens you up to discovering deeper kinds of connection but also just things where, ‘You know what? My opinion about that one thing wasn’t fully informed. Now that I fully stepped into my child’s world I have a greater appreciation of that.’
PAM: So many times, when I’ve done that—when I felt uncomfortable and then shifted to think of it that way as us being one or putting myself in that spot—so many times I was able to stretch my comfort zone. That’s how I’ve talked about it before, because, all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Those pieces that I was bringing, my thoughts are stereotypes I picked up or some negative experience that I had, those were clouding my vision and my perspective grew just by taking the time to see it how they see it.
Often, regularly enough, the whole problem dissolved because I realized it was just me stretching a little bit to really see them. That’s cool! Okay, last question.
You are also a founding member of the Alliance For Self-Directed Education which advocates for both unschooling and alternative schools that support self-directed education and I love the phrase ‘normalize self-directed education as a whole.’ I thought that was such an amazing purpose, just to get it out there for people to know that this exists and that it is a viable option. So, I was wondering if you’d like to give us an update on the work that the Alliance is doing now?
SCOTT: It started out as a group called The Tipping Points Group and it was a bunch of people that really wanted to see our culture, our society, reach a tipping point where there’s a shift to the idea that self-directed education is just as valid, if not more valid or more effective, in comparison to traditional schooling and that it’s just sort of a known thing. Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone grew up knowing that that’s a choice?
We don’t have to send our kids to school or to a conventional school. We can send them to one that really honors their nature or we could homeschool them in a way that honors their natural educated instincts. A lot of what we’re doing really is advocacy and public relations and trying to build bridges, not only between us and the mainstream but also between the different flavors of self-directed education which includes the free schools, unschooling, and there’s different flavors of unschooling.
Sometimes we focus too much on these differences but we want to focus on what we all have in common. We want a world in which children are free to learn naturally and free to learn without the impediments that come along with standard imposed schooling. That’s our main mission and we’ve been building a structure to support that a bit at a time because it’s mostly volunteer on a shoestring budget.
But if somebody out there wants to donate a very large sum, I would like to talk to them. We are interested in fundraising to have more impactful initiatives that reach more people and get the word out even more effectively. A lot of unschoolers, including myself, have been allergic to the word “education.” I think that has a lot to do with because when most people think of education they just think of schooling or the school system. In the initial formative period of this group we were going to use the term “self-directed learning,” which is a fairly common term used among some unschoolers and some free-schoolers.
Then Peter Gray, who was one of the main founding members, he came one day and said, ‘I think we should use the word education instead of learning.’ He’s a professor of psychology and he understands some of the nuances of the terminology in a way that is different from the conventional assumptions that people have about that word. We actually had this long debate. I was the opposition because I was coming from the unschooler perspective—that word just made me cringe, it had so much baggage on it.
Eventually Peter made a really strong case for why that word “education” is better. If we understand it in a better way, that education is not the same as schooling, but education is a whole life process of acquiring knowledge and values and skills that are conducive to a satisfying and meaningful life, the word school is not in that definition. I would say that’s congruent with another term that some people like which is life learning. But this idea of education is something from an anthropological or a psychological standpoint—it is something that is required of a human being because we are cultural animal and education is a process by which we acquire our culture and our ability to use all the tools of the culture, including language and knowledge and other technology and such.
I was eventually convinced that, ‘Okay fine, let’s use education.’ Let’s use the word education but let’s make it a part of our mission to redefine education so that when we talk about it we make it clear that we’re not talking about schooling and all the trappings of schooling. We’re talking about this natural life process of following your curiosities and being playful and acquiring knowledge through exploration. Yes, that can include some kind of formal schooling as many unschoolers do choose for themselves, but it’s not imposed; it’s never imposed. It’s always something that comes from personal freedom, with the support of parents and community. That’s what we mean when we talk about self-directed education.
We didn’t even have a debate about the word self-directed because I know that’s a debate that sometimes, with the word “child-led,” people don’t like that term, and it sounds a little similar, but really what we mean by self-directed is that it’s in contrast to teacher-directed or school system-directed.
The ultimate arbiter of the path is the person who is educating himself or herself. That means that we’re not going to impose anything on them. We may very well influence them and offer enriching experiences and strew things and all that other stuff that we do, but never to the point of putting pressure or denying them the right to say ‘no,’ or ‘no, thank you,’ or, ‘maybe later.’ It’s really about honoring the child’s right to be the final arbiter of their education process.
When they’re really young, it’s almost like a two or three-year-old, you function very much in sync with each other. We’re not suggesting that self-directed education means that a two-year-old is going to decide whether or not the family has a vacation or whatever. It’s about maintaining that partnership and one of the principles of partnership is that you work with each other not dominate each other. I just wanted to say that in case people were wondering why do we call it self-directed education. That’s the best we could come up with that will help build this bridge so that, we don’t want to take away anything from the beauty and the fun of the word unschooling but we also want to have terminology that people who are kind of still have one foot or both feet and that control oriented culture can wrap their brains around, what is this, it is education and it is different because it’s not directed by teachers and educators it’s directed by the child.
PAM: I loved hearing a little bit about the history, that’s really interesting. I can definitely see how that term self-directed education does seem like a bridge term. It’s not going to get that initial negative reaction but it’s going to be, I mean go read the comments on any unschooling article, it’s just that initial burst of whatever. But that’s a bridge word because education is a word that they know and self-directed is what’s going to raise the question, like what does that mean? It does really help facilitate some more connection in conversation and like you said, I love how you explained it, it always comes back to partnership.
SCOTT: And my hope, which is not necessarily part of the Alliance, but my hope is that we will evolve in this culture to the point where we don’t even call this self-directed education. If you’re an academic you might refer to it as education. But even better, an everyday person wouldn’t even think of it as a thing. It’s just living. If you’re living your learning and growing and developing your potential that’s just the part of life. Education is to a person like water is to a fish, if you’re fish, water isn’t a thing, it’s just everywhere.
PAM: So often, go back and look at my blog post, ultimately every time I’ll go through and explaining some concept and it’s always unschooling is life. It’s just living.
That’s wonderful, it’s a beautiful dream.
SCOTT: It’s fun to imagine what’s possible with a society that really gets the power of self-directed education and that we could design the structures of society to support that instead of these control structures where we can imagine all kinds of the resources that are put into control-based schooling could put into things like libraries, that go just beyond books and other media but there are places where people gather to explore all kinds of things. More like community centers that have all sorts of enrichment opportunities and a place where people gather so that we have social opportunities.
PAM: Exactly, so it’s not an age-based thing where kids go somewhere to learn, it’s having places in society, community structures, where everyone can go and learn and be in relationship with each other. That takes away the control aspect and the whole age thing where kids have to learn and adults get to live, but everyone’s learning and living together.
SCOTT: Beautifully said! Now you’re talking about my Utopia.
PAM: Mine too!
I must say thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today, Scott. We went a little bit longer but I had so much fun chatting with you!
SCOTT: Me too! This has been really fun!
PAM: That’s awesome! And before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
SCOTT: DailyGroove.com is the best place to find my work and I have links there to some of my other work.
I do offer coaching sessions for parents who want support to make that shift. Sometimes it’s hard and you have to dig a little deeper to shift out of the old control paradigm into the partnership system so that’s certainly something that I like to help people do and you can find information about that on that website and some others that are linked from it.
I invite people to subscribe to the Daily Groove. A few times a week you get short reminders that you can use to boost your consciousness a little bit every day and practice living in this new paradigm.
The Alliance, a lot of my effort is going into that right now and helping them creating more resources on the website and that is self-directed.org with a hyphen between self-directed. That’s something that you can become a member of and get involved in the movement.
We’re going to be working with people who are allies in the movement. There’s always someone who’s always doing it then there’s someone who wants to advance the movement for everyone and I would consider you to be one of those people and so we will be inviting people like you to participate in combining our efforts in our creativity toward advancing this movement and making self-directed education a normal and legitimate path. Well, we already know it’s a normal and legitimate path! We want everyone else to know.
PAM: That’s awesome Scott! And I will definitely put links to all that stuff in the show notes.
Thank you so much again and have a wonderful day!
SCOTT: I will, and thank you so much. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to connect with you and your listeners.