This week on the podcast, we’re sharing a new episode in the Unschooling “Rules” series.
We use the word “rules” in quotes to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as an unschooling rule! It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new, but we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody is going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade—or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, for inquiry, for agency, and for growth.
In this episode, we’re diving into the “rule” that unschoolers should always be happy. We explore why happiness isn’t a good indicator of unschooling success, the importance of validation and presence, and the benefits that unschooling brings to navigating challenging times.
We had a lot of fun diving into this topic and we hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!
THINGS WE MENTIONED ON THIS EPISODE
Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.
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We invite you to join us in The Living Joyfully Network, a wonderful online community for parents to connect and engage in candid conversations about living and learning through the lens of unschooling. Our theme this month is Revitalizing Our Nest, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of autonomy and flow.
So much of what we talk about on this podcast and in the Living Joyfully Network isn’t actually about unschooling. It’s about life. On The Living Joyfully Podcast, Anna Brown and Pam Laricchia talk about life, relationships, and parenting. You can check out the archive here, or find it in your your favorite podcast player.
ANNA: Hello! I’m Anna Brown from Living Joyfully, and this is episode number 352 of the Exploring Unschooling podcast. I’m joined by my co-hosts, Pam Laricchia and Erika Ellis. Welcome!
ERIKA AND PAM: Hi!
ANNA: Before we jump in, I wanted to encourage you to check out our Living Joyfully Shop. You can find it at livingjoyfullyshop.com. There you can find our new course about navigating conflict. It’s designed to help you gain a better understanding of how our personalities, our life experiences, and how we’re feeling in the moment can contribute significantly to the ways in which conflicts arise and unfold. And how we can move through conflicts more easily with this understanding. You can also find information about coaching calls for individuals, couples, as well as unschooling support.
And as always, we want to remind everyone that with this Unschooling “Rules” series, we use the word rules in quotes to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing. It can feel easier, I think, to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new. But we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you, and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody’s going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade. Also, they’re not going to give you an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent rules and cultivate an environment for self-discovery and inquiry, for agency and growth.
So, with that in mind, Erika, would you like to get us started today?
ERIKA: Yes, I would. I am so excited to have another rule to dive into, and this one is huge.
So, the rule that we’re talking about today is that unschoolers are always happy, or probably more specifically, that unschooling kids are and should always be happy. I think it’s so common to fall into this line of thinking that unschooling life is based on what the kids want to do and what they’re interested in, moving away from coercion and judgment. So then, life should just be great all the time. What do they have to be unhappy about?
And if for whatever reason my kids are unhappy, maybe that must mean that I’m doing something wrong. And it can create a lot of worry and fear if we don’t unpack this belief. And so, the first thought that came up for me as I was thinking about unpacking it was, this is just real life with real people.
And real life comes with all kinds of experiences and all kinds of emotions. It’s not a defect if we have emotions that feel uncomfortable. It’s just part of being alive. If my kids are living their life without school, some of the stresses and challenges that exist for some children might not exist for them or like it did for me when I was in school. But stresses and challenges will still come up. They still have hormones. They still have grumpy moods and triggers and sensitivities just like any human. And navigating relationships can easily bring up all kinds of feelings. The normal constraints of life can be frustrating, like a thunderstorm could mess with our plans to have a pool day. Or living really far away from people we love can feel so hard. Failing to beat a level in a video game over and over and over can feel enraging. And so all of those emotions and experiences are just a part of life, whether or not we’re unschooling.
And I think that being intentional about respecting our children’s wants and needs and not pushing through their consent goes a really long way toward helping them have a life that feels good and works for them, but it doesn’t mean that their lives are perfect or that they’re somehow protected from the harder parts of living, because unschooling is just real life.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. It’s so true. And I think there’s a lot of layers to peel back here, too. And so, I’m very excited that we’re tackling this as one of those kind of unspoken unschooling rules, because I think it creates a lot of bad feelings in parents and all around and even just misunderstandings. I think in part the frustration is compounded, because we are doing our best to be intentional and create a life that allows our children to shine. It’s work. And it’s often very different from what we experienced as kids.
So, when there is upset or big emotions, we can have the thought like, hey, you really don’t know how good you have it! And that’s okay. We may have that thought from time to time, but what I realized is that they don’t know the difference. They only know the life that they have.
And like you said, Erika, life can be messy. It will have ups and downs and challenges and triumphs. I wasn’t unschooling to stop them from living. I wanted them to live their fullest life and to have the space and support to be their full selves. And for humans, that means experiencing a wide range of emotions and experiences. And even when we do all the things, each of our children is on their own journey. And I had to come to terms with this when my oldest was a teen. I couldn’t take away all the pain that she was experiencing, but I could be there and I could make sure that she had space and was loved unconditionally through those darker times. So, for me, it became less about creating an environment where we were all happy all the time, but more about creating an environment where we were all loved and supported for being exactly who we are.
PAM: Oh yes, yes, yes. I do think this is such a rich area to explore. Certainly for me, I was drawn to unschooling because it seemed like such a happier and more relaxed way to live our lives. It was a significant part of our choice to try unschooling. And my goodness, not having school control so much of our days focusing on the things we wanted to do, it just sounded brilliant.
And it was. But pretty soon, I found I needed to tease apart the meaningful difference between happier and always happy. Because, as you both mentioned, life still has stresses and challenges, and on top of that, we each have different personalities and ways of being in the world while still living together. And now, with the kids home from school, we were living together a lot more of each day. So, I feel like this was a pretty important de-schooling shift for me, from this almost utopian vision of always being happy because we were doing the things we wanted to do, to a more grounded and aware perspective that was still happier than before definitely.
But now we were embracing how much choice we truly had in our lives, which was a lot, while also recognizing that things happen pretty regularly that aren’t in our control. What we can choose is how we respond. So, we embrace everyone following their interests and not judging each other’s choices, while recognizing that we are fundamentally different people and our needs and wants are sometimes at cross purposes.
And just as I found my children’s learning faded as a useful barometer or measure of our days and the connection in our relationship became a much more helpful measure, I found that happiness faded as a beneficial indicator of unschooling “success” and joy rose up in its place. See, happiness, while lovely, was more related to circumstances in the moment, “Yay, this thing went well!” while joy felt more fundamental to me. So, looking at our days became less about how things were going and more about how things were feeling. I came to focus more on cultivating the feelings of connectedness and trust and emotional safety, and those lay in the foundation of our days beneath the activities themselves.
And I talk a lot more about this shift in my book, The Unschooling Journey, as part of stage nine, accepting our nature. I find this whole piece really fascinating, and I do think it’s quite familiar to the shift that you described, Anna, from trying to create an environment where we were all happy to creating an environment where we were all loved and supported for being exactly who we are.
ERIKA: Yeah, I love that so much. And that shift from happy to joyful, like it might sound the same, but the concepts are different, and joy really allows space for the ups and downs in a way that being always happy doesn’t.
So, now that we’ve established that unschooling life is just real life with all the emotions that that brings with it. I wanted to talk about releasing expectations and validating ourselves and our children. I think these two areas, which you both talked about on the Living Joyfully Podcast, really tie in so well with this rule.
So, if I notice myself getting uncomfortable when my child is unhappy, that’s a good sign for me to pause and see what’s happening in my thoughts. I very likely have an expectation that they should be happy and maybe some judgment pieces about myself, like maybe I’m not doing a good enough job if they’re unhappy. And there can be a feeling of needing to fix things as fast as I can so they can go back to being happy. And in times where I’m especially overwhelmed, I may even feel angry that they’re unhappy, almost like they’re doing this to me.
And so, all of those feelings and thoughts can come up and I can validate that it’s feeling hard for me. I can remind myself that this is just real life and I can breathe through their intense emotions and my intense emotions and know that it’s safe to feel emotions. I can validate my kids and their experience, not rushing them to move through it, and over time I can practice releasing that expectation that they should be happy or that I should be able to give them a life where they’re always happy.
I do think these triggering moments can get easier to navigate with practice. I can be really hard on myself. So, for me, this practice looks like reassuring self-talk. Like, you’ve got this, you’re safe. Don’t beat yourself up. They’re just humans. Just breathe through it. Let them be humans. And I also think what you were mentioning, Pam, about just remembering that people are all so different helps so much with this too, because some personalities are a little more somber. Some people feel comfortable sitting in darker emotions or are more drawn to experiencing them. And so, while that can feel hard or even trigger me as a parent, it helps to recognize that everyone is different and however we are experiencing our own lives is valid.
ANNA: Right. And I think it can trigger all kinds of things. And just being aware that it’s a trigger, not a threat, can help me take a moment to understand it more. Am I feeling resourced? Am I hungry? What is this bringing up in me? Taking care of myself helps me be present for the big emotions without them needing to stop. And what I found is that we actually move through them faster and feel better when we slow things down and take care with the emotions that are present, and like you said, that’s validating ourselves and our kids. All the feelings are okay, their upset and our frustration. And the sooner we acknowledge and are kind to ourselves about that, the sooner we can truly connect and see that the person in front of us is a human that we love, needing support and understanding. Because again, it’s not about never feeling bad, but trusting that we will be okay, knowing that we can move through it.
Taking the time to identify our triggers, I think is an important aspect of this. That often can’t happen in the moment, but we can recognize them and promise to go back there in a quiet moment. That usually allows me to be more present with the child in front of me. When I start to peel back a trigger, sometimes it’s contextual, I’m exhausted or I’m hungry, or there’s just been a lot going on. Or sometimes it’s from further back. Maybe I wasn’t allowed to express things in the same way that they are now. Maybe I feel they aren’t being grateful, even though I’ve worked so hard to make something happen.
But those things are about me. They’re not about my children, and I don’t want to put that weight on them. I can sort through where those feelings are coming from. And then if further conversations needed, it’s coming from a grounded place in the present, not a triggered place from the past.
So, maybe I did put a lot of effort into something and it just isn’t feeling great, their reaction or what’s going on around me. But once I’ve moved through any triggered energy, I can be honest about any overwhelm I’m experiencing and we can start to solve that together. Maybe I find out they didn’t want me to do all the things that I was doing. They didn’t need that. Maybe they didn’t understand what was involved. They’re kids. They don’t understand all the machinations sometimes. But I wanted to approach these conversations with love and curiosity, not anger that’s stemming from a situation or a time that has nothing to do with this person in front of me.
PAM: Absolutely. I love that reminder so much, Anna, that how I’m experiencing their emotions is about me. Of course it’s about me. And I so remember those thoughts of, what do they have to be unhappy about? And you both shared some great thoughts around peeling back some of the layers around that. And I wanted to pull out something you mentioned, Erika, about sometimes feeling like we’re not doing a good enough job at this unschooling thing because our kids are unhappy.
On one hand is everything that we’ve shared to this point about happiness not being a particularly useful gauge, and also it can be helpful to not ignore our wonderings around whether we’re doing a “good enough” job. Because I know in my experience, if we try to ignore those feelings, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll just keep bubbling up again and again and a bit louder each time until we take some time to process through them.
So, when I was processing through those feelings of not good enough, I found it helpful to reground myself in why we chose unschooling as our family’s lifestyle in the first place, to explore my perspectives on happiness like this, and to tease apart my children’s unhappiness from my actions. Is that something I have control over? To contemplate if I can learn more about my child, about their personality and their needs through better understanding why they’re unhappy. And to brainstorm some creative new ways to lean into supporting them in their endeavors.
So, not using those feelings of “not good enough” as a sign of failure, but as a clue that it just might be time to do a check-in on our engagement and just re-energize and refresh our unschooling enthusiasm.
ERIKA: Yeah. Right. When our feelings and doubts are creeping up, I love that idea of using them as a clue rather than kind of jumping to a conclusion that everything is broken. I think using it as a clue and maybe a little signal to look into things could lead to great new places for the whole family. If we’re using our emotions just as a clue and a little trigger for us to get open and curious rather than shutting ourselves down.
And Anna, I love that part about examining our triggers and one of the recent episodes on the Living Joyfully podcast was about triggers. That was episode 21. So, that might be an interesting concept to dive into just as part of this de-schooling work around happiness.
And I think that the work that we do, all that inner work that we are doing to grow as unschooling parents can really help us navigate life’s challenges. I also think that choosing to focus on relationships can help the whole family when things get difficult, but just because we have the tools and the strong relationships doesn’t mean that hard things don’t happen. Because again, it’s real life.
And so, I thought maybe we could mention some of the ways that unschooling and connected relationships help us to navigate challenges. So, one big one for me is the trust that’s there in our family. So, whether we’re dealing with all getting sick with Covid, which happened recently, or a favorite toy breaking, or a death in the family, or facing a big change, like a new work schedule or moving into a new home, the trust that we’ve built as a family means that my kids know that I’m taking them into consideration, that their feelings are important, and that we’re all doing the best that we can to get through these situations together.
It doesn’t take away the stress of the situation, but it puts us together on the same team to navigate it. I tend to wear my emotions on my face, and so there’s no hiding when something is feeling stressful for me. But I think that having built up lots of experience with facing a challenge and getting through it, with me feeling stressed out and then moving through it, that just creates this sense of trust that the kids have in our capacity to handle difficult things. And they know that we all have hard times and we all have intense emotions sometimes, and that those will pass.
ANNA: I mean, I feel like that trust really helps me stay optimistic and centered when things go sideways. I know we’ll work through it. We just have over and over again. I know we’re going to feel better again, and that just helps me stay present in the moment without kind of projecting out or spiraling back or any of that.
And I know it helped my girls, too, because they knew we would figure it out. They knew we’d just keep at it, even if we had to take a break and come back, or it took a little bit of time, we’d figure it out. And I think all of the time and practice we get with this helps so much in our families.
But it really is important to let go of this idea that things will always be rosy, because life just isn’t that way. It’s amazing and full of growth opportunities, with all kinds of joy and magic. And it has challenges that can help us learn and grow, and it’s just all a part of it. And so, understanding that helps take some of the charge out of the times that did feel harder for me. It was in the resistance, actually, that it felt so terrible.
Accepting or even embracing those times helped the flow feel more manageable and I could cultivate more curiosity, because I feel like in that resisting, “This shouldn’t be happening,” that’s where I would get stuck and very much pulled out of the moment. Then I’m in my head about what I should be doing differently or what’s happening. And so, that just never served me as well as just like, this is life.
Here we are.
And being open and curious has been such a helpful tool for me over the years, because it allows that little bit of space like, huh, what’s this bringing up in me? What’s happening for them? And even just the, I wonder how this is going to play out. That was what I needed to say. Like, I have no idea and I wonder what’s going to happen. Because it again brought me back into the moment and being open to all of the places that it could flow, understanding that I don’t know or control that. Cultivating that mindset keeps me from spiraling down a dark path of, they’re miserable, I’m failing. This whole thing is terrible. Everything is terrible. It grounds me back in the moment and helps me look with fresh eyes, like, okay, what am I seeing? There very well may be things that I want to or end up changing, like you were saying, Pam, like it’s important to think, hey, why is this happening? Are there things that we need to shift? But it’ll be coming from this calm, connected, curious place instead of a place of fear.
And I have found for me, and I really think it’s across the board, we just don’t make good decisions from a place of fear. It very much narrows our vision and we miss a lot of context and a lot of opportunity. Cassie Emmott is one of our Network members who has also been on the podcast and she has a beautiful quote that she said, “Am I being driven by fear or being led by love?” And it’s such a great reminder that really grounds me in the moment and helps me remain open and curious and acting from that place of love and connection. And from that place, we’re learning more about each other, more about the situation. We’re taking in much more information and the energy and the feel of it is just so different.
PAM: So, so different, and I really love that quote. Cassie was on the podcast in episode 346, and it’s a brilliant conversation to go back to, especially if you haven’t heard it yet. I think it’s a great touchstone just to help shift the energy of the situation from like being out of control, from that fear tunnel vision place to the openness, I’m leading. Here we go.
And yes, I too found the strong trust that develops in our relationships with our kids was fundamental to navigating life’s challenges. We were on the same team. So often, when things happen, we don’t know what that path will look like, but we trust each other that we’ll just keep exploring until everyone is comfortable.
And I think another way that our strong and connected relationships with our children can help us navigate challenges is the creativity it encourages, right? They feel safe to not only express their needs and their wants, but also to share any thoughts or ideas that bubble up without fear of being judged or belittled. We may not end up taking on the wildest of ideas, but they can help us start thinking outside the box and come up with ways to move through the challenge that we otherwise wouldn’t have even thought of, let alone considered.
In my experience, I ended up very soon just going to my kids first, because I knew they could break me out of like, I see A, B, and C, and that’s all I see. All of a sudden, they could bring me out and we could get so much more creative. And for them not needing to be vigilant about the people around you, not needing to first filter what you are thinking of sharing based on the reactions that you anticipate from others, that cultivates an emotionally safe place for our children to just sink into the flow of their thoughts and just share whatever bubbles up. I just found it to be so great for brainstorming possibilities around challenges as we were trying to move through them.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. Go ahead, Erika.
ERIKA: While you were both talking, I just had a thought about, if we are stuck in a fear place about them not being happy, that produces an energy where they’re not going to want to come to us if they’re upset about things in, in the same kind of open way that they can, if we’re able to release that wall that we put up against these negative emotions. And so, that open and curious and creativity happens so much better if we can sit with hard emotions with them. Then we can all be in a place where you know, they can share, I’m feeling like this and we can say, what do you think we should do about it? What would you like to do next? And start exploring ways to feel better. It’s a lot easier to do that with a parent who is not resisting the negative emotions or trying to rush a child through the negative emotions. So, I just think it creates this great environment.
ANNA: And who’s not catastrophizing and not maybe overly reacting. And not that we can’t react, we can have our reactions, but again, if it’s that open space, that emotionally safe space that you’re talking about, Pam, that’s where we learn so much more. It just shuts down so much when we get in our head and we’re off thinking, “This is terrible!” And so, yeah, I really love that.
PAM: I think the other piece in that safe space and what I think is just so valuable is, like what you were talking about, Erika, not rushing them through it. We realize it doesn’t need to be solved on our timetable, because we’re uncomfortable with it, but you know, it’s not our space right now. We’re not the one having the hard time right now.
So, giving them the space to work through it on their timetable. Because if they feel us rushing them through, it really sends the message that there’s something wrong with having those emotions. This is bad, this is not good that you’re not happy today. This is something we need to fix as soon as possible.
And so, sharing that message just makes it so much harder for them to get through, and like you said, to come next time and to realize that this is life. Like we’ve been saying. When I look back at my blog, just about every post at the bottom ends with “unschooling is life,” because where we get to. It’s not about some utopian vision. It’s not about everybody always being happy. It’s wonderful and amazing and beautiful relationships, but it’s life. And it’s being together on the same team and helping each other through it. Anyway, yeah. It’s lovely.
ANNA: Oh, I love that. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation and I hope that everyone found it helpful on their unschooling journey.
And if you enjoy these conversations, I really think you’d love the Living Joyfully Network. It’s such an amazing group of people connecting and having thoughtful conversations about all the things we encounter in our unschooling lives. You can learn more about it at living joyfully.ca/network.
And if you’ve been on the fence, you can join with the monthly subscription option, so you can check out the community, the rich archives of themes, the wonderful resources, and start to connect with the amazing people. If it’s not a fit, you can easily cancel. But I do hope you’ll check it out, because we have all kinds of amazing discussions. And I just want to bring you all into the discussions that we have like this all the time. But wishing everybody a lovely week, and thank you so much for joining us.