We’re back with another episode in our Unschooling “Rules” series. And 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 freedom leads to self-regulation. We start by exploring the term self-regulation itself. Then we look closer at what freedom actually does give our children and we share some examples from our lives to show how it has all played out for us over the years.
It was really fun to discuss this topic and we hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!
THINGS WE MENTION IN THIS EPISODE
We have released a new focus course on the Living Joyfully Shop called Navigating Family Gatherings! In this four-week course, Pam and Anna share mindset shifts and practical strategies for making family gatherings a positive experience for you and your loved ones, and leave you feeling empowered and looking forward to your family gatherings rather than dreading them. Check it out!
Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.
Follow @exploringunschooling on Instagram.
Follow @helloerikaellis on Instagram.
Check out our website, livingjoyfully.ca for more information about navigating relationships and exploring unschooling.
Sign up to our mailing list to receive The Living Joyfully Dispatch, our biweekly email newsletter, and get a free copy of Pam’s intro to unschooling ebook, What is Unschooling?
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 In the Flow, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of parenting and living.
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.
ERIKA: Welcome to the Exploring Unschooling Podcast! I’m Erika Ellis from Living Joyfully, and I’m joined by my co-hosts, Pam Laricchia and Anna Brown. Hi to you both.
PAM AND ANNA: Hello!
ERIKA: We are now, somehow, nearing the end of the calendar year already and for many of us that means a season of holidays and family gatherings and navigating family gatherings can sometimes be challenging. After all, like we always talk about, people are different. And most people have their own expectations and opinions about how the holidays should be. And so, it can sometimes be a recipe for worry and misunderstandings and conflict.
So, with this season in mind, we have released a new focus course on the Living Joyfully Shop called Navigating Family Gatherings. In this four week course, Pam and Anna share mindset shifts and practical strategies for making family gatherings a positive experience for you and your loved ones, and leave you feeling empowered and looking forward to your family gatherings rather than dreading them.
Navigating Family Gatherings is based on a monthly theme of the same name in the Living Joyfully Network. It consists of four weekly focus calls between Pam and Anna, each discussing a particular aspect of the theme, plus the weekly question we share to encourage members to think about the topic through the unique lens of their experiences and family.
You’ll receive an email each week with a new lesson, as well as an e-book and an audio book version of the material, so that you can engage with the course in whatever way works best for you in the moment. And the course is yours to keep forever, so you can feel free to explore at your own pace. To learn more and to purchase the course, visit livingjoyfullyshop.com. We’ll also put the link in the show notes. We hope you let us know how Navigating Family Gatherings helps your family navigate this holiday season.
So, today on this unschooling rules episode, we’re going to talk about an idea that we hear floating around, especially when families are newer to unschooling, and that is that freedom will lead to self regulation. So, I’m really excited for this one. But before we get started, 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 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 or an A+. Our goal for this series is to explore these apparent rules and cultivate an environment for self discovery, inquiry, agency, and growth.
I’m going to hand it off to you, Pam, to dive into this rule.
PAM: Yay! Thank you very much, Erika. I am very excited to dive into this as well. Because with this episode, what we want to do is explore the possibility that we might be starting off our unschooling journey with a few misplaced expectations.
Because when we’re first learning about unschooling, we can hear the message that when we give our children the freedom to make choices in their days, they will eventually self regulate, meaning understand and manage their choices and behavior. Which, yes, absolutely. Having the space and freedom to make choices helps them learn about themselves, practice with various tools and ways of navigating emotions, and gain lots of experience with making choices and seeing how things unfold and incorporating that knowledge next time. It’s like top-notch learning in action.
But I think the one piece of the puzzle that can be missing for parents, especially early on, is how we define what that self regulation looks like. So, we can be thinking, sure, I’ll give them the freedom to make choices. And eventually they’ll settle into the behavior that I expect. They’ll learn how to self regulate.
The challenge comes when we define what self regulation looks like for another person, because as we say so often, people are so incredibly and beautifully different, aren’t they?
ANNA: Indeed they are. People are just so different. And I think it’s why we talk so much about this being more about the parents than the kids when we’re switching to this unschooling journey.
And I believe it’s our work to understand that we’re all different and how we see and process the world so differently and understanding that the best choice for me in a situation genuinely may not be the best choice for someone else. And I feel like that one can take a minute or many years, but it’s so worth it. And it will help in every relationship that you have.
The beauty of this lifestyle is we have the time, the time to be with one another, to have these conversations, to observe, and to start to really understand how things look through their eyes. Letting go of expectations and leaning into learning about one another is so critical along every stage of the journey.
And I think with this, it’s hard because “self regulation” is kind of this buzzword, like, this is so great and we need this. And unless we start digging beneath the surface level definition, we can really miss the piece of “self” of that and what that actually means. As in what works for the individual.
So, it’s this slippery slope to think that we know what’s best for another and it can cause a lot of disconnection if we’re acting as if we want our kids to understand themselves and make the best decision for their life, but really, what we want is for them to follow this kind of prescribed path where we can feel comfortable.
So, keeping this lens of everyone is different at the forefront and being open and curious helps us not fall into the traps of trying to control another person’s journey.
ERIKA: Yeah. I mean, I love that lens. People are different. It’s such a paradigm shift. And really this self regulation thing is one of my pet peeves, I guess I would say, because when people are talking about self regulation with their kids, so often what they mean is that the child is making choices themselves that the parent would have chosen for them to make. And that to me sounds so much more like obedience than self regulation. It’s that cheerfully compliant to dream child that we may have in our imagination. And so, the words we choose to use can just be so interesting.
And what’s more interesting to me is looking through the people are different lens. So, if you look at any aspect of life, what works for one person will not work for another person. And so, if we can move away from the one right way idea, we open up a world of possibilities. Whether we’re talking about food or sleep, their interests, how much time they spend outside, movement, reading, art, music, really anything, you can find people on such a wide spectrum of choices in the world, and it’s all okay. Only each individual person can tell what is working and what isn’t working for them.
So, maybe it’s more that the freedom that an unschooling life gives a child gives them space and time to more deeply explore what feels good to them and to their unique minds and bodies. And that may lead to a better understanding of themselves. I mean, that sounds really awesome to me, and I do hope that my kids are finding that to be true in their lives. That time and space, though, does not lead to them making the choices that I would make. It really doesn’t make any sense that it would.
I mean, they’re getting to know themselves better, and people are all different. And so, if that’s what anyone is looking for when they’re using that term self regulation, I would just encourage a little curiosity to dig into that idea.
PAM: Yes, that’s what I love to do. I love digging into words. What does it mean to me?
Because we can just quickly latch onto a word and start using that in our conversations. And that’s kind of the lens that we bring to it. But if we don’t take the time to drill down, what really is the energy that I’m bringing to that term or to that idea?
Because one of the things that I think is also missing from this idea of self regulation is that it doesn’t mean alone. That’s that “self” piece. As soon as we start talking, it’s like, oh, they’re going to do this themselves. Right? But with unschooling, our kids’ learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We don’t put that expectation on them that they will figure things out on their own and come back to us when they have the answer about all those things you were listing, Erika.
We are a family. We live together. When we choose to not send our kids to school, we’re also choosing to cultivate a welcoming and supportive learning environment for them outside of school. And it’s not just for the school subjects, but for all the other learning that just comes with being a human being. But phrases like “self regulation” or “self directed,” when we just absorb them, they can imply that they should be doing it on their own and that we should be hands off. They’re self regulating. They’re self directing. We shouldn’t be involved.
But for me, that self prefix means that they have agency, that the choice is ultimately theirs. I don’t want to bring judgment into the process, because that can mess up what they’re learning. But that doesn’t mean I need to remove myself from the learning and the choice making process altogether. We’re still together. And depending on the nature of the choice, they may absolutely find it helpful to talk through their options, especially the external processors out there. It can be fun to bounce around ideas and brainstorm possibilities, and they may well be curious to hear my thoughts or previous experiences in similar situations. Same with processing emotions and behaviors, normalizing these things, validating these things. We’re on their team. They do not need to figure it out all on their own.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. That’s such an important point, I think. I really love that distinction of self in these terms as more about agency. I truly believe that all humans want and need agency to feel fulfilled to learn and grow.
But as we talk about so often, our focus is on connection and that’s an active process where we are connected. It’s not hands off. It’s not, go figure it out over there. It is sharing our experiences, helping them process their feelings and their experiences in whatever way works for them. Internal, external, a combination of both. Again, people are different.
My oldest likes to externally process with a lot of discussions. My youngest prefers to pop in and out for connections and thoughts. I enjoy holding space for whatever that process looks like. And to know that through our connection, they do not feel alone. They feel supported in their unique processing and they are able to bounce ideas off of me and to hear my pieces. And sometimes they want to hear it. Sometimes they don’t. Also fine.
It’s much more of a facilitation role, learning about them, being a support as they explore and try different things as they figure out how their body works, how they want to show up in relationships, how they want to spend their time.
And yes, we are all living and growing together. So, they are seeing me figure out things and learn more about my body and food and movement and what type of work feeds me and how I want to be in relationships. And what’s fun is then we can talk about those things, you know, and I can share why I’ve made decisions. They can ask me about it. I can ask them about theirs. It’s this just open communication, with the caveat when I’m talking about my pieces, that I’ve learned it about me, that their experience may be completely different, but it’s still relevant in terms of how humans do things. I feel like that’s the curiosity lens, right? It is interesting to know why you might make a choice differently than I would in a particular situation.
And we can talk about how a particular action would or wouldn’t work for one of us and why. And that’s, again, people are different. Maybe one’s more introverted or extroverted or one feels comfortable walking up to someone and one doesn’t. And so, we can talk about, yeah, that would work for me, but this not so much through through all of that, we start to see how we’re all different and how we can be honored and grow together.
If there isn’t one right path or way to be, then we can really appreciate that we can all do it in a different way. And we may still get to the same point, or we may get to another more amazing point that we didn’t even see from the beginning. And, to me, it’s those differences that makes the world such an interesting place to learn about and explore.
ERIKA: It’s so true. I was thinking that I really do find that the topics that would seem to be about those kinds of self regulation parts of life can be some of the most interesting conversations that I have with my kids, because when they’re noticing that something isn’t feeling good to them, and they want to experiment, try another choice, those conversations can just be so insightful. And I’m always amazed about what they notice about themselves, and really just how different we all are.
And so, in a way, it does feel like they are self directed, because they are the ones having this experience or the discomfort or whatever it is. But I know that my role is so integral to their processing because I can offer observations. I can share my experiences. I can reflect back to them what they’re sharing to help them make more sense of it.
And so, I wanted to give a couple of examples. Recently, my daughter went through a really long phase of pretty intense love of candy. It was a big part of her grocery shopping list. It was just a focus for her. It was an interest and a love. And so, if I was looking at this through my eyes and what feels good in my body, it would just be a terrible thing. I would say she needs to regulate herself. But I remembered when I was young and eating candy felt different for me then, too. So, that helped.
And then recently, she told me she wanted to take a break from it, at least until the holidays. And so, we had this conversation that was just so interesting. She had noticed that it wasn’t quite as exciting or fun anymore as it had been. And she thought that having a break would make the holiday candy feel more exciting and taste better, and so, she just wanted to try that out. And she also said that her body wasn’t craving it like it was before. She would describe, like, I just feel like my body’s craving saltier foods now. And I’m not thinking of candy as much.
And so, this may look like an example where by having that freedom, my child is making what would now be the better choice through the adult’s eyes. But I’m trusting that she is processing each experience and really checking in with how it feels to her. She knows that the candy is still there at the store. It’s an option. And it’s okay to take a break from it too without judgment from me either way. And so, I’ll just give another example that kind of went in the other direction. So, she has also talked to me about her time watching videos on YouTube. And there was this one night where she said that I would be amazed by how many hours she watches YouTube each day. And she opened up the little iPad time tracker. And I was amazed. I actually hadn’t realized how many hours that was.
But then, she told me that having a video going in the background helps her concentrate on all the things she wants to do. So, she said she’s not really watching it all that time. She’s working on a build in Planet Zoo or playing Minecraft or doing a drawing or whatever else she’s engaged in. She just has this video running.
And so, for me, it helps me concentrate to have things really quiet. And so, if I was directing her, I would say, you need to regulate that and make it quiet for yourself so you can draw. But people don’t all agree on this. This is another people are different thing. And so, for her to have noticed this about herself and then to have that space to make the choice that, yeah, having these YouTubers just talking in the background while she’s doing something feels helpful to her brain. I just think that’s amazing. She’s figuring out what works for her. And it’s not about external judgment or trying to do what I think should feel the best, based on my own experience. She’s figuring herself out. And I just love that.
PAM: I do love that story so much. And I feel her so deeply, because that is me as well. I will always have videos on in the background, because if I’m trying to concentrate, what I notice is the silence. That is louder to me. And it’s like, ugh! And so, it is just literally figuring it out for ourselves, because we are so different. And when we don’t bring that judgment piece to it, that it’s all okay to explore and try, to be able to come and just say, I’m changing my mind, I’m trying something different, the freedom to be able to say that without maybe feeling the need to hide it because, oh, I’m not sure they’re going to agree, or I’ll be able to feel their energy, even if they don’t come out and say it.
So yeah, I love that. I didn’t know you could look up your hours watched. That would be very interesting to do. But yeah, I have it on in the background when I’m working, when I’m in the kitchen. There are times, too, when I choose silence and it’s very curious to see the difference. It’s like, oh, why do I want to have everything off right now? This is fascinating. It’s learning about ourselves. I love it so much.
Okay, so what now? I do think it’s worth taking some time to think about what that phrase “self regulation” means to you. So is it an idea you think about? Is it something that you bring into your conversations even with yourself? Do you have an end goal in mind for things? And if so, whose goal is it? All thoughts are okay. All questions are okay. We’re just exploring and having fun and playing with ideas. It’s okay to ask yourself. It’s okay to say, yes, I have an end goal. I really want this. And then you can keep digging into that. Oh, I really want this for this other person. What is the implication of that? It’s fascinating to do.
And thinking back on some of the unschooling rules that we have talked about in this series, are you envisioning your children self regulating around tech use or around sleep schedules or the topics they learn about? Are you waiting for them to announce that they want to learn math? Or that they want to go to bed at 10 o’clock every night? Like you were saying, Erika, sometimes the things that they come up with are more conventional, right? “I don’t want to eat candy for now.” And do I feel a relief with that? Ooh, that’s something curious to dig into as well. “Oh, they want to go to sleep earlier. And look, they’re getting up in the morning before school time or work time,” we can notice, oh, I’ve got these ingrained schedules. Where’s that coming from?
But truly, that is not what self regulation looks like. It does look different for everyone. So, instead of having an end goal in mind for their self regulation journey, just try getting curious about what it looks like for them. It really is so worth exploring our expectations and even how we define success on our family’s unschooling journey.
Especially in those first couple of years, I did a lot of work around what I imagined unschooling would look like and what it actually looked like day to day. So, being able to shift away from judgment and just towards curiosity helped me see that what it actually looked like was leaps and bounds better than what I initially expected, but I needed to open up and just question how I was defining success, how I was imagining my days and to question things. Oh, that’s interesting. Why is that not aligning with what I was seeing?
So, maybe they didn’t go to bed at the same time every night. But what I saw in action was they did consider how tired they were, what they were doing, and what they were in the middle of doing, what the possibilities were for that evening, what the plans were for the next morning, and so many different things. Because with unschooling, self regulation doesn’t look like our kids setting a rule for themselves and following through on it day after day. Oh look, they’re being consistent. They’re self regulating, finally. But it does look like them weaving together what they know about themselves, and about the context of the moment they’re navigating, so they can make the choice that they feel will serve them best. There were definitely times when they considered all the things, and made a choice very different from the one that I would make in that situation. Yet they were definitely understanding and managing their choices and behavior. They were self regulating, and they were doing it pretty brilliantly, I would say. Just seeing them in action, it’s life changing for me.
ANNA: It’s really true. And I have found it so valuable to dig into those cultural ideas. We tend to just accept them at face value, whether it’s about technology or bedtime or what foods to eat. And maybe that’s because of time. It’s a shortcut. We have these standard things that people know and understand. But so, so, so often those ideas do not serve the individual at all. And if you’re listening to this podcast, I feel like something about that conventional path hasn’t been feeling good or hasn’t been serving your child and you’re noticing some rubs or bumps.
And then what we see is that when we step off that kind of tunnel path, that’s being set out for us, there are so many things that could use a second look and just put through that lens of like, oh, is this working for me? Is this idea serving me? And I feel like this is a big one. Understanding that our kids are learning about themselves and what works for them and how to find their own unique path. And they’ll be playing around with all of those hot topics, food, technology, sleep, and learning, and many more, and it’s wonderful that they are, and that they can have the space to do that.
Because when you think about it, as adults, we are often still playing around with those very same topics. So, I’m not sure that it ever ends, but I’ve also seen that mine, who are now in their mid-twenties just have a much better sense of self than I did at their age. They have a clearer sense of what works and doesn’t work for them. And I still see them trying things and pushing out of their comfort zone and experimenting, but it seems to be from a much more grounded place. I felt like it took me decades to really understand my body and what I wanted separate what from what everybody around me wanted for me.
And I really have seen even recently my oldest daughter experimenting with getting up early. We were very much night owls when they were growing up. I have become a bizarrely early, early bird and it’s weird. And so, she and I have talked about it a little bit. We don’t live together. So, I don’t know all of her sleeping habits. And so, recently we had a conversation where she’s like, yeah, I tried for about six months, this getting up earlier and there were things I liked and things I really didn’t. I think I’m just a night owl and I’m like, yes. But there was no energy to it.
There was no judgment that one is better than the other, because she knows I accept both. It’s really just what works for my body at the time. And so, that’s what I love, whereas I feel like I carried judgment with me for longer of like, oh, this is what I’m supposed to do, or this is the path that everybody wants me to do. And so, then I’m having to kind of parse through that. So, I just feel like it’s such a gift we’re giving our kids, a chance to experiment and learn about themselves in an environment where they have our support and they have the time to play around with it.
ERIKA: Yeah, right. I love that about distinguishing between what everyone else wants from us and then what our own mind and body is saying. It’s just so valuable to be able to tune in. And right! This is an adult undertaking for me where my kids are able to do it now. And so, it’s pretty amazing.
I also just wanted to mention something else that came to mind through that people are different idea. And that’s that people have different levels of comfort with routine. So, it is possible that there are kids who will set a rule for themselves and follow through day after day, because for some people that routine feels very secure and safe.
And then for other people, routine feels like they’re being trapped and they need to escape. And so, neither one of these is bad. But I’m just thinking if you’re a parent who feels very comforted by routines, it could feel really dangerous to have a child who does not want to be trapped by a schedule or a certain way of doing things. And so, it might be really hard to see that without just wishing that this child would regulate.
But I just think it feels so nice to just leave space for people to be themselves, just leave enough space for our kids and for us to figure out what really feels good and works for us without all of the judgments and the warnings about this is a better way or this is the right way.
And it’s also okay to have seasons, like you’re talking about, and to change what we want our lives to be like, depending on just the context of the moment or the season. So, tuning into our own mind and body and trusting that our kids are also able to do that for themselves, from my experience, it just brings a lot of peace and a lot of really amazing learning, too.
ANNA: So much. And something that you said really harkened back to something Pam said a bit ago, which was, if you’re really looking at self regulation as a path to a goal, like this stationary point, that that may be the rub too, right? Because what I see in myself, what I see in my adult kids, is that it totally changes in seasons of our lives and how we’re feeling and seasons of the month. And just the days, the different things. And so, I think it’s, that’s a good place to dig in. It’s like, oh, am I picturing this linear path? We come to unschooling. They’re going to have this freedom and then they’re going to taper off to this beautiful, stationary point that feels very comfortable. I just don’t think that’s the way humans work. I feel like we want to try things and things change and our bodies change. And I don’t know. Yeah. I think that’s interesting.
PAM: That was exactly what bubbled up for me, too, while Erika was talking, the importance and the value of being open to things changing. And your story that you were sharing about night owls and early birds. It’s just so valuable to not have the judgment around that so that it doesn’t feel like I’m doing something wrong, like you said, that linear path to a goal and then stationary. I figure myself out. This is the answer. So, I need to keep doing that. I need to keep fitting myself into that, because that’s the answer. That’s who I am.
But to understand that there are seasons. And there are different situations in the moment and that it’s okay to make different choices and to play with them and see. I think that holding things lightly and without expectation just really leaves so much space and energy and acceptance and just curiosity for me anyway about, ooh, I am like feeling a little stuck here right now. What might I want to change up? What might I want to try earlier?
I literally just set an alarm for tomorrow morning earlier than my typical time, because I typically don’t like alarms. But here’s a little season where I want to play with that and I may turn it off as soon as it goes off and like, yep, not trying that anymore, but it’s totally okay. I don’t need to define myself by these pieces that I self regulate to, because I think all choices are me trying to figure out what’s best for me. And to me, that’s the self regulation piece, having the agency that we were talking about earlier to just look at myself and look at what’s going on and look at what maybe I’m trying to accomplish or what direction I’m trying to go and to be able to play with that.
And yeah, our expectations as parents, even as to how we define what self regulation should look like through our lens, because we can find ourselves just making little comments here or there, or making suggestions that always are trying to just nudge them toward what feels self regulated to us, rather than considering who they are as a person and helping them, fully supporting them, not standing back, but fully supporting them to find out or to explore what that looks like for them and what that feels like for them and how that can change over time. I love that stuff.
ERIKA: I love it, too. I’m having a lot of new thoughts that I didn’t know before, right? Like just the importance of context and how amazing it would feel if, when I’m in the mood to stay up late, rather than judging myself, maybe this is just a season of being in night owl mode and that’s okay. And our kids can do that, too. Rather than having this end point expectation of, if I was doing things the right way, or if I was able to regulate, my diet would look like this, my sleep would look like this, and everything in moderation, which is just not the way life is.
And so, a moderate amount of screen time may work really well for somebody. But then someone whose passion is filmmaking and is spending all day editing a video, they’re going to be getting a lot more screen time. And that’s a great life, too. And so, I really think it’s all about dropping the judgment and just tuning in, listening to ourselves and letting our kids listen to themselves, too.
So, this was a very fun unschooling rule to dive into with you both. And for all of our listeners, we would love it if you would join us in the Living Joyfully Network, our online community, where we talk about so many rich topics that impact our unschooling lives. It’s a wonderful place to connect with other families navigating the same challenges and experiencing the same joy of connection. You can learn more at livingjoyfully.ca/network. Thanks again for joining us and we’ll see you next time.