PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from Livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Emma Forde. Hi, Emma!
EMMA: Hi Pam!
PAM: It is so wonderful to have you on the show. Emma is an unschooling mom to two girls, Lily who is nine and Rosa who is five. Before becoming a parent, she received her doctorate in clinical psychology. She enjoys thinking critically about life. Her interests focus on radical unschooling, attentive and attachment-based parenting, children’s rights and rethinking mental health issues and critical approaches to psychotherapy. She writes online at Rethinkingparenting.co.uk and Radicalunschoolers.uk. I have ten questions for you, Emma, so let’s dive in!
EMMA: OK, great.
Question one, can you share a bit about you and your family and how you came to unschooling?
EMMA: Yeah, sure. Thanks for having me on your program. I’ve really been enjoying listening to the podcasts. I just wanted to say that at the beginning. I’ve been learning so much from it. Yeah, it’s great.
I live with my husband John, whom I met at university, about 20 years ago and we were both studying psychology at the time. John and I worked as a lecturers at Plymouth University in psychology and computer.
As you’ve mentioned, we’ve got two daughters, Lily that is nine and Rosie that is five. Before having children, I trained and worked as a clinical psychologist with children and families. I stopped working when I was pregnant with Lily as I wanted to be able to clear some space because I knew I wanted to stay at home and look after them.
I felt it was really important to be emotionally available for them, not stressed or preoccupied with work or worrying about getting back to work while they were really young. I wanted to be there, to look after them.
We live in an old Bed & Breakfast in Cornwall. It’s not a Bed & Breakfast anymore. We live in a seaside town and we enjoy living in the countryside and the beach. I practiced attachment based, responsive parenting. I was reading a book by Jan Hunt called Natural Child. It talked about ideas about unschooling by John Holt. I liked the emphasis that Jan placed on the importance of relationships and she really nurtured a close connection with her son.
Unschooling and attachment parenting seemed to fit nicely together for me. It did seem to lead on, like a natural progression. They were valuing placing the relationship first, following the child’s natural curiosity about the world and learning through play. I was excited and I went on to read John Holt’s observations about children learning to read in their own time and without needing to be taught; it just made so much sense to me.
Before having Lily, after I qualified, I was working doing a training course in infant observation which lasted for three years. That involved observing babies and children at home, in nurseries, and in preschool settings. So, I had been thinking a lot about children and babies and reflecting on their behavior and emotional development. I was aware of how important the contact was. So, when I was observing in preschools I was observing the children who were maybe getting upset when they were getting dropped off by their parents.
There were lots of children but maybe one or two teachers. So, a lot of them were wondering around and sometimes they might be upset or sometimes playing together but sometimes not and there would be difficulties and there wasn’t always an adult to respond to them and take care of them really, and to nurture them. So, when I was reading about John Holt’s idea it was all coming together in my mind and I was thinking, ‘Oh this sounds really good.’ We can be at home together and we can learn together and I can continue to breastfeed Lily, which was another important aspect of the relationship.
So, a lot of the issues I might have been worried about, like having to wean before she went to school nursery or having to separate before she was ready—unschooling seemed to provide a lot of the answers and was a really exciting alternative, so it was a positive thing.
When I read John Holt’s observations, the children could learn at their own pace and in their own time without interference from an adult. So, that made me feel more relieved, because I didn’t feel like I had to teach. It meant that I could be there to facilitate and to nurture the skills, interests and curiosity that she already had. So, that’s how I came to unschooling, from that basis.
PAM: That’s really interesting. I like that point you just made, about the, ‘not sit back’ piece, the not directing them but being available and there to help them. That’s a really big piece of it. But it’s interesting, Jan Hunt’s site was one of the first I came across as well, when I was first looking at unschooling. So, that’s really cool.
Back at the beginning, one of the big points I wanted to bring out was that you were looking to be emotionally available for your kids. That’s a really big piece of it, isn’t it? Because even if we’re making the time, it’s actually being there and available with them, even if you’re physically spending time with them, that doesn’t particularly help unless you’re actually open to them and available to meet them where they are, right?
EMMA: Yeah, yeah. From doing the child observations I observed a mum and baby at home for three years and it was a special experience because I got to see the dynamics of their relationship and we were able to talk about that and discuss that in group context. We were able to look at things from the mum’s perspective and the baby’s perspective and I developed a sense of how important it was for a parent to be responsive, to be flexible, and to be engaged.
So, I had all those kinds of things in my mind. When Lily was born, I was quite amazed at how quickly she did attach to me, how she did want to be with me, how she would let me know if she wanted to be fed or she wanted to be close to me she was quite clear about that. So, I was guided by her as well. I didn’t feel it was right to separate to go to nursery because she had such close attachment to me. And the same with the breastfeeding, that was something I didn’t know how it would pan out but we ended up breastfeeding for quite a few years. And the same with Rosa, that’s something that’s been really important because they wanted to breastfeed and fortunately, I’ve been here to do that as well and to be engaged.
I haven’t had to go back to work and the children haven’t had to go to school. So that’s been able to continue, which is something Paule wrote about. She’s a psychologist in the U.K. She did some research into home educating families with her Ph.D. She mentioned that one of the important things for home educating families was that they continued to breastfeed. So, I think the nurturance is a really important part, when you look at the relationship, which underpins the basis of unschooling. That’s how I feel. The trust that you have with your children is from all these early interactions. So, that’s been the basis for me and unschooling.
PAM: It all kind of comes together when you look at it. We get so caught up, in general, as parents, on our schedule, right? And we worry. It boils down to the trust in the child, doesn’t it? Because we worry that they’ll breastfeed forever unless we direct it, that they’ll never learn to read unless we direct it. The child’s timetable may be longer than we’re conventionally led to believe. But when you trust them, they do get to all these things, don’t they? Ha ha!
EMMA: When you say that it was amazing how many of the assumptions that were challenged by me by having my first daughter and the fact that we did breastfeed for longer, that fact that she was with me most of the time. You know, I hadn’t even anticipated how intense it was going to be, though I had some idea. And how I’ve been guided by them but also working in partnership with them from the very beginning.
They were bringing things to the relationship, even like just learning to breastfeed it was a joint thing between us. We had to learn together. And we’ve learned to play together, we explore the world together. So, the whole idea of unschooling philosophy fits really well with that kind of approach.
PAM: That’s awesome!
Let’s jump ahead a bit because I’d love to hear a bit about your children now, so how do they like to spend their days and what are they interested in?
EMMA: Yup, Lily and Rosa, they’re both really passionate about Minecraft. Lily is nine now and she’s passionate about gaming and identifies herself as a gamer and she’s loved Minecraft since she was about four. It’s been amazing to watch how that interest has developed over time. She started off playing with her dad and observing videos on YouTube, so it was quite a long time before she even started to play it. She was interested in watching that.
Her way was to observe and then engage with it. From the outside you wouldn’t know all that was happening but when she started to play, she already had so much information and knowledge. I thought that was quite fascinating to see. She gradually progressed so she would only play on creative ware so she wouldn’t lose her objects and so there weren’t any monsters. She became more and more confident over the years and then she started to play on survival servers and playing with other children online, enjoying interacting.
She learned to read through her interest in Minecraft as well because she wanted to be able to chat with her friends on Minecraft chats. Me and her dad have always been alongside her, helping her to type and if she had any questions. As she got older, we don’t have to be as involved anymore because some of those things she’s doing for herself, but we’ve facilitated that process.
So, that’s been interesting to watch. Rosa is five but she started to play Minecraft when she was four and they often enjoy playing things together. I was going to say that I was talking to Lily before the interview, just about some of the questions. We were talking about she is developing a server and she’s actually got a role play server called Lilacville, specifically for imaginative play with her friends. I think it’s nice, the potential of digital media and computing and games that enable children to express different aspects of themselves which comes into what we’re talking about when we talk about play. So, that’s one of their main interests.
PAM: That’s really interesting! I loved how you talked about her whole journey from the observation to right through now developing her own role play servers. That’s so cool. I saw that with my children too. My eldest, gaming was a very big part and continues to be a way to dive into his interests, and stories and RPG’s.
It’s true, when we first picked up a game system way back at Nintendo 64. Actually, I think it was a PS1 that we got first. He would watch his dad play for a few months. He mostly sat and watched him play and then when dad was at work, he would play a little bit but when he would get to a hard spot, he would pause it and wait until dad got home to work through the stressful spot and he would play the easier spots and just bit by bit by bit.
That’s something they don’t get a lot of time for when school or conventional expectations are in the way, right, because parents often feel that you need to get through that, you need to try that. That’s how you learn, that’s how you step up. But when you sit back and watch how they progress through it, it’s fascinating. And that’s how they learn things. That whole process, Lily now knows and she can apply it and be comfortable applying to all sorts of different interests along the way.
EMMA: Yeah, it’s fascinating to see progressing and the ongoing interests and how it develops over time. I’ve got your quote here, which says, ‘Video games and YouTube aren’t interests in themselves. They are the tools your child is using to pursue their interests, did deeper.’
Me and John, and as a family, are into digital media because John teaches it, as well, at university. It’s something we really embrace because it’s enriched our lives. When you made that quote, I was thinking about how you could miss so much if you weren’t really engaged with your children and participating and enjoying it because it’s so rich.
They’re learning so much, not just in terms of the content but the process. So, they’re learning about how they like to research things, how they like to observe it first, like how you mentioned about your son, how they can have control of that process as well. I think it’s important that we’re around to support them but ultimately, it’s their choice how deep they go and how far they take it.
PAM: that’s how they’re picking up the whole process for themselves, right? Their learning process, not even learning, that’s how we frame it but how they pursue an interest. That’s cool that you shared that quote because even a couple minutes ago as I was replying that gaming was Joseph’s interest, I could barely get that out because that’s not really it—gaming was the tool that he was using to pursue. Then I was like, do I really want to get that deep? But that’s exactly the point. Ha ha!
EMMA: Lily identifies herself as a gamer, she fully embraces that. She likes what that identity means to her. She finds it empowering. I think it’s given her the ability to communicate with other people in a way that’s meaningful. She’s found friends online that share the same interests.
Obviously, they don’t go to school but the experience of going to school can, in some ways, be disempowering. To think that us and unschooling, naturally just finding ways that enables Lily to have a voice and to feel empowered and gaming has provided her with some of that, which is nice. It’s developed over time. We’re going to meet with a couple of the families that she’s played with online. We’re all really excited about that and her interest and how it develops.
PAM: I know, I know! It’s really fun! We’ve gone through that, too, connecting with people through these interests and then eventually starting to meet up with them, face to face. That’s really fun! Next question……
EMMA: Is it OK to say just a little bit more. That’s just one piece of their interests.
PAM: Oh, sure! Go ahead.
EMMA: They both love, Lily’s really passionate about dinosaurs and paleontology. We’ve visited museums and festivals. They love dinosaur play and they collect lots of dinosaur related toys. The games and the apps, as well. That’s been a big part of the last nine years, well when she was about three, so, the last five years or so. Rosa is into is as well. They love creatures and animals. When we visit a lot of different places like aquariums and animal sanctuaries. Together, they wanted me to say they love puffer fish. It’s one of the things they like.
We just have a rich and active life. We go on mini holidays throughout the year. I get cheap deals so we go away and stay in a caravan somewhere we’ve never been before. We might stay near friends and we go exploring the local area. The reason we can get cheap deals is because we’re not in school. We can go in the times when it’s quiet and get a cheaper deal which is useful.
They both have separate interests. Rosa loves horse riding. We’ve been visiting a riding stable since she was two. There’s a horse called Misty she’s quite attached to. Rosa’s also passionate about collecting flowers. She likes princess play, dressing up and imaginative things like that. Lily just got into Harry Potter. I know you spoke about that before. I think it was your daughter that was really interested in reading those books and you read them together. It’s been interesting that we have the books for quite a few years. We found them in charity shops but it’s only been in the last several months that we both got into it.
She’s bringing the books to me every time I’ve got a spare moment to read to find out what’s happening. And that’s coincided with her being able to read, her beginning to read more fluently. And Rosa, in terms of reading, she likes Mr. Men and Ella Bella Ballerina. She wanted me to let you know.
PAM: That’s beautiful! There’s so many connections in there! You tell them that I love puffer fish. It was my thing. When I was a child, oh, I don’t know, it must have been down in the Caribbean somewhere. My dad used to work for a travel company so every once in a while, if there were extra flights, like extra seats on the flights, we would be able to scoot down there. I found in one of the shops, a puffer fish that was blown up and I don’t know how they preserved it but I had that on my shelf at home for years.
EMMA: We’ve got one of those as well, Pam! My mum gave it to us. I think she found it in a charity shop and they really liked that.
PAM: That’s cool! And then the horses—when we first moved out here rurally, both Lissy and Michael did some horseback riding for a while and now he’s working with horses again with his job at Medieval Times. And Harry Potter, yes that was a key piece of Lissy’s road to reading. It’s hard to imagine but when you dive deep into an interest, as I’m sure you’re seeing even with the Minecraft, there’s so many different places that it reaches out to, right? It doesn’t put blinders on. It’s like, ‘I like this so much I want to pursue it this way AND this way AND this way.’ It opens up so many things.
So that’s very cool. Thank them very much for sharing all their fun interests. Oh, yeah! One other piece was the going away on short little vacations. We did that a lot when the kids were young. Or even if we were living outside Toronto, but we might go into Toronto for a weekend or we might go to Niagara Falls for a weekend. Any little place because there are different things to see and it just kind of whips things up, for lack of a better phrase, because you’re in a different spot, the conversations change up a little bit and yes, when we’re not going to school we can get all the deals of low travel time, right?
EMMA: Yeah, it’s been really good to do that. Lily’s nine now but as they’ve been growing up it’s been really intense and I find that it helps me, as well, to get out and about and they enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so we were doing things we enjoyed together, learning new things together. Also, there are home schooling families near us but it’s nice to spend more time with particular families we know or to visit my mum and we used to do things like that, keeping up with people.
PAM: Yeah, that really helps. That’s cool.
Here’s a question that I come across pretty regularly and can’t answer it myself because my kids did go to school for a while, but when Lily approached school age, was she curious about school? Did she have friends that went off to school? And I guess Rosa is probably approaching that age right now? Not sure what the compulsory school age is in the U.K. so just curious how you’ve talked to them about that.
EMMA: Lily’s never really been interested in going to school but we have had conversations about it. We’ve always said that if they wanted to go to school then we would support them in doing that. We weren’t against school. We thought that what we were doing was right for them at the time. We see the benefits of home schooling and home educating but we realized there might be reasons they might choose to go in the future. So, we do have conversations on and off. Lily’s quite adamant that she wants to carry on life as we are and that she doesn’t want anything to change.
Rosa, last year when she was four, she’d been watching things like, ‘Sid the Science Kid’ on video. She was curious about what it would be like to go to play school, but she didn’t really want to go to school. We went to some home ed groups where we could play with other children. That seemed to be what she was looking for. We haven’t tended to go to a lot of groups. We’ve tried them but Lily, my older daughter, she wasn’t as keen.
She was glad to meet up on a one to one basis with families rather than being in a group situation. We’ve had quite a few, in the past, over the years, we’ve had friends who are in school. They’ve spent a lot of time with us. We’d take them out on the weekend, visit places. We’d meet them after school to go swimming. They have said to Lily, on occasion, ‘Would you like to go to school?’ but she’s always said no. They also share some things they don’t particularly like about school. We’ve met people from school but we are happy and the children are happy, at the moment, with their lifestyle.
PAM: That’s awesome. I like your point about Rosa’s curiosity and going to check out some home ed groups, that’s a big one because the question really isn’t just about school, yes or no, right? If a child is expressing an interest, actually finding out where it’s coming from because maybe there’s all sorts of other ways that you can help them get and even better get what it is that they’re actually looking for.
EMMA: Yeah, I think that’s when I read Sue Patterson’s book about home schooled teens and I think what came over in that to me was if there’s any issue or thing there’s a solution to it in the sense of if they want to have more engagement with friends or they want to play with other children, if they want to learn a particular thing, there are probably ways of meeting the need in creative ways. But at the same time if they ultimately did want to go to school then that would be an option.
PAM: Yeah, because there are creative ways to go to school too, right?
EMMA: Yeah, and I think the issue about being able to go to school and being able to have a choice about that makes a big difference. It changes the power dynamic completely.
PAM: Exactly. You can definitely go to school on your own terms. I think there’s a piece on Sandra Dodd’s website about that. Yeah, once you have a choice to go there and you know you have a choice to leave if it doesn’t fit well, and you don’t have to buy into the whole grade structure and feeling bad about yourself if you don’t do well on tests, that doesn’t have to come with school. Right?
EMMA: I think a big part of it has been our relationships. They don’t necessarily want to go to school because they don’t want to leave me and John. Just in the sense that they and we enjoy spending our time together. We do lots of interesting things together. I am mindful of that. I know that if they are going to be at home I always remembered a quote, I think from Sandra Dodd that if you’re going to unschool then it needs to be better than school or more interesting or something like this or sparkly.
I do keep it in my mind so I try and create and John that we do try and create their lives so they’re interested and enjoyable, that we’re with them, spending time with them. I think if we weren’t then school may be a more attractive option. Children do need to have their needs met. If they’re not being met at home, then maybe school is an option. So, I keep that in mind. I need to be thinking about what kind of environment and what kind of relationships we’ve got.
PAM: Yeah, that’s a great point. I remember I would use that, too. It was just a good check for myself that if their life isn’t as interesting for them as going to school would be then I would want to support that for them to go. An engaged and interesting life is the point so yeah, I would use that as a self-check, is there more that I could be doing.
Or sometimes they would go through quieter periods so if I was wondering if we were doing enough. I would bring suggestions to them, that’s kind of my sparkly nature. If they’re like, ‘No thanks, no thanks’ then it’s like OK, so you are comfortable and happy with maybe the internal work, internal engagement that you’re doing right now. But that check to make sure that we’re not stagnating because I’m feeling lazy for a while or whatever, that’s always a great check to do.
Speaking of school, I was wondering if you could give us a quick overview of what it’s like to unschool in the UK, the legalities. You’ve mentioned some local home ed groups so I guess they exist, how easy are they to access and that kind of stuff.
EMMA: Yeah, it’s legal to home school in the UK and to unschool. It might vary in Scotland or Ireland or where else. If people are interested it would be worth checking out for more information. In England it’s legal and you don’t have to follow any curriculum and there’s no need for children to be assessed and parents are free to educate the way they choose as long as they are providing the child, it’s like they say it’s a full time and efficient and suitable education for the child’s age, ability and aptitude.
You also have to make sure you meet any sort of special education needs, but otherwise you’ve got freedom to educate your children in the way you feel fits them and is meaningful to them and to you.
So, it’s a really good place for home education at the moment because we have got that freedom to do that. And locally, we have groups, they’re not specifically necessarily unschooling groups but you can arrange meet ups and you will find unschooling families there. Some groups are more unschooly than others so we can seek those out and they do things like rock climbinb and horse riding, and lots of different activities that we can take part in.
We dip in and out of them so we have a choice. It’s nice to know they’re there. We don’t necessarily go every week. I run a local home ed group to arrange meet ups so the families can get together and do that.
Nationally, there’s an organization called Education Otherwise. They have lots of details of local groups, home educating groups, all across the country. They have a website and Facebook page so it’s quite easy for people to access a list of their local groups and what’s going on from them.
PAM: That’s awesome. And that’s great that you’re hosting a group! I found that, too. Here in Ontario there weren’t that many unschoolers. We would check out some more general home schooling groups and then yes, you would typically find some unschoolers in there. We also kind of dipped in and out of a few things because my kids weren’t into so much the big group thing.
We soon ended up doing more one on one stuff and connecting through interests themselves, Girl Guides, my daughter’s interest in crafts, activities, more formalish activities that way, my son’s interest in karate and stuff like that. So, that’s great to hear! That sounds pretty similar to what the home schooling regulations are here in Ontario as well. You just say, ‘Yes, I’m taking responsibility for this.’
EMMA: In England, we don’t even have to do that. You don’t have to enroll anywhere. You can home educate. You don’t have to let anyone know about that. If a child’s been in school, the school can notify the local authority and then they might request to know what kind of education you’re providing. You can provide an educational philosophy if you want to so you don’t have to meet and explain what you’re doing, what you’re intentions are. Then they might ask you to do that once a year or something. Because Lily and Rose have never been to school, we haven’t needed to do that.
PAM: Yeah, our letters are optional, too. We did it for the first while because I did take the kids out of school but then once we moved it was too much work to find out where to send the new letter.
OK! Question five! I love the article that you posted on your website that describes unschooling, it’s called, ‘What is Unschooling?’ and I’ll definitely link to it in the show notes for people to read in full and maybe share with extended family and stuff because you dive into so many different aspects and you include a detailed reference list. I love that!
But I’d like to dive into a couple of points from it with you today. First, is that unschooling isn’t child led learning but rather a partnership. So, I was hoping you could explain the difference for us.
EMMA: I think that unschooling is all about the relationship and all about partnering our children. I think maybe sometimes there could be an idea that partly arises out of the idea of self-directed learning, that adults stand back and observes and take a back seat, doesn’t really involve themselves much. I think maybe in the UK there’s a branch of autonomous learning that might be along those lines of people who have their own ways of thinking about it, defining it.
It’s thinking we take an active role in our children’s lives so we shape the environment they’re in. When you get to know your child really well, you have a sense of the different types of places that they thrive in and places that they don’t get on so well, or struggle.
It’s an interactive partnership where you’re working together, supporting their interests and being present, engaging with them.
I really like Sandra Dodd’s unschooling ‘nest’. There’s a video on YouTube. She talks about the emotional atmosphere and climate of the home is as important as the physical environment and the other opportunities that you provide. I like the idea that the parent is engaged, present, interactive. I think people have different ideas of what child led learning means.
I suppose unschooling does mean different things to different people and this is my take on it. It’s very much about the relationship and working together. I like Pam Sorooshian’s article on unschooling which I talk about in my article, my post. She mentions about unschooling being like a dance, like a partnership. Is it OK to do the quote?
EMMA: “Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in sync with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each other’s little indications, movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other.”
I think that really captures the nature of the relationship, being alongside your children, working with them. I think that’s where that comes from.
That’s the beauty of unschooling that I really embrace because I think in my experience, I’ve seen children whose parents are not partnering them and I feel that there are consequences to that. I think that children do suffer emotionally and I think by being present and engaged it’s really nurturing the relationship.
So, self-directed learning, the child can be self-directed but with the support of the parents helping to facilitate and checking things out, making suggestions. It’s really a dynamic, a two-way process, which I don’t think is necessarily captured with the child led learning.
PAM: You’re point of how we think of them. When we first come to unschooling it’s like it’s still all about who’s directing? So, I’m unschooling now, I’m not going to tell my children what to learn. So, if I’m not directing things then they must be directing things. That’s kind of where the idea of child led comes in.
Now, that’s not the point at all, right? That’s why I love that point that you made because it’s part of the deschooling process, I think, to get to the point, where you find what Pam Soorooshian beautifully described as that dance, that partnership, right? But that’s so much harder to put into words. Like child led as in yes, they follow their interests but not as in they’re directing things.
It’s that partnership becomes so important, doesn’t it? Once you can get to that place, because if you’re giving up directing that can feel like if I’m supposed to do that then I’m supposed to sit back, right? So, part of the learning about unschooling process is where you get to discover that beautiful dance that you can do together and how that’s actually more supportive and helps your children more because they’ve got that emotional support. They know that you’re there and they can feel comfortable asking for help. That whole dancing is such a more effective metaphor, I think. Yeah, that’s beautiful.
EMMA: I guess it changes as they grow, the type of relationship you have.
PAM: Yeah! That’s the great thing though because through the partnership you get to know each other very well. And that trust develops that you naturally see each other. They see you grow and you see them grow. I think that’s another thing that comes up pretty often is parents sometimes being scared or nervous about stepping out for fear that they’re going to hurt the relationship a little bit, they’re going to overstep their bounds. But you’ve got that trust, your kid is comfortable pointing that out to you, right? Even if it takes a little recovery work you know, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,’ or ‘I could see how you took it that way.’ That’s all part of learning about each other and how to dance together. Sometimes you step on a toe.
EMMA: Definitely. You’re very open. Yeah, we make mistakes and part of developing a healthy attachment, I think they call it rupture and repair so they accept that sometimes you are going to get it wrong. You won’t always be in tune and part of building the trust is being able to go back and say, ‘Yeah, sorry, I’ve got this wrong’. Working it together and working it out, how do we go forward? That is part of building the trusting relationship. Like you mentioned, sometimes you’re going to get it wrong but I find that Lily and Rosa do tell me quite clearly when I’ve got it wrong.
PAM: Yeah! Ha ha!
EMMA: And then I can do something about it.
PAM: I kind of love those times, maybe looking back! Ha ha! But that’s when I know, ‘OK, they’re comfortable and speaking up.’ That’s important so I know that I’m not overbearing.
EMMA: I hope it doesn’t change as they get older because one of the big things for me was during my teenage years, I didn’t particularly feel connected to my parents and so unschooling is another way because we’re focusing on the relationships.
A good example is like you and your children and Sue and lots of other people who have teenage children and older children who have still good connections and good relationships with their parents. I hope they can still come to me if there’s something they don’t agree with. I want them to feel that we have that two-way relationship as they get older so they don’t cut off and end up not including us because they feel they can’t. That’s another benefit of unschooling.
PAM: Yeah, you’re building that foundation, that relationship right now. Those open and trusting relationships and continuing to focus on helping them reach their goals. When you reach the teen years that’s another spot for deschooling for parents because you really haven’t—theoretically you’ve thought about the conventional messages and stuff but when your kids start to become teens and people ask are they going to go to high school that’s another time when conventional expectations start coming up but if we do the work to push through those and not put them on our children but continue to help them to meet their goals, that goes a long way to help keep that relationship and that trust going.
The second piece from the article I wanted to delve into was trusting our children’s intrinsic motivation to learn because that is so counter do the conventional belief in school that children don’t like to learn and they need to be motivated to do it through grades and awards. So, I was wondering how that trust developed for you?
EMMA: I credit John Holt with a lot of it. I’ve had a lot of different influences. In the early days I did a lot of reading on Always Unschooled, was it? You interviewed Meredith Novak. She was one of the people whose writing and voice I remembered, as well as other moms who were talking about their experiences that helped me. Just talking about trusting children and all that helped me develop my relationships and how I saw my children.
I remember very clearly John Holt talking about children like to learn to read by snuggling up with their parents and how the physical contact was very important. He said a child wouldn’t feel safe to do that, they have to trust you first before they could learn or before they want to read with you that they needed to trust you. That fits well with my philosophy about the child’s emotional well-being.
As I see trust emerging from the early relationships and we’ve talked a bit about it already but between mother and baby and parent and Dad, but I could sense that if I met Lily’s needs that was building trust in her and in me. That she knew she was worthwhile that I was meeting her needs. I think that gives children a sense of confidence in the environment so they can let their curiosity develop and flourish because they know they’re safe to do that.
The trust emerges from those early relationships, it’s just a natural progression. I remember John Holt saying you don’t need to correct a child when they’re learning because they will do that naturally.
I did have these things in the back of my mind and I observed that was the case. So, I did make a small comment just to see how Lily might respond. Sometimes she would ignore it or just carry on with what she was doing just like John described. There were times she would correct her own mistakes. So, I could trust that they would learn and that took a lot of anxiety away from me because it meant that I didn’t have to be responsible for them learning everything or learning to read. They were doing that for themselves.
PAM: I think that confidence in the environment and feeling safe, I think that’s such a great point. That really is at the foundation of difference between the learning environment at home and at school and you can see how that plays out in so many ways.
That story from John Holt, we had a question from the Q&A last week that ties in with that, ‘So I’m going to make sure she gets that’ idea. It is okay for them to hold on to something that doesn’t work but they think is right or they think is true because they’re going to use that in the next situation and the next situation and they’re going to figure it out, right? You don’t have to fix things immediately.
EMMA: I’ve just seen that time and time again and it’s interesting when you read John Holt and see his observations. They were made quite a few years ago. But I’ve just witnessed that so many times that they will correct themselves. Now Lily is getting older so she will say to me, “Oh is that how you spell this?” and obviously I just tell her, I don’t make an issue out of it. If she wants to know if she is typing something correctly, I’ll tell her. Now that she’s older she asks me more but when she was younger it was better to stand back. I guess it’s up to the individual child and what they’re wanting. Some might like it if the parent corrects something. They might prefer it, with mine, they just haven’t.
PAM: Yeah, that’s the whole point isn’t it? That’s the dance that’s the partnership that’s knowing each other and what each other would like vs the parent wanting the child to get this information when the child is not interested in it.
EMMA: When I was observing it in preschools…….you we’re always taken away from your parents like to go to school to learn and John Holt and others write about it. it’s really about relationships and how valuable they are and how it makes learning more fruitful. A lot of the problems that come up when children have difficulties is from overlearning and they’re being taken away from their parents and the environment isn’t facilitated by their emotional well-being and I think that’s an important piece.
PAM: A classroom environment is more around judgement, not trust. They have to worry if they attempt an answer—one if it’s on a test and it’s wrong that’s going to be embarrassing or if they’re answering a question in class, they’re going to be wrong and people are going to laugh or whatever.
Yeah, there’s so much more stress wrapped up in that learning rather than the safe and trusting environment you have at home. Before I found unschooling I couldn’t imagine that it could be that fun and relaxing.
EMMA: Or part of everyday life.
PAM: Yes! Yes! That’s it! When you talk to unschooling kids or when my kids were younger, we never called it learning because it, it was just living and doing. And then you see that learning it’s just a part of living. Yeah.
Question number 7, another article but you wrote that I loved is about the benefits of play. I know we had a chat with Jody Lily on the podcast a while ago, and I will link to that in the show notes. Unschooling parents are pretty Savvy about children learning through play but I was hoping you could talk a bit about some of the benefits of parent and child playing together.
EMMA: Like you, I think that unschooling parents generally embrace it but there are elements or movements where children should play away from their parents, that they need to be completely self-directed. They picture play with other children and that seemed as good developmentally but I don’t agree with that approach. I think that if the child wants to play alone, I think that’s fine and sometimes Lily and Rose do, they also benefit by playing together and with a parent.
First of all, it’s really fun, so they enjoy it. They’re rough and tumble and laugh. It helps deepen our relationship together. I want to mention Alan Shore, he’s a psychologist, he talks about attachment parenting and the benefits of play helps children to regulate their experience. Why I like it is that he talks about maximizing a positive experience like joy laughter and excitement because that’s really good to develop the brain and the nervous system.
When we’re having fun your body releases certain hormones it creates a nurturing environment and the genomes unfold. There are so many benefits to it you actually changing the way your child is developing. So, that’s one of the things. And play helps you to deepen your attachment to your children. They feel understood and valued and you’re doing something that they enjoy and they take seriously and you’re playing with them and you’re taking their needs seriously. It enables the parents to see more through the eyes of a child.
You can see the things that are important to them. It might mean what it means to be nurtured, what it means to be connected or separated. Maybe feelings of anger or aggression and they can explore those kinds of things with a parent and they can feel safe doing that. A parent can pick up on what they’re feeling and play alongside them in ways that they find meaningful.
It’s about being sensitive to what your child likes and wants and the play they like, as well. Lawrence Cohen has written a really good book parenting “Playful Parenting” and I expect you’ve probably heard of it and others probably have. There’s lots of ideas there on how you can deepen your connection with your child and lots of ideas for play. If you find it difficult to play with your child, he’s got a section in there on overcoming emotional blocks, so I would really recommend that book.
PAM: I’ll definitely put that in the show notes.
EMMA: I think playing with a child helps you feel more emotionally connected to them. I see it like play is a doorway into the child’s world. They can show you what their interests or concerns might be. They communicate that to you through play when they don’t have the words for it they can show you through play.
For Lily, when Rosa was born it was difficult for Lily, she wasn’t that keen on it. So, play was a way that helped us connect. She was able to express a lot of her feelings through play. As Rosa grew, we were actually able to play together. We will play dinosaur and I was their keeper and we did a lot of reworking of our relationships through play.
I think it can be really powerful way to connect with children if you can be open to the experience. I haven’t always found play easy. In fact, they found it very difficult. Play does open you up emotionally, so it’s being able to reflect on that instead of letting it put you off that you have certain feelings and finding a way to put them aside so that you can still play.
Another piece I thought about was when children want to play in ways that we don’t necessarily want to play ourselves. It might be that they want to play with guns or in ways that we might think are aggressive. Lily was really into playing the same game over and over again. I had Rosa and was quite tired but I realized that was really important to her. I read some articles that say play if you are enjoying it.
Obviously, I think that’s important but as a parent you can put aside your own needs or wants temporarily to be there for your child in a way that might otherwise be hard. Maybe others have different feelings about that but I feel as an adult I need to put my feelings aside for that time and be there for her in a way that perhaps the child wouldn’t be interested in or perhaps they would be and that’s just how it works out for us.
I was thinking about that and there’s an interesting book written on that by Gerald Jones called Killing Monsters. He explores how children make meaning of their experiences like anger or aggression through identifying with heroes and other types of people.
Role play—we’ve also been able to play that out together. At other times play challenges your thinking and what play is for the child and how you can help them with that, sometimes going beyond what you’re comfortable with in the first place.
PAM: Yeah, I think that’s a huge point, that’s really helpful to consider. Like you were saying at the beginning, it helps us to see things through our children’s eyes. You can see where their mind is and you can see their thought processes as the play is unfolding. That gets us to the point that we can see through their eyes. We can see when something is really important to them. They really want to play they want you to be with them.
Certainly, we’re adults and sometimes we’ve chosen this lifestyle and environment for family and yes we can definitely choose to put aside our comfortableness or tiredness or whatever is in our way in the moment and choose to be there for a child in a way that they are really looking for us.
Most often it ended up that when I look back at times, when I made that choice it ended up being really fulfilling by the end. When you get past your block and sink into it you say, ‘Oh yeah! This is just what I kind of needed too.” Yeah, it helps you really get with them.
EMMA: There are lots of times when I have said no. So, I don’t always say yes but I try to as often as I can because I know when I do they benefit and they thrive from it. But yeah, you’re still thinking about your needs and how to meet them in creative ways.
PAM: That’s part of the dance thing, almost right? So, if I found out I was saying yes to them more often than was making me comfortable, it was a clue for me to ask, ‘Am I taking care of my needs?’ And remembering that saying no is absolutely an option. It’s an OK option. It’s looking at my patterns: am I saying yes more often as an excuse, is that becoming a pattern? It helps me to check in to see whether these are more automatic yeses or nos, just because in the moment I felt that yes or that no.
That becomes more pattern than digging in and seeing why, ‘Well, yes I know what are the reasons. And it’s not like I need 10 minutes to go sit out.’ Because it comes into your mind and you can take those minutes later on when you have alone time if it’s starting to bother you.
So, that’s all part of the dance of their relationship because sometimes they are needing more interaction with their parents and you can ask yourself what else is going on in their lives that they’re needing this connection that they’re obviously looking for now and how can I provide it where I’m comfortable? That’s why I did. I love that dance metaphor because it’s a partnership and it changes over time with what’s going on in our lives.
EMMA: My husband is really helpful as well. It’s not just me that’s doing it we’re doing it together. It’s like tag, he’ll take over when I can’t do anymore. John really enjoys playing with the girls.
Sandra talks a lot about the importance of couple relationships and I think that’s another key piece. I know everyone is not in the position of having a partner or husband but it’s been really important to me to work together with John to meet the needs of the children because I think I would have struggled a lot more if I had been on my own.
Single parents manage and they manage really well but working together and drawing on each other’s support and taking it in turns has being really helpful.
PAM: That’s a great point. You work with them, the circumstances that you have.
This next question, we probably have touched on it throughout most of the answers but I find it really interesting. So, I was wondering if there was anything you wanted to add about how your understanding of psychology and unschooling lifestyle weave together?
EMMA: I’m passionate about psychology. It’s about valuing relationships and setting aside time for children, trying to prioritize them. It’s about prioritizing emotional development period. That comes first. Putting the relationship first and then everything else will fit in. That has fit in with my psychology and homeschooling fit together naturally.
Rose is getting older now and sleeps more in the evening, I’ve had more time to get online and tend to my blog, that’s been a way I’ve channeled my interests because I would take off time from work and that was a really hard decision but I felt it was important.
So, I’ve been writing in my blog and I started a group called Radical Unschoolers Discussion Group where you can meet like-minded parents. I like discussing theoretical papers and research and things like that. So, I was hoping the group could be another basis for meeting people, parents, not necessarily parents but the people who are interested in child development, child advocacy, and unschooling.
Yeah, that’s how I see psychology as intertwined with unschooling. I do go back to psychology as a practicing clinician. I just think my schooling has changed the way I practice lately because it has pushed me to challenge things about how I see relationships and the world. It would be interesting to see how those two fit together.
PAM: I find it fascinating to see how well they fit together. It just supports the idea for me that unschooling weaves well with how we live and learn in the world. Without having all those other layers of expectations and school and the social infrastructure on top. This is how people really enjoy engaging with the world.
EMMA: I would say they are different views of psychology but the view I like is the attachment parenting view, which does prioritize relationships. But there are other types of psychology that don’t place an equal value on attachment. So, they would have a different perspective.
Question number 9 what has been one of the more challenging aspects for you on your unschooling journey up to this point?
EMMA: Maybe just a couple of things and maybe it’s not unschooling but I was listening to your podcast and you were talking about some people blaming things that happened on school for things in their lives. And schooling for me has been really liberating, and hasn’t caused any issues.
The birth of Rosa was just difficult to meet the needs of both children but I think any parent probably finds that being at home all the time all together, having to think creatively about having to meet the needs of both children was a challenge. But we worked through it together, but still it’s always easier to meet the needs of 1 child rather than 2. Even with 2 parents, it’s full time. So, if I’d have known, if I’d had been a bit more aware maybe waiting a bit longer between having Rosa and Lily.
On the other hand, I was getting older. I’m 43 now and I know I did want to have children, so, it’s kind of weighing all those decisions. But I think Lily would have preferred, I think she needed more time. I think 4 would have been old enough. I needed to wait longer but that’s in retrospect.
The other thing is managing on one income and balancing my own desire for a personal career with choosing to stay at home with the children. Those have been issues for me. Trying to set aside my aspirations while trying to parent the children while they need me. And as they get older trying to engage in my interests and passions. I’m passionate about the children luckily so that coincides. My interest in seeing how they learn and how their relationships are developing, but that has been kind of an issue.
PAM: I remember that one myself. I was at work and the kids were in school and that whole process of who I defined myself as, you come up with a whole new way and why you make those choices and finding why really and it often comes back to that.
But it did take time to process through that whole question because we grow up with that conventional viewpoint of how one measures oneself as successful. I enjoyed my career. I was working hard and doing well and all that sort of stuff.
Anyway, I can totally see how about is a big part of the process for me as well. I found, as you were saying, as the kids get older, I became passionate about learning and unschooling and all the interesting things that I was seeing started to bubble up when I had more and more time.
EMMA: It’s truly helpful for me to watch people like you and Sue and Sandra. People that have had careers and you set them aside for a time and you’re going on to new and creative things. That is kind of an inspiration to me because I think it’s trying to find a new role model. I’ve invested that in my children and it’s now thinking how can I continue to invest in my children but maybe invest something in my career in a way that doesn’t impinge on the family in a way that’s harmful. It’s good to see people out in the world doing it.
PAM: Yeah, I found that too. That the unschooling parents I started out with, their kids are now late teens and becoming young adults. I find that it’s fascinating to see the kind of things the parents have started to pick up—from body painting to Alex’s book editing. There are a million examples out there but they have, it’s evolved out of their interests. We may have even given up on a career before but that whole unschooling experience for however many years we focused on that. That also helped us to discover ourselves and the things that we truly love and are passionate about how are growing, how our creative endeavors and businesses and stuff around that. I find that very fascinating too.
Last question. This is one that I asked all my 10 question guests, looking back so far, what for you, has been the most valuable aspect from choosing unschooling?
EMMA: It’s got to be the relationships. I’ve been listening to other podcast and I know people say the same thing but I you can’t compare the relationships that I feel develop while unschooling. That’s just my personal opinion you can’t buy the kinds of things that you can get by investing in your child and a nurturing their relationships and all that unschooling enables you to do.
PAM: When I first started and we chose this for a learning environment, I hadn’t a clue that these kind of relationships could exist, so connected and trusting. People have to get past their viewpoint, their expectations of it but once you do and you see the person your child actually is, the relationship is amazing is in it?
Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me, today, Emma. I have super enjoyed it! Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
EMMA: Rethinkingparenting.co.uk is my blog. And you should be able to find information there. And if people are interested, I have got the Radical Unschoolers Group which is to discuss issues around parenting, child advocacy, and unschooling. And they should be able to find that on Facebook.
PAM: Perfect! I will put links to those in the show notes. Thank you again very much, and have a wonderful…I guess it’s almost evening there. Haha! Thank you!