PAM L: Hi everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Pam Sorooshian. Hi, Pam.
PAM S: Hello.
PAM L: It’s great to have you on the show. Pam is a long-time, unschooling mum of three girls who are now adults, and lucky for us she’s continued to stay actively involved in the unschooling community. She is also professor of economics and statistics. I have ten questions for you today Pam, so let’s dive in!
PAM S: Ok.
Jumping back, just a few years, how did you first hear about unschooling and what spurred you to explore unschooling with your family?
PAM S: Well, it was a few years. My oldest daughter is 31 and my middle daughter is 28 and my youngest will be 25 in a couple of weeks. So, yes, it’s been a while. My older two were in a school. We had searched around, changed schools, tried to find a school that I was happy with and had succeeded the best we could but not entirely. I was looking for holistic schooling, not worksheets and things like that, just a more open type school. We finally ended up in a public school that didn’t have any grades or assignments or homework or tests and it was really quite lovely. I think it was the very, very best we possibly could have found and yet, I was pretty unhappy with it. I was constantly complaining to one of my sisters about the school and I didn’t like how they did this, and I didn’t like how they did that.
She looked at me one day and said, “You know, it’s never going to be the way you want it.”
And I said, “You’re right. It’s impossible. It’s never going to be what I’m looking for.”
At the same time, my older daughter was nine and was doing very, very well. Everybody loved her and she was doing great in school, there was no problems or anything, but I had started to notice at that age that her unbridled enthusiasm for learning and stuff was starting to be dulled. My younger daughter who was in an open classroom, no grades, no grade levels, was just frustrated and bored out of her mind. She was highly talented in reading and writing and was being way too limited in the classroom. There wasn’t enough for her to do and she was just bored and unhappy… and that was according even to her teacher.
The teacher was telling me, “Well, there’s not enough here that we can offer her.”
So, … they got chicken pox. It was in the spring and all three of the kids got chicken pox and they were out of school but they weren’t very sick. We had a fabulous time. It was April and as the time came for them to be well enough to go back to school, because of budget cuts our schools no longer had school nurses, we had school health clerks. I would take the kids into the school and show her that they still had little pox on them.
I’d say, “I don’t think they really should come in. They might still be contagious.”
The health clerk would say, “Oh, ok. Keep them home.”
And so, four weeks went by, five weeks went by, six weeks went by.
We were towards the end of May by that time and they hadn’t gone back to school because we were just having too much fun. So there was one week of school left and my older daughter wanted to go back for that one week to finish up the school year and do all her fun things, so she did. In the meantime I was online thinking, ‘How can we just keep this going, this is so much better.’ So I got online. America Online (AOL) had just started up, so I got on America Online. I found homeschoolers and low and behold there was a little, one-day, unschooling conference being held almost in my neighbourhood, that week.
PAM L: Ahhh, wow!
PAM S: The kids went to school that week and I went to a conference. Then school was over and then they never went back. My older daughter, Roya, wanted to go back but I offered her the option to try it for six weeks and then decide.
At the end of about a week or two she had said, “Oh, no way do I ever want to go back. This is so much better.”
We discovered a support group that was super fun and the kids were putting on plays and having a blast. We were going to the beach. We live in Southern California. We were going to the beach every day and we went to all kinds of fun things.
In the meantime, I was on AOL talking to all the homeschoolers that I found on there. Those days, this was before the religious right in the USA got into homeschooling. It was when they were just getting started. There were a lot of unschoolers. Homeschooling was unschooling then, but people didn’t use two different words for it. People at that time were John Holt followers and he had recently passed away but he had spoken here in my area and lots of people I knew had seen him speak. That was the whole atmosphere of homeschooling was that if you’re not fully unschooling already then you’re just on your way there. So I was pretty immersed in an unschooling world almost from the very first day. It resonated with me completely. It was exactly what I had been thinking about, it just hadn’t occurred to me that the kids didn’t have to go to school.
PAM L: That was exactly my situation too!
PAM S: So, we did. We just didn’t go school anymore and we just pretty much dropped any kind of schooling right from the get-go, and had a blast. We never looked back. They never wanted to go to school. My youngest daughter never went at all.
Every year I’d ask her, “Do you want to go to school this year, because you know, you might want that experience, just a little bit, just want to see what it’s like?”
And she say, “No, I don’t want to. I’m fine. I talk to all my friends. I know. They all go to school. I have no interest it.”
She had a lot of friends who went to school and she just never wanted to. In the year that it would have been her senior year in high school, I said, “This is your last chance. You will never get the chance to do this social thing that society thinks is critical and essential for every kid. You’ll never get a chance to do it. You’ll never get that chance again.”
She was like, “I just don’t need it. I don’t want it. Stop trying to talk me into it.”
I wasn’t really. I was perfectly happy for her not to do it, but I wanted to make sure she knew that it was her choice.
PAM L: That it was an option, yeah.
PAM S: She had made the choice. I didn’t want later for her to say, “I never even got any experience at it.” Because the other kids had had it and they knew what it was like. That leads nicely to our next question.
When they’re not having the school experience, I wanted to talk a little bit about what learning looks like with unschooling. So, when any of your children were actively pursuing an interest what are some of the things you did to help support that exploration? With three of them, how did you weave together pursuing all their interests?
PAM S: Well, their interests looked like play and they mostly played. They were interested in, for example, dressing up their stuffed animals, so we would buy fabric remnants or find old clothes that they could cut up. I’d give them scissors and needles and thread and tape and fabric paint and let them go at it. My job was to provide materials, transportation and some clean up time so that they would have more room to do it. So a lot of time when they were younger was spent with a ton of pretend play, acting out with either stuffed animals, or we had a big, doll-house they played with a lot, or other kinds of dolls. Just pretend play. They played Star-Trek a lot where they made all kinds of little props to go with it out of cardboard and tape. That was an ongoing game that they played forever. They liked to watch TV and they had a lot of shows that they were really into. Back in those days we had VHS tapes and it was my job to remember to record them. It was a test for me… [laughter]
PAM S: …to help them to find them. It wasn’t as easy it is now. To make sure they didn’t miss episodes of the shows that they were into. Ironically, one of them was Arthur in which he goes to school and there’s a lot of school stuff involved in that.
PAM L: Yep, Arthur, and I have tapes full of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
PAM S: Yes, Where is the World is Carmen Sandiego? They played on the computer. We had one computer, so that was an issue: to take turns. They played a lot of games. They tried to share, they played together. They played Oregon Trail. Then they kind of integrated the computer game into pretend play at the same time. Sometimes they would play Oregon Trail but then they would be acting out, playing pretend, the same stuff. One of them would be on the computer playing it, telling them what was happening.
They dressed up a lot. They didn’t do a lot of classes or anything like that, at that stage. They did when they were older. They did like, especially my oldest daughter, liked to sign up for a lot of things. We live in the Los Angeles area. We have a tonne of museums, events, festivals and things like that. Really, what I remember, looking back on those days, is them playing music and dancing and singing a lot. Also going to the beach and spending many, many, many long, long, long hours playing in the park or swimming. We have a swimming pool. They would swim in the swimming pool sometimes eight or nine or ten hours at a stretch. I would bring them food and put it on the side of the pool so they could come up to the side of the pool and grab something to eat. So much for that idea that you’re not supposed to swim after eating, because they were swimming while they were eating. They were eating and swimming at the same time.
We had a dog. They would play with the dog. It was a lot like probably what a typical weekend might look like for kids in school except we just did it all week long. The difference on the weekends and evenings is that my husband was home and he played with them. They did play some sports. They played soccer. They were on soccer teams. Otherwise, there wasn’t anything particularly planned or anything like that. It was more a matter of the flow of everyday, you know, we cooked, we ate, we went here and there, we visited friends, friends came over. We were busy. The days went by really fast.
PAM L: Looking back, I find that those are the times you remember. That is one of the really wonderful things about unschooling is the time that we all actually get to spend together. That in turn, really strengthens our family’s connections and relationships, which is something that I wasn’t really expecting. Because when I first was looking at unschooling, it was to replace school so the focus was on the learning. Soon enough what the beauty really came to be was the connections and the relationships.
I thought I would ask, because I know this question comes up quite a bit, especially when there’s siblings, is helping them figure out ways to move through moments when things get more challenging. For example, when somebody’s angry, or frustrated with a game or with each other. Do you have some tips, or remember some of the ways you helped them move through conflicts?
PAM S: Well, when they were younger I don’t know that I did the best job of that.
PAM L: (Laughter) Yes, I know. We all just do what we can.
PAM S: Looking back now, how I think I could have done better is to just pay attention really closely and head things off when you see frustrations starting at the very, very beginning. Try to offer more, because frustration often comes from a scarcity of some kind of resource. You know, both of them want the same stuffed animal, or both of them want the same piece of fabric, or they both want to play the piano. Or one wants to play the piano while the other one wants to watch TV right next to it.
A lot of times conflicts arise from wanting something that conflicts with what somebody else wants, so trying to offer more, right away, before they dig in their heels and they’re already engaged in some sort of stand off. So, if you see a kid eying the piano and another kid is watching TV, before they open the piano and start playing it and start having a fight over who’s going to get to have that space, head that off really fast. That requires paying really close attention and being pretty in tune with your own kids so that you sense what’s going on before it really breaks out. So that’s the biggest thing to do.
And then the other one is, sometimes when they get older is, to stay out of it. Not with little kids but with much older kids, is to let them use the skills they’ve developed and figure out how to work it out. You know, while you’re paying attention and making sure they are okay. As they got older, I stayed too involved and I think they would have been better off if I let them work things out a little bit more.
Some people stay out of it too much and they just have this attitude of, ‘Let the kids work it out,’ and they need the advice to get involved a little more and a little earlier. Other people are too involved. For me, it was a changing process over all those years. My three daughters are still extremely close. They are definitely each other’s best friends. They hang around together almost every single day. They talk to each other constantly. And they still fight.
PAM L: Yep!
PAM S: Now, at this point, I need to stay out of it entirely because they are all grown-ups and I don’t need to be around at all. But it’s still kind of hard for me, I still want to get in there and solve the problems for them, but I think when you have that intensity of relationships and you are together that much that some level of conflict is really inevitable.
When they were going through different stages where one kid would be harder to get along with, or two kids just were having trouble with each other, my solution to that is to give them more space. Not to try to force it, but to give them more space from each other. Have one visiting friends much more often. Let them do overnighters somewhere else and give the kid who is having problems with them a little more opportunity to get over it and relax. Also, having friends over helps to change the dynamics. A lot of times they would get caught up in some kind of conflict but then they would kind of make up but that same conflict would just keep rearing it’s head. Having friends come over and change all the dynamics of how everybody’s interacting would sometimes break that cycle, and then they’d be better off.
Another thing is to take one of the kids with you and go somewhere. You know, separate them in a happy way. Not separate them because, “you guys can’t get along so you have to be separated.” For example, take one of the kids and, we couldn’t do this in those days, but these days you can say, “Let’s go to the grocery store and stop at Starbucks” or something and make it a fun trip. In those days it was: stop and get an ice-cream cone or something like that, so that the kids could have breathing space from each other.
Having more spaces in your house helps a lot, I think, because if they have their own space that they can retreat to, that really just is theirs, and that the other kids can’t go in and interrupt them. I think that can really, really help. I have two pretty outgoing, extraverted kids and one very introverted and for her to have her own space was really critical in everybody getting along because she needed downtime way more than the other two did, so she needed to be able to get in there and relax and just be on her own, sometimes for hours.
PAM L: I found that to be a really important thing here as well. I think we’ve got two out of three that are really quite introverted. Just to be able to realise for themselves, that ‘this is kind of enough’ and have a place that they can go to re-coup themselves.
The other thing I wanted to point out, because I thought what you were sharing was great: I found the same thing when you don’t know how much support they might need and it’s different for each child too. Sometimes they want lots of your support; sometimes they’d prefer you’d to back off. For me, what helped the most was just looking to them to see what their reactions were. Like you said, some people maybe needing one kind of advice and somebody else, the opposite. It boils down to, looking at your own child and yourself and figuring out what is working in the moment and paying attention, because that changes over time too, doesn’t it?
PAM S: Yes, it changes a lot.
Also, don’t keep doing something that’s not working. Don’t think that you’re not doing enough and do more of the same thing. Try something completely different. Try the opposite and see if that helps a little bit. If that helps a little bit then do more of that. For example, there was a time period where I just aggravated all their conflicts. They would tell me that. They would say, “Mum, stay out of it.” So, two things there: yes, take their word for it; if it’s not working, stop doing it and figure out some other alternative.
Also, the other one is to not think too much in terms of black and white. It’s not one thing or the other. It’s: try a little bit and see how it works. Then try something else. Small changes are ok. Just make a little change to how your reactions are. Just make a little change to anything and watch them and see how that works. See if that leads to anything slightly better.
The other thing is, don’t get upset. The thing that I did the worst at was that it upset me when they were having conflict with each other. I was upset by it instead of just being accepting and it’s a matter of fact that when you have three kids growing up together that they are going to have conflicts. I wasn’t that accepting of it. I had some kind of an ideal in my head that they would all get along all the time. So my own emotions got connected to that, you know, got attached to the idea. That’s just not realistic, so if parents can just stay calm and confident. The kids might be screaming horrible things at each other because they are kids, or teens or whatever, and they can say really awful things sometimes. They don’t have the same meaning to them that they do necessarily to us. If a kid turns around and screams at another kid, ‘I wish you were dead!’ It totally freaks out the parents to hear that kind of thing, but it’s not the same for them. It’s just an expression.
[Child thinking:] ’I had these extreme, strong emotions that I don’t know what to do with and I’m so angry. I’m trying to say the worst possible thing I can think of to say.’ If the parents can hear that kind of thing without getting their own emotions caught up then they can help them a lot more. They can help them with problems. If you immediately react to that, and start going, “Don’t say that kind of thing. It’s so awful!” If you get your own emotions involved then you are part of the problem too. Get it in some kind of perspective, remember they are kids.
PAM L: Yes, I remember. Let’s move onto question number four.
I understand from knowing you online that your husband was a bit wary of unschooling for the first few years, as was mine, so I was wondering if you would share a little bit about how you approached that?
PAM S: Yes. In California we have these hybrid school programs. At the very beginning of the year, when I didn’t send them back to school in the fall, he wasn’t happy with the idea, so I signed up for one of these programs. We went to a meeting and there were about 30 credentialed teachers standing in the front of the room because it was a huge program. We sat in this meeting. The teachers introduced themselves and they each talked for a few minutes. Like I said, in those days, it was all about John Holt and ‘freedom’ and ‘education.’ Even though these were credentialed, public-school-hired teachers, a lot of them talked the same way I did. That was incredibly reassuring to him. There were three of them there who had written a book about different ways of learning and they didn’t call it unschooling because I don’t really think almost anybody did then. Unschooling and homeschooling were just kind of the same word. But they called it ‘interest-driven learning’ and they had written a book about it. They talked about the benefits of supporting your kids interests and it all sounded really good. That got me over that initial hump of: ‘You’re not using curriculum. They’re not doing lessons. They’re not given grades.’ Because he did hear that. So that was really helpful.
I don’t know that everyone in the world is going to be able to find a bunch of teachers to stand in front of their husband (laughing) but one of the things you could find would be to find people at conferences. I think that might be a similar kind of experience. I think my experience of speaking at conference, and I spoken at maybe 30 or 35 conferences, is that the dad’s get the most out of it. You know, the slightly sceptical ones, because they come later and talk to me and they say, “That was really helpful. I really understand now what’s going on. You are right. I agree with you now. That’s 100 per cent on.”
I know that being at conferences and seeing that you’re not alone and it’s not just your crazy wife. I know what my husband thought: it was another one of my big hobbies that I was going to take up and then a few years later, drop. He didn’t want to do that to the kids. He thought they needed the consistency of staying in school because he thought I would lose interest in a year or two. And you know, he could have been right, I don’t know. I couldn’t really argue with that. All I could say is, “It just seems the right thing to do now. School is not working well and this is the only thing that seems sensible.”
He hadn’t done any of the reading I had done. I had done so much. Even back when I was in college I had read John Holt and Summerhill and things like that. I had already completely developed my idea of what ideal education and learning would be. I just didn’t think you could just do it on your own and not send them to school. He didn’t either. He was concerned about legalities because my husband is from Iran. He already has to deal with issues here in the United States that the legal system is very different and he had to worry about that. But he gained confidence from being in a room full or parents and kids, who were all homeschooling, and then all these teachers who were all talking about how great ‘free-learning’ is, being out the classroom and everything.
He went to some unschooling conferences along the way and I think those conferences made ALL the difference for him. We had some unschooling conferences in San Diego which is not too far from me and he came down to the San Diego conferences and met a lot of other unschooling families and heard some talks. He didn’t have a conversion. He was still sort of sceptical along the way. He would sometimes make comments like, ‘Don’t they need to learn this? Shouldn’t they learn this? Shouldn’t they be studying a little bit?’ Especially as they started to get older, into their young teens.
On the other hand, he coaches soccer. He was always coaching kids that were our kids’ ages. He was, let’s say, very unimpressed with the behaviours particularly, of the kids, and their attitudes. Our kids stood up really well in comparison. One of the things I kept telling him was the particular information and the skills and things that they would be taught in school, those are a lot less important than their personality and their character and their behaviour. Those are the things that they’re doing really well in.
Once I remember he was concerned because he’d heard my youngest daughter and her friend walking out from soccer practice and the other girl had been asking her things like, “Do you know where Belgium is?”
You know, factual kind of stuff. He didn’t think our daughter knew very much.
He was concerned and he said, “Don’t you think they need to study geography or something?”
Then I would just point out, “You know, they know a lot. They have been playing Where in the World is Carmen SanDeigo since they were little. They know a lot. She knows way more than that other girl. That girl just knew where Belgium was. That’s it. That’s why she asked her that. She knew where that was. But, you know, Rosy could have turned around and asked her, ‘Where’s Turkey? Or where’s Germany? She probably didn’t know anything else.”
So I think, interaction with other kids helped him a little bit, but overall the only thing that really helped was getting him to look at our own kids and look at what great people they were: that they were good-hearted, generous, kind kids. Even that was difficult because he didn’t really have a good concept of what was developmentally appropriate for kids. So he didn’t even have that information to know that this was normal behaviour or even better than normal behaviour. He didn’t know that much so there was a waiting game, I guess, where we just kind of waited and he enjoyed life with them.
Many times, I said, “I think you have to trust me. You either have to go and do all the research or you are going to have to trust me on this.” He would just be, ‘Okay.’
It helped that he wasn’t at all impressed with our school system here in the United States. The school system that he had grown up in, he went all the way to college. He graduated from college in Iran. It was harsh and demeaning and just awful and horrifying to me, but to him our schools were lax and didn’t ask enough of the kids and didn’t expect enough homework. They went to school six days a week and went many more hours and had very harsh, punitive punishments for not doing homework and not being prepared. Physical punishments. So when he looked at our schools he thought our schools were goofy and silly anyway. He didn’t think I was going to do much worse than the schools because he thought the schools were so bad. But then I think at the beginning he thought we were going to switch over to the opposite: you know, out-school the schools. Make them study all day everyday. I think he was shocked and appalled that, “You’re just going to the beach again? What did you guys do today?”
I think he was bewildered for a while and then he just started seeing the results. He was patient enough and enjoys life enough and was positive and he started to see it. He started to see the negative results in other kids that he knew and started to see the good results in ours and then started to gain faith. Some years I’d say like, eight, nine or ten years after we had been unschooling, I overheard him talking on the phone talking to a friend defending unschooling and telling him all about it. “Well we do this funny thing. We don’t really homeschool. We do this thing called unschooling. The kids just learn and it’s kind of amazing.”
Even though he was still showing some scepticism and making some comments here and there, I think he was pretty well convinced by the kids being there in front of him and seeing what they were doing.
Because I teach at a college, my kids were able to utilise the college. They know about college a lot. Even when they were young they would sit in the back of the room and colour while I lectured. They were very comfortable and familiar with college. One day, Roya was 13 or so, and she was walking around the college. She saw the ceramics studio. She was like, “Can I do that? I want to go make pottery.”
We had that ability. She signed up and took a ceramics class at 13 or 14. That helped my husband: to know that they were connected to the college environment; that they were doing these college classes. I mean, they weren’t going in and taking a college curriculum. They were taking what they were interested in. They used it like it was a recreation department class. That was reassuring that they could walk in there, hold their own and interact with the teacher and other students and be ok. So that helped a little bit. It was just a ‘play-it-by-ear-as-you-go-along-through-the-years’ kind of thing for us.
PAM L: Yep, that sounds pretty similar here too. I mean, we didn’t have the line-up of teachers to take him to. Nor did we have the open colleges close by, but it was still the same thing. Seeing the kind of people that they were becoming: the character and personalities and how well they understood themselves. How that longer picture was more important than the individual facts, that they know where Belgium is, or whatever.
PAM S: And I will say, I wasn’t above bad-mouthing schools quite a bit because he didn’t know how things happened in schools.
PAM L: Yeah, that adds to yours.
PAM S: I wasn’t above that. I would talk about why I hated the whole the idea of what they were doing in schools. Right at that time, schools were making the big shift here over to the extreme accountability movement. So they were boring and the kids were doing nothing but preparing for testing all the time. There were no kids, like on the soccer teams, there were no kids where you could ask, “Do you like school?” and they would say, “Yes.”
Back when my kids were in school, it was a different era of educational philosophy being implemented, but that changed right then. When my kids were in school, they would probably say they liked school, they would say it was pretty fun, but not after that. After that, schools became just awful for kids, they were much, much worse. It was all seatwork. My kids were in classrooms that didn’t have desks or anything like that. They had all kinds of different places to sit and hang out. They could go outdoors, they could be indoors. There was all kinds of stuff but that just changed and the schools just got awful. So they would sit at a post-season soccer party and my husband would sit there and talk to the kids on the soccer team. They would just talk and talk and talk about how awful school was. They hated everything about it so that helped that he had contact with these kids who were in school. They didn’t come across well. They didn’t love to learn. My kids talked about things they loved. These kids talked about things they hated.
PAM L: That’s so interesting. We better move on to question five. [laughter]
One of the topics that regularly trips up newcomers to unschooling as I’ve seen over the years is TV watching. When they hear that experienced unschoolers don’t restrict TV time they are often taken-aback of what they call our ‘screen-time.’ One: because it goes against all of the conventional wisdom that we hear out there. Two: because of the behaviour they see in their own children. They explain, that they have restrictions because without them, their kids would do nothing but watch TV all day. I have always loved your clear explanation of how restricting TV actually causes children to become more strongly attracted to it. The opposite of what the parent is trying to accomplish. So I was hoping you would be able to take us through that.
PAM S: I will, I’ll do that. Let me tell you something first though. My daughters had a friend whose family restricted TV a lot and were very negative about it. They had a little tiny TV and it was in the parents’ bedroom so the only time the kids could watch TV was when the parents would allow it. It was very little and they were very negative towards it. They only had one at all because the dad watched it. The mum was really not nice about how the dad watched it. She would complain about it in front of the kids, ‘He’s back in the bedroom watching TV again.’ You know, stuff like that. That was the atmosphere there. Our kids went back and forth between houses a lot and one night one of their kids was spending the night at our house and they had turned the TV on to watch something and then my daughter had fallen asleep. She often falls asleep, still at almost 25, watching TV. It’s very, very, very common for her to do that. I would say almost daily.
So they had laid down all their sleeping bags on the floor and they had the TV on and they were watching something. She had already fallen asleep and the other girl was still awake but I went to bed. I got up in the morning and the other girl still sitting up watching the TV and she had both her hands up to her face: she was holding her own eyelids open.
PAM L: Oh my goodness!
PAM S: I looked at her and said, “What are you doing?” She just looked at me in a daze and she said, “I’m watching TV.” They were about, I would say, seven or eight years old at that time. They were little.
PAM L: Wow!
PAM S: So, I had that early, extreme notice given to me, like: ‘This is what would happen if you didn’t ever let them watch TV.’ So that got me really thinking about it. We had not restricted TV in our house because my husband grew up without TV because he grew up without electricity. He never saw coloured television until he came to this country at the age of 23. He LOVED television. He didn’t have any of the anti-TV stuff. To him, growing up, TV was still like it probably was in the 40’s and 50’s in North America: he was still delighted by it. He’d been watching American TV shows back home in grainy, black and white and came here and got to see them in good quality colour and loved it! So there was no anti-TV-ness in this house except from me.
There was a long time where I didn’t want a big, giant TV in the house. When the kids were really little: I’m talking about when my oldest daughter was one or two. I thought we would not have TV because it’s not good for children and they shouldn’t watch TV until they know how to read and all that stuff. And it caused nothing but conflict between my husband and myself. Every year he would get a Christmas bonus or whatever they call it, holiday bonus, and he would say, “I’m going to use it to buy a bigger TV.”
And I’d say, “We don’t need that big TV. If you’re going to have that we’ve got to get something to cover it up with because I don’t want that big monster thing sitting in our living room.”
After a few years of this, I had a …and this had nothing to do with the children, it had only to do with my husband…but I had a major turn-around where I thought, “What are you doing? He loves this. Why are you being so nasty about it Pam?”
I remember the moment. I was driving up to our own house and my husband was in the house watching sports on TV and I drove up and I had this moment as I walked in. I looked and I saw him and he was so happy. He was enjoying it so much. I thought, “Why shouldn’t he spend the money on a big TV that he can really enjoy?”
I walked in the house and said that immediately. I said, “You know what? We should get a really, big TV. You like this. You really like this.”
So I had that experience too. I don’t even know if I’d had my youngest daughter. By the time I had kids I was over the anti-TV-thing myself.
I thought about it. As an economist we have this concept called diminishing marginal utility. It means that each additional amount of something that you have has a little bit less value for the extra bit. So for example, if you have an ice-cream cone with one scoop on it, that first scoop is absolutely the most delicious thing in the world. When you have a second scoop on it, the second scoop adds to your total satisfaction but the second scoop isn’t as miraculously, fabulously wonderful as the first scoop was. If you get a third scoop, the third scoop isn’t nearly as good as the second scoop. You get it because you want more but it’s not as fabulous.
So if you have already had three scoops of ice-cream and someone offers you a fourth, you can take it or leave it. At some point, people’s extra utility, or extra benefit, of having one more of something, gets smaller and smaller as you have more and more of that thing within a certain time period. That applies to everything, including television, so if a kid is only allowed to watch an hour a day, another hour is worth a lot. If they are allowed to watch two hours a day, the third hour is worth less than the second hour. If they are allowed to watch however many hours they want, they will watch until the marginal utility of another hour of TV isn’t as high as the marginal utility of something else that they might want to do.
If you restrict it, then the marginal utility of one more hour of TV is pretty much always higher than the marginal utility of anything else that they might do. So by restricting it you create a situation where the level of attachment to having one more hour is extremely high.
Parents will often say, “They just don’t want to do anything else.”
I’m going to say, “They don’t want to do anything else right now. They won’t want to do anything else unless they can have another hour of TV.”
Sometimes with parents who have restrictions, even one more hour can make a big difference in what their kids decide to do. You know, one more hour can be enough to satisfy them if they’ve been restricted to one hour a day, or TV on weekends only or something like that. Allowing even a little relaxation of the restrictions can mean that the marginal utility goes down. Suddenly all these other things around them in their life have higher marginal utility than that. It’s all relational. It’s all in relationship to each other, what you choose to do. ‘Does this thing have the highest marginal utility or that? I’m going to do the thing that has the highest marginal utility.’ So if you restrict it you create an artificially high level of marginal utility for television. If you don’t restrict it, it’ll go down.
PAM L: That makes sense.
PAM S: It’s just a fact. It’s how humans behave. It’s the same thing with food. It’s the same thing with any other thing. It’s the basis, a little bit, for the whole idea of reverse psychology. You know, give them a whole lot and then they won’t want so much.
It’s true; it’s a fact of human behaviour. Huge economic theories are based on this simple idea. It’s an observation of human behaviour, it’s not a made up thing.
PAM L: Well yes, because when you are going to make a choice you are going to evaluate the value, or the marginal utility, of each, and choose which one means more to you.
PAM S: I could just ask you, ‘What’s your favourite food? Do you have a favourite food?’
And you could tell me, ‘My favourite food is spaghetti. I love spaghetti.’
And then I would say, ‘Did you eat anything besides spaghetti this week?’
And you would say, ‘Yes.’
‘You ate something else besides spaghetti. Well, if your favourite food is spaghetti, why didn’t you only eat spaghetti the whole time?’
And your answer is probably going to be something like, “Well, yeah I like to have some variety too.’
My answer is, ‘Because after you eat spaghetti, two or three times in a row, the marginal utility of another meal of spaghetti is now lower than the marginal utility of something else.’
The reason that we like variety is because of the law of diminishing marginal utility.
Parents create this really, pretty-awful dynamic in their house where they are these police who restrict TV and other things by restricting it at a point where the marginal utility is still really, really, really high. My response to people is: if you are going to restrict it, give them significantly more and then you won’t have to battle. The battles will get smaller and smaller as the restrictions get less and less. If they can try that, then maybe they can come to a belief that no restrictions are ok too because the marginal utility will go down enough that their kids will choose to do other things. If they don’t, it’s because the marginal utility, the benefit, that they are getting out of that is so high that, that’s probably the best thing for them to be doing. If they are really getting that much out of it, then there’s something really beneficial to them, that they are really getting a lot of satisfaction out of it.
The alternatives aren’t very good. Maybe you need to spice up life around them a little bit so that the marginal utility of other things is a little higher. It’s a lazy way to raise children, to just say, “Turn it off.” It’s just being lazy. It’s being not creative enough to think about what else there is in their life. There’s always a reason. If that was true, that you had no restrictions, and they really did nothing else, which is what people say: they would only watch TV all day. If that was really true, then it means there is nothing else going on in their life that’s better than TV. And that’s just sad. That means that the rest of life needs to be spiced up.
Or, they really love TV. I have a TV loving daughter. All my kids watch TV, I watch TV. We all love it. Talk about it a lot. It’s fun. TV is really good now. TV wasn’t really as good back 20 years ago as it is these days. TV shows were not the kind of long-term story cycle, arc, kind of thing that they have now. TV as literature, if you want to call it that, is way higher quality now. When we were watching something like Laverne and Shirley, or some kind of slapstick comedy, I can see that parents might have thought that that was a bigger waste of time or something but it wasn’t. It was something that the kids were getting a lot out of and you just don’t know what they are getting out of it. You are not in their brains.
One of my daughters was the one who really loved television and really watched a lot. She watched the same things over and over and over and over again. She watched the Roseanne show’ a lot and she watched The Cosby Show a lot. For about a year she watched both of those shows daily for several hours and after about a year, one day we were driving in the car and she said, “You know, everybody thinks the Cosby’s are these really great parents: the Huxtables in the show, are these really great parents. They are really not. They are mean to the kids, they make fun of them, they will ridicule them to make a joke and they never change their minds and they are really restrictive. And if they [the kids] want to say something, it’s as if the parents are perfect and the kids are like little brats.
And on Roseanne, everybody thinks Roseanne and Dan are these weird, mean parents. Roseanne might yell and do something mean but then she will go up and sit on the edge of the bed and say, ‘Ok, I thought about it…’ They are really thoughtful and they really try to help their kids as much as they can.”
So all this time she had been watching these shows and she had been doing ‘parenting’ in her head. It had been all about the family relationships. She had been doing a compare and contrast exercise in her head for the previous year. This is an abiding interest in her. She was probably ten when this was going on and she is almost 25 now. She still spends a lot of her time thinking about relationships and parenting, children and development, how people treat each other and things like that. So you just don’t know what it is they are getting out of it. To say that they are sitting there staring at a screen, … nothing drives me crazier when parents say, ‘They are just staring at the screen,’ or ‘staring at a screen like a zombie’ because their brain is actively working and learning and thinking. Just because they are not expressing it to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
We got so much out of television and still do. We still love it. It has been a source of great enjoyment and fun and learning, all kinds of things. All kinds of TV. The thing about no restrictions, one last thing, is that parents assume that if you have no restrictions that their kid will watch they way they watch intensely like when they have restrictions. As long as you have the restrictions, they will probably use every minute of the allowable time. Then after you relieve them of those limits they will probably watch every minute of their life for a while but after a while, when they really are confidant that they can just turn it off and turn it on whenever they want, then they will start making those kinds of choices. I get that it can be a little freaky for parents to just think of no limits at all because they have the experience of kids begging and arguing and cheating. We have another family that were unschoolers that had TV and computer limits. The parents’ bedroom was upstairs at the other end of the house and during the night the kids would sneak downstairs and use the computer and watch television while the parents were sleeping and didn’t know. So again, you don’t want to set up a situation where kids are sneaking around behind your back, that’s another problem. Or they are watching at a friend’s house and they know they are not supposed to so now they feel guilty. Or they just feel guilty that they even like it, because you so obviously think it’s this horrible thing and yet they love it and so how are they going to grow up thinking that this thing that is so enjoyable to them and so appealing is something so awful? How are they going to trust their own sense of what’s good and what’s not?
PAM L: It has such a big impact doesn’t it? Just all over the place, it just really digs into their psyche.
PAM S: Some people ask, “What if we just don’t have one in the house? My husband and I don’t want one, so what if we don’t have a TV in the house?”
My answer to that is, “What if you said: ‘What if we just don’t have books in our house? What if we just don’t have books?” That seems so goofy, now, looking back that you would just not have this fabulous technology that is so enjoyable and so rich with learning opportunities to just ‘not have it’ seems really odd. Like a strange, goofy decision. It seems as silly to me now as saying, ‘We are just not going to have any books in our house. No books in our house!’ or ‘No music! No music allowed in our house.’ Or ‘No art!’ It seems as silly as that.
It obviously comes out of a fear. I think it’s a good thing to work on getting over that. It’s a silly fear. It’s a fear based on believing a bunch of so-called experts who measured children’s or people’s brain waves 30 years ago and neglected to mention that the changes in your brain that happen when you watch TV are the same ones that often happen when you meditate. So here are these people who are meditating every day but refusing to have a TV in their house.
There are a lot of studies about video games, computers, TV use and all that. I always like studies. I’m a statistician. I think they are interesting but they are not very good. That kind of research is not very well done, in general. So just to buy into it without even understanding the research that was done, to quote studies or to link to papers about research that you haven’t really looking into and understood is not really very good because if you look at your own kids and your unschooling friends and look at those kids, they are so obviously far from being damaged from television and video games. They are being enhanced. Their lives are better and their learning is great. Look at the evidence that’s in front of us and don’t rely on studies that you don’t even really know how they were done, and who they were done on, and what they really measured, you know, what the circumstances of the study were. In general, when I go and look at this kind of research, I’m not very impressed at all. It’s not very good research.
PAM L: Yeah, I know. I guess it takes time to get there but they have a hard time trusting themselves. They’re still giving over to experts without actually looking at it in enough detail to understand because they don’t trust themselves and what they are seeing in front of them.
PAM S: I understand that because when you have a child you are filled with fear that something bad will happen or that you will damage them or that you won’t do the right thing. To not allow it…you know, I get that; it seems like the safer route. People will just say, kind of exasperatedly, ‘They don’t need to be watching that much.’ Well that’s true. They don’t need it. They don’t need it the way they need water everyday. They don’t need it. So I get it, that it seems safer to just restrict it or not have it because people are overwhelmed with the information and don’t know how to make a decision. The only answer to that is to use your own logic and look at your own kids and base it on your own experience. Get to know other unschooled kids so that you can see what their experiences have been. I just dare anybody to look at my kids and say they were damaged by watching TV. They’ve gone to college, they’ve got multiple degrees, they’ve got careers, and they’re fine. They watched, and still watch, a tonne of television. We love it.
I don’t quite get why people think it’s different than going to the theatre. I have a daughter with a bachelors degree and a masters degree in drama. We are very involved in the theatre world. There are things on television that are better than anything you could see in a theatre. There are things in theatre that are better than anything you could see on television. They are both really fabulous. Nobody thinks there is anything wrong with taking your kid to the opera. Now you’re doing the right thing!
Take your kids to the ballet. Take your kids to see a musical or a play. You are highly respected for doing that.
PAM L: Whether or not your kid wants to go.
PAM S: I have a daughter who really loves opera. We had season tickets to the opera. That sounds really impressive to people. ‘Whoa, your daughter must be really amazing. She must be brilliant. She loves opera.’ Then you say, ‘Well, she loves to watch some TV show’ and nobody is impressed at all. You know. But those TV shows are fabulously good quality, wonderful writing, or just like any theatre, play, opera or ballet, they might not be fabulously good. But there are things about them that we are enjoying and that we are getting out of them. There is not that much of distinction between these forms of entertainment, learning. The same people that would think going the theatre is fabulous learning and criticise television, they are just not really connecting the concepts. They are not really putting that together very well in their own heads, so the only answer to that is think more open mindedly about it. If you hear yourself repeating platitudes that you’ve heard or read in some book then try to break out of that. Try to think for yourself and look at your own kids. Look at what’s fun. Fun and happiness are the best guide to whether good learning is happening.
PAM L: I love that. Looking to their joy, because that’s how they get engaged. That’s how they stay engaged is because they are enjoying themselves and having fun.
We should move on to question number six and we are going to shift a little bit.
As an economics and statistics professor, I’m sure you’re very comfortable with math. I went to university and practiced as an engineer and systems developer so I’m very comfortable with math as well. But it’s an area that can be challenging for some people to figure out as they explore unschooling especially since school and they way they have probably grown up with math and the way they see math is mostly boiled down to worksheets. So we are just going to touch on this. I have two questions for you. The first one is if you can talk about how you see learning math through unschooling, and then if you can suggest some activities for parents who are more on the math-phobic side that they might enjoy with their children.
PAM S: Yeah
PAM L: Yeah…just quick. [laughter]
PAM S: Let’s start off by saying, I bet that you have a little math anxiety too. I don’t think almost anybody, even those of us who did well in math and went into careers that involved a lot of math, we didn’t escape it entirely. If we were in a group of people and I listed a bunch of numbers really fast and said, “Pam, did you add those up?” You might have moment of feeling flustered, like “Oh, really. She expected me to do that in my head in front of people?”
PAM L: Ok, I have a very quick math anxiety story, which is from grade five maybe. They were trying to get us to memorise the timetables. We were doing the three times table and the teacher had put a circle up and the numbers one to 15 or something in random order in this circle and he would test everybody. Each morning you had to say the answers for the three times table as fast as you could. So those of us who could go really fast, one day he had us do it backwards and most of us froze. (Laughter) “What?! No, no, this is the order that I know them in!”
PAM S: I have a very similar experience to do with times tables. Part of this is because I was expected at that point already because I was good at this kind of thing, so they put me on the spot. I had the same fear of making a mistake and being shamed as anybody else has. I had the same kinds of anxieties and can still have them. I teach economics and have to do math in front of 30 or 40 or 50 students because they’ll ask questions and I’m standing up at the board with my marker in my hand. I have to stand there and really quickly multiply point nine (0.9) times 118, in front of people. I have been doing this for thirty-something years and I still stand there and have a moment, like, “(sigh) God, what if I get this wrong? This is so embarrassing.”
So I’ve learned to get over that by joking about it and helping my students feel less anxious about it by myself being open about feeling anxious about it. So I turn around say, “Wow! All these eyes on my and I’m trying to do arithmetic in front of you. This isn’t hard or anything.”
You know, I try to make a joke out of it and make them feel more comfortable and realise that I feel uncomfortable about it too. We all have that. We haven’t been able to escape it. That’s just in everybody. It’s a level of phobia that people have that can be really extreme or it can be just these little moments we have. Most people, I can’t speak for everywhere else, but the United States for sure, most people have math anxiety. I would say everyone has some level of math anxiety. A very large majority of people have enough math anxiety that it’s really limiting them in some way in their lives. Seventy-something per cent of college students say they chose their major based on not having to do math.
PAM L: Wow!
PAM S: When I ask my college students about that, they all say that. Many of my college students want to be business majors or engineers and they say they’re changing. I’m teaching freshman. They say when they got there and realised how much math they needed, they are going to change their major because they didn’t realise how much more math they were going to have to take to do the majors that they had thought they were going to do when they entered college.
Math anxiety and math phobia are epidemic, so the first thing I would say to unschooling parents about math is that you probably can’t do worse than the schools. This is the one thing that the schools are so bad at, so terrible, that not doing anything at all is way better, because what they are creating is a real problem. By doing nothing, and by doing nothing I mean just by ignoring the subject; pretending it doesn’t exist, not thinking of it as a subject. By doing nothing, you will still have a lot of math happening in your lives.
The kids are going to learn all that stuff. They’re going to learn how to tell time, they’re going to learn to measure and add and subtract. Probably at some point they will learn multiplying because it’s a short cut for addition and it makes sense to do it that way. In fact, you might be lucky enough to get the experience of a kid discovering it for themselves and it’s so fun when they get it. And they’ll come in and they’ll say, “You know, four times eight, is…” you know…whatever it is… ahhh anxiety! I have to say it out loud. They’ll come in and say, you know, what something is, and they’ll say, “That’s just the same as eight plus eight plus eight plus eight.” They’ll just come in and tell you about it as if it’s this thing they just learned that’s brand new and that nobody ever heard it before. That’s the best thing in the world, if they figure that out, if they come up with that themselves. That’s when they really know it, they really learned it.
Memorising multiplication tables is a convenient thing for some people sometimes. It depends on what you end up doing with your life. Sometimes it’s convenient. For me, economics involves a lot of math, I do statistics. It’s convenient for me not to have to pull out my phone and multiply on the calculator… to know them. It’s nothing more than a convenience. There are a lot of things that are convenient in the world. Having anxiety and basing a whole life of torturing children with math homework and things like that, to make sure that they’ve learned this thing that’s kind of convenient sometimes for some people seems really ridiculous.
If they’re going to use it a lot they’ll pick it up. As an unschooling parent if your kid figures it out for themselves and comes and tells you about it, that’s a really cool moment and it’s really fun. It happened to me once with multiplying with my older daughter, and once with division with my middle daughter where she suddenly figured out that division was just repeated subtraction. And she figured it out in a really practical way, for a reason. She had something that she was figuring out. She needed to subtract something over and over and over again. She figured out that that was what division was.
The important thing is that they get the feeling for things; that they get the concepts; that they understand the reasons why they are doing things. The notation and the little techniques can all come later and be added on. But teaching math as worksheets and algorithms and just a ‘how to do it’ from the beginning, it’s ridiculous. It’s like trying to teach kids how to read that don’t know how to talk yet, or don’t know how to hear, or don’t even know what language is. It’s not even sensible to try to do that. Kids can parrot back things, beautifully, so they can tell you that two times three is six, and three times three is nine, and four times three is 12. They can repeat all those and you can be really proud that your kids can memorise really well like that. It doesn’t mean anything.
I was in high school when I realised that multiplication was just a form of addition. And that addition was a form of counting. I never realised that division was repeated subtraction. I didn’t know that. I didn’t even put that together. I knew it was the opposite of multiplying but I didn’t even really know what that meant.
So you can be really, really good at doing math worksheets and taking tests and not really have a good grasp of what’s going and with what you’re doing at all. I was like that. I got perfect grades in math all the way through and excelled but I didn’t have a good idea of what was going on, what I was doing and where I would use it. It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask, “Why do we need to know this?” If you don’t have a good answer for that…if your only answer for that is to be prepared for the next level of math, to get ready for next year, that’s a terrible answer.
So, what should parents be doing instead?
Lots of fun things. Almost every single thing that you do in life involves math. Every time when you do anything, whether you are doing somersaults on the floor or you’re cooking or you’re walking in the park or surfing or flying a kite. Everyday life involves a lot of higher order mathematics and we don’t have to call it that. If parents want the kids to be a little more aware of it, all they have to do is think out loud a little bit more. That’s easy. So when you walk up to the registers, just think out loud and say, ‘Huh, I wonder which line we should get into?’ And have a little conversation, “I don’t know. Well that one’s moving faster but that person has a lot of stuff in their cart.” This is actual math. This isn’t a joke; I’m not making this up.
This is the kind of thing that then they can think back on if later on they go into formal math and they are solving simultaneous equations, they will be comfortable with this kind of thinking. So it’s algebraic thinking that’s probably the most important thing for them to experience. When they are younger they need to experience things that involve measurement, comparisons, seeing symmetry. Measurement of all kinds, like linear measurement like with rulers and yardsticks or whatever you use. Volume, you know, playing in the bathtub with things that hold water. If they can get as much of that kind of experience as possible and not waste their time sitting doing worksheets they will be way better off when they do try to put formal notation and do actual math algorithms. It’ll all fall into place. I will just be putting notation to things that they already fully understand. That’s all getting concepts down and it’s all done through experience and conversation.
PAM L: That’s cool!
PAM S: If you can’t stand to just not do anything, the other thing would be to play games: card games, board games, video games, circle games, playing outdoors. Any kind of games. Those all involve math. Get over the idea that math just involves numbers. Numbers are great, you know, I love numbers, I’m a statistician. Get over the idea that that’s what math is. The numbers are notation. That’s like saying the letters are language. Letters are not language. Letters are things that we use to express language; they are part of the tool kit. That’s what numbers are. Numbers are like letters. They are not the math. They are the tools that we use to express the mathematical ideas, problems and concepts.
The one last thing I would say to moms is that, “Please don’t act like you are an idiot when it comes to math”. This is the one and probably only time that I say, put on an act for your kids and act like you love it because it’s very bad for you to be saying, ‘I’m just terrible at math. Ask your dad when he gets home.’ Because the amount of people that still believe that women and girls are not good at math, that they don’t have math brains, that’s still really high. That myth is still believed by so many people, so try not to pass that on to your kids, boys or girls. It’s not true. There is no difference in male or female brains that makes males better at math. In fact you could make the argument that males are better at math and you could make the argument that males are worse at math. There is a bigger variability. So when they do standardised testing of various times, of elementary and high school kids, boys get the lowest scores and boys get the highest scores. Girls have less variation. There’s no reason for that. It’s entirely environmental. It’s how they were raised.
So I would say that for unschooling moms, that one of the things you can do to help your kids, is to stop acting like there’s something wrong with you, that you just can’t do it, because you could if you wanted to. Parents who have a lot of math anxiety, they should try to get over it. They owe it to their kids to work on that. One way to work on it is to go back to the beginning and learn some more math so that you don’t feel like you don’t have the confidence to answer questions. But if you don’t have that interest and you really don’t want to do that, and it’s uncomfortable and miserable and the whole idea makes you break out in a sweat, then at least don’t pass on to your kids the idea that you can’t do it is because you’re female.
PAM L: That’s a great point. Ok let’s move on to question number eight.
You’ve been actively involved with the Homeschool Association of California’s annual conference for many years. I had the pleasure of speaking there a couple of years ago. What are some of the benefits of going to a conference that you’ve seen for newer unschooling families?
PAM L: You mentioned, when we were talking about dads, how helpful that can be to see other families having made that choice and to talk to some of the older kids. So maybe you just want to quickly touch on if there are any other benefits that you’ve experienced… and congratulations on getting Jane McGonigal to speak this year.
PAM S: That was wonderful. Jane McGonigal is the author of Reality is Broken. It is a fabulous book about the benefits and future of video games. She is a video game developer. She’s just a fantastic speaker and I think it’s going to be really exciting.
Some of the other benefits: one of them is that conferences are just really fun for most of us. They’re just a really good time because for most of us there aren’t times when can be surrounded by other parents and kids who treat each other with such love and respect. Where you don’t constantly hear parents berating their children for one missed-step after another. So that’s a pretty wonderful environment to spend a little time in and it can really give you a big boost for maintaining that environment in your own home. I think when my kids were younger, I would come home from a conference just feeling so refreshed and re-dedicated to the idea that I wanted a family life where we treated each other that way: with so much respect for everybody. Not that kind of respect where, “I demand respect” but actual respect.
I once used that word in front of a young man and he said, “I hate that word. Please don’t ever use that word again.”
And I was like, “What?”
And he said, “That’s what my dad says when he’s about to hit me.”
PAM L: Ohhhh.
PAM S: So, that’s not what I meant.
So that’s one thing. It’s just really an invigorating environment.
I think there’s a lot to be said for just knowing that there are a lot of other people who care about this kind of thing and are doing the same things so that you don’t feel so isolated and maybe start to question whether you are crazy. Because we all have bad times. We all have times where we think things aren’t going well and we question whether we have done the right thing. It can be really helping and boosting your confidence to part of a big group doing that.
And I always got new ideas. My kids are grown and I’m not really an unschooling parent at the moment but I still learn new things about unschooling at every conference: a new way to look at it and a new insight. So the amount of new learning that I did as an unschooling mom was just tremendous at every conference. Spine-tingling, wonderful, exciting learning for myself.
Sometimes there’s just the mere fact of getting to see a panel with some grown unschoolers and to see how articulate they are and how much positive energy they have and how enthusiastic they are and to hear that they have chosen to go into so many different fields. People these days are so lucky to have so many grown unschoolers who have done so many things and they can see the results that all these things are possible.
People sometimes worry that they are limiting their kids by not sending them to conventional schools and that they won’t be able to do what they want to do. When you see all these grown unschoolers and hear about all the things that they have chosen to do and you realise you are not limiting them, you are opening up the world to them.
There are very few things that not going to school is going to keep you from doing. One of them in the United States is professional football. You have to go to high school in order to go to college in order to play professional football because that’s the way the professional football leagues work. They don’t have their own ‘farm’ teams like other baseball has and other sports, so if you don’t go to high-school and you don’t get recruited for a good college then you don’t get into the American football pro’s. So there you go. If that’s the one thing that’s important, I guess that might be one. But there really aren’t any others that I know of that would require someone to have gone to school, that’s it. They’re not going to miss out on anything.
At conferences, that can be one of the big take-always: that there are SO many options that you are opening up to kids because they can do so much as they get older. They can travel. Not being restricted and having a lot of freedom to have made a lot of their own choices they are often so much more ready to do things.
One of my daughters went on a study-abroad program and she was in Paris for a few months. This was when she was college age, not high-school age. For many of the young college students in this program, it was their first time being away from home and they spent most of their time drinking. She was just like, “I’m in Paris. I’m not getting drunk. I’m going to spend all my time going to all the fabulous things that I can get to experience in Paris.”
When you’re at a conference you get to see all the options. You talk to lots of people and hear a lot of stories. It’s really exciting.
On the other hand, it’s not for everybody and it can be kind-of wild and kind-of intense. People are very excited to be there. It super, super fun and exciting for some people and sometimes overwhelming for some people who just want to go in their room and watch TV because they get tired really fast. Even if all you get to do is go to a few talks and just walk around and absorb the environment of a conference, I think it can be really confidence building. That’s the number one thing from a conference, is just the confidence you can gain.
Like, ‘all these are normal people. They’re just like me and they’re doing it and I can do it.’
PAM L: That’s a great point. And I really like the point that it may not be a great fit for you or maybe even for your kids as an environment but to go there without expectations on yourself that you have to become this person that loves all this and does all this. To understand yourself enough to, like you said, maybe take in a few talks, maybe walk around and be ok with how it works for you how it fits well for you.
Question number nine. And you have touched on this a little bit too. We’ve had some great conversations.
As you’ve mentioned, all of your three daughters, chose to go to college, maybe starting as a rec centre concept at age 13, taking a few classes, plus, as you said, you teach and see lots of school kids as well in your classes. Can you speak a little bit about the advantages that you’ve seen in going to college from unschooling?
PAM S: The advantages of going to college from unschooling are huge. School kids come to college burned out, absolutely just not interested in learning almost at all. Even the best of the students that come to college from high school are tired of it. They are just wanting to go through the motions, take the classes they have to take, get through it. They’re not in a class with an interest in learning very much. It’s more extreme than I can even express. They will do anything to just get the grade and get out of there. And I’m talking about good, mediocre and poor students: all of them have the same attitude that is just understood as being a normal attitude for a college student. There is almost no relish for learning. Nobody walks into a classroom on the first day like, “Oh, I’ve been wanting to learn more about economics. I’m so excited to be here.”
The best you can hope for is that they’re willing to learn and that they’re glad to learn, but they are not excited about it. They are not eager. It’s not the reason they are there.
I had one of my best students this semester: young man, very intelligent, he walked me out to the parking lot one night and he said, “I just want to apologise. I’m way smarter than I look in your class.”
And I said, “Ok.”
And he goes, “I just have so many other things going on in my life and all I’m doing in this class is the bare minimum to get through it. And that’s what I’m just doing in college. I know that’s what I’m doing and maybe that’s wrong but it’s not what I really want to do but I need the degree.”
And he just flat-out, openly admitted it. That’s the best you can hope for in a college student.
My kids and all of the other unschoolers I know who went to college were somewhat disillusioned about other humans because when they got there, they thought they were going to this institution of higher learning. What they found out was that the other students were not very interested in learning. Not only that, to some degree, [the other students] resented them for being so interested and thought they were odd. The teachers loved them for the most part. Most were crazy about them.
I have heard many stories of unschooled kids coming home to their parents and saying, “I don’t get it. It’s like they have some sort of brain damage. They just don’t want to learn. They are not interested. They just want to go though the motions and do what they have to do to get the grade.”
There is a huge distinction between these unschooled kids and kids who have gone to school. And I can tell. I have had a few in my class, who I didn’t know, because I live in a place where there are a lot of unschoolers and I don’t know them all, and I have had a few kids who have sat in my classroom and asked questions and had shining eyes who you could tell were really happy to get their questions answered and things like that.
I would chat with them later and I would ask, “So where did you go to school?”
And they would reply, “Oh. I didn’t go to school.” [Laughter]
And it was obvious. It was very obvious.
My kids made friends with a couple of people in college and of course, in college nobody asks you much about high school or going to school so a lot of times they would make friends with people and they wouldn’t even know that they hadn’t gone to school. It just doesn’t come up. My kids made friends with a couple of people, they kind-of just gravitated toward each other and made friends, and this happened several different times where it turns out later they got to talking and, “Wait, you were home-schooled? So was I. Wait. What?”
So they were even more attracted to these other kids who didn’t go to school because they were the other kids who seemed alive in a classroom and those were the ones they wanted to be hanging out with. So that happened.
My kids loved college for the most part. They thought of college as a place where there were people who were paid to help them. One of my daughters, Roya, came out of her first English class, I went to pick her up and she jumped in the car and was so excited and said, “I just can’t believe there is somebody who is paid to read what I write and critique it.” Because she liked to write. She was a writer. And, you know, ‘Mom’ wasn’t ever critical enough and she wanted that criticism.
So they really liked it for the most part. They thought there was a lot of really stupid red tape, rules and bureaucracy and teachers were awful sometimes. They saw all that. They saw silly stuff and they saw teachers who didn’t care and teachers who weren’t very nice. But overall the level of resources that were available in college and the people that were there for them to talk to and get help from was fabulous for them. They really, really liked it. And they used it to the maximum extent. They got involved in everything. They went to everything at the college. They’d go to everything going on at the college. They would keep up with it and they knew about it. Two of mine, oddly, joined sororities, which was unexpected, and got really, really involved and are still involved as alumni with their sororities. They really enjoyed that really got a lot out of it. Of course, I didn’t know, I didn’t know what sororities were like; I didn’t know that they were philanthropic organisations. That’s what my kids got really involved in: all of the philanthropy work with the sororities. They had a great time.
Overall I think college offered them lots and lots and lots of opportunities to do a lot of things all in a centralised place with people who are paid to help you do them. So that’s how they experienced it.
PAM L: Well, that’s a great way of looking of at it, too.
PAM S: I remember one time, Roya telling me that her fellow students in a program were asking her repeatedly, “How do you get such high grades? How do you always get such high grades?”
And she finally exasperatedly turned around and said, “Stop worrying about your grades all the time and just learn.”
PAM L: [Laughter] Surprise!
PAM S: Like, “I don’t think about my grades and I get high grades because I do all the work and I’m into it and I’m enthusiastic. I do more than what the teachers ask. I read. I watch things.”
PAM L: Yeah. I think that’s something that all through school they are trained just to focus on the curriculum and that’s where they’ll get their marks and the marks is what they need. It becomes about the marks and the grades, not about the topic and the learning. Very early on in their career.
PAM S: Unfortunately, very early. Pretty much at four or five years old at this point.
PAM L: Question number ten.
Looking back now, what for you, has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling with your family?
PAM S: The close relationships that we have. Absolutely. No other thing could come close to that. There is nothing that could come close to that. There is nothing more important than relationships. That’s it.
PAM L: That’s it. Yep.
PAM S: So we didn’t go through awful teen years where we battled. We don’t have that kind-of-thing were the kids are like, “Yeah, I like my family but I like them 3000 miles away.”
We just don’t have that kind-of relationships. Like I said, my kids they talk to each other constantly. I hear from them every day. I see them frequently. Our lives are still as completely fun and intertwined. The most fun we have is when we are all together. So that kind of relationship is the best part.
PAM L: That’s awesome. That’s a great place to end it too. I … I hesitated too because that’s exactly…If someone asks me what the biggest outcome… the relationships, those are the things that also last a lifetime. Those are the things that bring you the joy. That’s the whole point in the end.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today Pam.
PAM S: Thank you. Thank you.
PAM L: I really enjoyed diving into unschooling with you. I love hearing your perspective on things. I’ve loved reading your perspective on things for years so it’s been great to have you on here. I wanted to ask: Where is the best place for people to connect with you online in case they’d like to learn some more.
PAM S: Well, I have a little blog, that I don’t write on very much, but it’s got a little bit of cool stuff on it. It’s called LearningHappens.wordpress.com It’s got some stuff about unschooling math and basic principles of unschooling and it’s got a whole bunch of fun, super-easy games to play because I really like games where you can pull it out of your pocket, the moment when you are waiting at the doctors office and things like that. I have a whole lot of games that involve nothing but some coins or some pencil and paper, things like that, that I have on there that are really fun, so that might be cool. Then some other stuff that I’ve written here and there.
Then the radical unschooling families Facebook group and the unschooling mom 2 mom Facebook group are the two places that I am. I’m posting more on the unschooling mom 2 mom group, so that’s probably the number one place where they can find me. And it’s Mom 2 Mom, with the number 2.
PAM: With the number two, yeah, and no spaces. Are you speaking at some conferences?
PAM S: HSC Conference is in California, San Francisco, is at the end of July, beginning of August, every year. I’m always there, always speaking. I’ll be speaking in Phoenix at the Free to Be Conference this coming September, and in Chicago at the Unschoolers Platform in February.
PAM L: That takes nerve. [Laughter]
PAM S: I don’t know how that happened. [Laughter] I thought it was going to be in the spring and I’m pretty sure February doesn’t count as spring in Chicago. Anyway, I’ll be finding it buried the snow.
PAM L: That’s true.
PAM S: But we’ll be there. I think that’s it for right now. I don’t have any other plans.
PAM L: I’ll make sure that I include links to all that stuff in the show notes so if anyone is looking for that they’ll be able to find it. Thanks very much again for talking to me today Pam.
PAM S: Thank you.