PAM: Hi, everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Anna Brown. Hi, Anna!
PAM: It’s great to have you on the show. Anna is a long-time unschooling mom to two lovely daughters. I met her online years ago through the Shine with Unschooling email list and have really enjoyed connecting with her more deeply over the years. She gave a talk a couple of years ago at We Shine that I loved and I’m excited to dive into it today with her for the podcast.
But first, I was wondering if you could share a short introduction to you and your family and how you guys came to unschooling?
ANNA: Sure! I live in North Carolina with my husband David. We have two daughters who are teens now. They are 16 and 18. And we really came to unschooling through our oldest who had a difficult start with her birth and lots of dire predictions. We just got home with her and wanted to be with her and life really changed from that point on.
As she grew and developed, she had this drive to learn and take in information. We followed that and ran with it and could see that traditional schooling wasn’t going to be the best spot for her. And at that time, I stumbled upon some John Holt, thankfully, and some other things that just said, watch your child and facilitate that. It really just started us on this beautiful journey that I’m so grateful for every day. We’re just living and learning and exploring the world together and it’s a lot of fun!
PAM: It’s definitely fun, isn’t it?
The first question I’d like to ask is from your talk about finding the underlying needs when a conflict arises. We’ve probably all experienced times when just asking hasn’t worked. Often even adults aren’t good at verbalizing what real needs they are trying to meet by engaging in a conflict. How do you go about discovering the underlying needs at play in a conflict?
ANNA: Well, for me, I feel it’s a lot about observing and remaining open. A while back I, read about a question that was posted to a psychologist who is a fan of a gentler approach to parenting. And so, here was the question that was given to her. “My child refuses to turn out the light. I feel like it’s a waste of energy, but nothing I say is working.” So, the advice that this psychologist gave was to remove the light bulb and then she went on to explain that the solution worked, because the child became scared and then she learned her lesson, basically. I think this is a really great example where we can peel back and look at what it would look like to explore the underlying needs.
If I don’t get anywhere from asking a child specifically about the behavior or to stop the behavior and that’s not working, what I do is then start looking more closely and watch for clues. It could be something where she simply forgets. If that’s the case, I could work with her to figure out a reminder. Maybe a sign on the door would be enough. It could be that the light is hard to reach. She’s leaving the room, she’s got books in her arms, she can’t reach the light, so maybe rigging a string to the light or a push button light, that might solve it.
In this case, what’s interesting is we’re given this additional information that she was scared and that she “learned”. So, knowing that she was scared, I would really want to explore that piece with her. “Do you feel safer with the light on?” “Is it that you don’t entering a dark room?” I don’t really love doing that! Questions along those lines serve two purposes.
So, basically, it helps me get to the bottom of the behavior, but it also connects me with her. She knows you’re interested in what her experience is. And then, I can learn how she is seeing the world and what her perception of the situation is and I can gain a better understanding of how our perceptions may differ.
At that point, we could look at, what about a night light that comes on automatically when the room gets dark? Or a switch to LED-type lights that don’t cost very much. In the end, I may say, “You know what? Those few pennies a day to leave that light on, I’m okay with that for her to feel safe there.”
I think what’s key with any kind of conflict is to move beyond the surface conflict that you see right off. So, with this, we have one person wants the light on, one person wants the light off. Those seem diametrically-opposed views, but if we’re able to peel back and say, “Okay. What’s happening underneath that?” we can find something that feels good to both parties.
And so, that’s what I love about looking at the underlying needs, because I think so often, we feel like we’re faced with these situations that seem like complete opposites. How are we ever going to bridge the gap? But when we start looking at the needs that are driving the behavior, usually we can find, “What about this? And what about this?” It opens up that creativity piece.
I think something also that I want to say here is that there are sometimes physical needs at play and so, there’s something called HALT that you’ve probably heard of that stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. So many times, especially with children, but not just with children, these four things are present when we have a conflict. It can be just a quick test to see, have we all eaten recently? How long has it been? Did something else happen? Maybe an upset from yesterday or this morning that’s coming out in this new conflict. Do we need connection? Has it been a while since we’ve all connected? Are we all doing our own thing and we need that reconnection time? Is it time for a nap or bedtime?
Sometimes, we found it was just enough to change the energy of a conflict by saying “Let’s go get a snack and talk about it.” And then we could sit down and have that snack and everything looked completely different after the snack. And that’s especially if you’re like me and get grumpy when you’re hungry! So, my husband and children know that about me, so they’re very quick to offer a snack if needed.
But I think, again, it’s that type of thing. So, we have this conflict and if we’re just looking at what we can see, instead of, you know what? Sometimes, we just need a break or we need some food or we need some rest or we need a change of scenery. Those kind of things can help us defuse a conflict situation and keep it from getting worse.
PAM: It’s surprisingly often that those environmental pieces, those things that have gone on in the last 24-48 hours, other things going on in your life, contribute to these things. So, I think it really, really helps to take a moment to try and piece all those other things together.
ANNA: Give them space for it, too, just space for, you’re tired. Space for, you had a bad day yesterday or this morning or a difficult call or something. If you give space for that, that’s something you can each learn for each other, to give space to each other. We’ve really seen that with our dynamic here, understanding, “Oh, she had a tough experience at this thing, so let’s give her some space around that.”
PAM: So, when your child’s upset about something, in my experience, it’s not very hard to feel sympathetic and to acknowledge their feelings. The challenge for me as I’ve seen it is that often what we do when we see that someone is upset is that we want to jump in and try and fix things for them right away. And then we wonder, “Well, why are you staying back there? Why are you staying upset? I’ve got solution A, B, and C over here for you.”
As part of research for the book that I’m writing right now, I’ve been reading some more about empathy. And empathy is about feeling with the person. So, you acknowledge their emotion, then you connect with the person on that level, helping them feel heard and understood where they are. It reminds me how, in unschooling circles, we often talk about validation, which is the step of acknowledging a child’s feelings as real and valid and connecting with the child where they are and then moving forward when they’re ready. So, how do you see the process of validation playing out?
ANNA: Well, I will say sometimes it plays out like magic! I feel like we all want to be heard. And the bigger or the scarier the statement or the behavior, the more it needs to be validated. For me, validation is really just taking the time to truly hear the other person. And often, it’s helpful to reflect back what you hear, but not always. I think it depends on the person. Sometimes, just sitting quietly and letting them talk is really what they need.
But what it can’t be, at that point, is jumping in too quickly to solve or to defend, any “but”s, moving too quickly to, “I’ve got this solution,” can just lead to defensiveness, the person not feeling heard, and it really immediately shuts down that connection. Sometimes it’s hard to hear our little ones say things like, “I hate my sister and I wish she was gone!” But instead of saying, “Oh, but she loves you and she didn’t mean to upset you,” and explaining something away, it can be really helpful to say, “You are so done having a sister. You wish she would never come back, ever.” Sometimes you’ll be met with this, “Yes! That’s what I want!” But other times, just that feeling heard, what we found time and again, was this back pedaling, “Well, I don’t want her to be gone for good! I just want her out of my room.” I’m like, that’s something we can do. Allowing this expression helps somebody move through it.
One time, I had a friend visiting and she was not a parent at the time. She is now. But the girls were very young and this conflict broke out while she and I were talking. She heard it. It was like, “I hate her! I’m mad!” just really, really upset. I walked down and I’m talking to the girls separately and I’m just like, “I get it that you’re so done,” and validating those feelings. Two, three minutes later, they’re running down the hall laughing and playing. My friend is like, “What the heck just happened? How did we go from there to this?”
I said, it was just that little break was needed. That little validation that this upset happened. “You’re upset about it.” We found that time and again that truly being heard just allows you to move through. Especially children. I think as adults, we tend to hold onto things a little bit longer, but with young children, they just want to move on. They want to have fun and they want get back to that place of joy. And so, just hearing them gives them that, “Okay. I can just move on and go through that.”
It’s important for parents to realize that I don’t have to own it or agree with what they’re saying to hear it and validate their experience. Sometimes people get stuck. “Well, I don’t want to be saying things about the other child.” It’s not about that. It’s just about hearing what that child is saying and just validating it. You don’t have to own it or feel the same or agree with it.
I also think validation and reflection is a really great tool to help us make sure that we’re understanding each other. I know for me, I’ve found it very valuable in the past when someone reflects back to me what they’re hearing from me, because sometimes it’s very different than what I’m intending. When I can hear that reflected back, I go, “Oh. Okay. Wait a minute. That’s not what I was trying to say,” but wow! They’re hearing it very strongly in this way. It helps us start clarifying and getting to this, “Here’s where we’re differing and here’s where we can come together.”
I find that valuable for myself, for someone to reflect back on what they’re getting from me so that I make sure that I am coming across as intended.
PAM: That’s a huge one for me, too. When I made the shift from seeing communication as what I’m trying to say it and saying it over and over to make sure it gets through, to shifting it to looking at the other person and saying, well, what are they hearing? And when there’s a disconnect between that, it’s like, oh, now I know what I can do. Now I’ve got somewhere else to go rather than repeating the same thing over and over again.
PAM: There were a couple of other cool pieces in there that I just wanted to bring out again, too. I found the piece about how validation isn’t always about talking. Some people aren’t talkers and I know here, I found sometimes it was just about sitting with them or standing near them, just being near them. They were doing the processing. And the validating was in being there to support them as they were going through the whole range of emotions and working their way through it and understanding it themselves. And just being there with them is what really helped them.
ANNA: I agree. I think it’s that giving the space again. Just giving space for that, absolutely.
PAM: Right! Because you’re holding that space for them right there. They can feel it and they know you’re there and they know if they need anything from you, they can ask. But that you’re just there almost witnessing the process, available.
The other piece I also found really useful was validating with them separately. They are going to say things that, if their sibling was in the room with them, they would probably feel the need to defend themselves.
ANNA: Right. Exactly. Hurt feelings and defensiveness. Right.
PAM: Yeah. Like you said, you don’t have to take on what they say. You’re validating, reflecting for them, and understanding why they say that or feel that in that moment, without doing it in front of somebody else who may take it a different way.
Another question for you. What is the 90-second rule?
ANNA: Okay. Fun, fun! So, this is a concept I first heard about through a friend who was reading Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight. Dr. Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist who had a massive stroke and she wrote about her experience, which is a fascinating book for anyone that’s interested in that.
But one of the things she talks about is the 90-second rule. And she explains that whenever we have a reaction, be it fear, joy, anger, that our body is flooded with chemicals to react appropriately. And that it takes about 90 seconds for those chemicals to flush through our system.
So, when we think about it, it’s hard to even hold a belly laugh for more than 90 seconds. So, if we’re stuck in a place of fear or anger, it’s because we’re choosing to buy back into this feeling to keep triggering that reaction to the body. I just said, wow! It was so empowering to me. I personally am a natural observer. I found that I often sit with my reactions and kind of, “Hmm. Look at this.” And I find that I’m able to choose my next steps pretty easily. I’m able to let go of things and choose and let that initial reaction run through me. What I found when I was communicating with people is this disconnect where they were like, “But I don’t know how you do that. I can’t do that.”
It was nice to have this physiological foundation, because what I found with some people is they react very quickly and so, they’re buying back into that feeling really before the 90 seconds pass, so they haven’t had a chance to feel the shift or that chance for choice. They are left feeling, “There is no choice. I am just angry and I am going to remain angry.” For me, understanding that physiological process can help with that so much. And it helped me to understand other people who weren’t able, who thought, “No, there’s not a choice in this. I’m just angry.” And I’m thinking, “But I feel a choice. What’s the difference?” And I think that was it. That was truly it, just these 90 seconds.
After talking to some people who did react differently about these 90 seconds, they were like, “Oh my gosh,” and they tried it and they found the same thing. Basically, to everyone listening, I would say, the next time something happens that makes you really mad, feel it, and watch the clock at the same time. You’ll feel this shift, this slight shift. And that’s your chance to choose a different reaction.
I want to say, too, at this point that sometimes we want to keep buying back into it and that’s okay. But knowing that it’s this physical reaction with the clock and that I’m making the choice makes all the difference to me. There are definitely times when I want to stay right there in that place of anger or sadness or fear or whatever it is. But it’s so powerful to know that I’m making that choice versus something is happening to me. That’s what I love about that little insight from her.
PAM: Really, because it does help you shift and see that you can find choice inside those moments. That’s really interesting.
Another thing that you mentioned in your talk that really stood out for me, because I also found it to be such a helpful way to approach things, was to recognize that everyone is doing their best in this moment. Can you talk a little about that?
ANNA: Yeah. For that, I think about it in terms of assuming positive intent, because I really do believe everyone is doing the best they can at any given moment. I think it’s our human nature. We’re doing the best we can and sometimes that’s better than others, based on what’s going on around us. But it’s the best we can in that moment.
I’ve also found that how people are behaving usually has very little to do with me, meaning they aren’t specifically trying to thwart me or make my life harder. I think so many times we jump to that when someone’s behavior is impacting us. “It’s a personal attack. They’re out to get me. They’re out to ruin my life. This is horrible.” You have these buttons pushed. What I love about assuming positive intent is I can take that personalization out of it and know that they’re doing the best they can.
And when it comes to our children, I think it’s so helpful to take that deep breath and to realize that they’re doing the best they can and they’re not trying to stop me from getting my needs met. They’re really trying to meet their own needs in the best way that they know how in that moment. When I can see that humanity and see that they’re struggling, it makes it so much easier to validate and to find ultimately the solutions to whatever this upset is and solutions that meet both of our needs.
It takes that defensiveness out on my part and theirs, because a lot of times, when behavior is impacting us, we immediately can feel defensive and we’re going to defend our needs till the end. When you can just change that ever so slightly, to see that humanity. Here we are, two humans trying to meet our needs, let’s do it together. It really changes the energy.
PAM: Yeah, that’s a great point. Instead of seeing everything that they’re doing from our perspective only, because you feel like you have to defend yourself.
ANNA: I think it’s so common. To me, it’s human nature. We all want to defend. I find myself doing it, when I feel backed into a corner, I’ll be defending things that I’ll be like, “Why am I defending this?” But if somebody is coming at me, that’s your first, go-to instinct. I think it’s really helpful to peel that back. And that reminds me, too, that this is helpful outside of families as well.
That little shift of understanding can defuse so many difficult situations, be it a customer service situation, a work experience, a neighbor conflict, whatever it is. That slight shift to, this person isn’t attacking me, even though it seems like it. They are trying to meet their own needs. They are dealing with their own baggage and difficulty of that day. We’re two humans trying to meet our needs. How can we do that together?
PAM: That’s a great point. Just shifting it slightly from defensiveness to when you and your child are at odds, it can be quite tempting to try and maneuver things a little bit so we can get the outcome that we think is best. Even if we don’t come right out and say it, the thing is, kids can sense our agenda, can’t they? And that can get in the way of their learning when they are now reacting to your manipulations and that can also undermine the trust that we’re developing in our relationship.
How else can we approach those moments when we think we really have the right outcome in mind?
ANNA: Right. I think it’s so important. And for me personally, I do tend to be the control freak and like to control all the outcomes, because that’s just who I am. But what I know in dealing with relationships, be it in my family and outside, I really need to remind myself at every turn not to have this set outcome in mind.
Because I really, truly believe that I don’t know what’s best for anyone else. I know what’s best for me, but I don’t know what’s best for anyone else. And so, if I go into a conflict situation with the desire to lead everyone to my lovely solution, basically, the discussion is over before it starts. By having that outcome in my mind, I’m shutting myself down to any other ideas and approaches and can get caught up into defending my ideas versus listening to the other person. Whereas, if I can remain open and hear what’s happening around me, it fosters this environment for others to do the same.
Something else that comes to mind, too, with this, and again, it’s a huge oversimplification, but Buddha talks about attachment leading to suffering. And again, it’s a complex idea in a different system, but I found it still a helpful reminder. Because basically, my attachment to things being a certain way can lead to upset if it doesn’t happen that way. And so, there’s my suffering. If instead, I can remain open to how things actually are and what’s in front of me and how can we move forward, I find myself a lot happier.
I think, too, remaining open and flexible fosters this environment of creativity. For me, finding solutions, when we’re working together to find solutions that works for everyone, it’s this fun, creative work that needs that space, that safe space of creativity.
PAM: And didn’t you find that when you were able to that, you were able to stretch so much more? I know I learned so much by seeing all these different things that they came up with that literally were better than what I thought was the best solution before we set out.
ANNA: Absolutely! I tend to be this left-brained person. I’d have these ideas. I’d come in and we’d have this conflict over something. And I would have in my mind this fair solution, “Okay. We’re fighting over the TV. Well, 30 minutes for you and 30 minutes for you.” That’s what I’m having in my mind. Now, luckily, I’m keeping quiet about it and listening, but I’m thinking this is the type of solution we need.
But I found when we were all just open, “What works for you? What works for me?” they would come up with off-the-wall, “Okay. You take it for two hours. I’m going to go out and ride my bike.” And I’m thinking, what? How did we get here? We were just fighting over the TV five minutes ago. But we’re in that open environment. And there, what’s really important is this trust that we’re all going to get our needs met. We’re all going to be heard and that we’re going to keep working at it until it feels good to all of us. And they’re so creative. They want to find solutions.
Something else that brings to mind there, because you and I both talk to people who are just starting out on this journey, that’s something that comes up is this, I don’t think I can solve everything. The parent thinking, “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how to stop them from fighting.” What I try to say is, it’s not about that. It’s creating this safe space where you’re all working together. It takes practice and some time, I think time, especially, to develop the trust that we truly are listening. We truly don’t have an agenda, that we’re open to what the solutions are. But once you see that open up and you see that fostered, the ideas are just endless. There are so many different solutions. And it comes faster and faster as you start living this life.
PAM: Yeah. At first, it can almost look alien. You can’t imagine that what people are telling you will happen. “That’s never going to happen in this situation.” But, you’re right. The time and it really is to develop the trust between people that this is really the way it’s going to go and we’re going to consider all sorts of ideas. So, it’s really fun to watch. That’s one of the things I love about the first couple of years, as people come to unschooling. It’s like, I had no idea!
ANNA: It’s true.
PAM: Speaking of the journey, one of the most empowering ideas on mine has been the realization that everything is a choice. But really, really, really everything is a choice. Was that a big one for you as well?
ANNA: Oh my gosh. Such a big one! Really, really everything is a choice. Really, really. I promise.
At first, people really buck against that idea. When you first look at it and you start to deconstruct it, you see that truly, at every turn, we have this choice of our reactions and our next steps.
We touched on it a bit with the 90-second rule, just understanding that we choose our reaction is this critical first step to understanding that everything is a choice. And I think where people can get stuck here is that they have this idea that there are “have to’s” and when you examine that statement, it falls a little flat, because this is a phrase we use a lot in our culture. “I have to go to the store.” “I have to finish this assignment.” “I have to wash the dishes.” While it may seem like a little word and a word we say all the time, really it’s insidious, because it creates this trapped feeling that makes us believe we don’t have a choice.
When you flip it around and change your language a bit to say things like, “I need to go to the store, because I want to have chicken for dinner,” or you say, “I’m going to skip it and have some leftovers.” It takes the weight off the “have to”, because you’re reminding yourself that there’s choices. And in every situation, there’s always multiple choices.
I like having the dishes clean. I like them out of the sink. Especially before the next meal, because cooking a big meal for everybody, it’s nice to have that clean canvas. But do I have to do them? No. I don’t have to do them. I could ask for help, for somebody else to do them. I could pay somebody to do them. We could use paper plates that night. We could go out to eat and say, forget it. It’s too messy. I don’t want to deal with it.
When I focus on all those other options, I can make the choice that feels best to me. In that moment, it might be, you know what? I’m going to go ahead and clean the dishes now, because I want to make that meal we were talking about. Or, you know what? I want to leave them, because I want to go out for dinner. It has such a different energy to it, that feeling of choice versus the weight of the “have to’s”.
And I guess “weight” reminds me that “should” is another really powerful word that gets into our heads. It’s along those same lines. I think “shoulds” often come from other people. We can “should” ourselves, but when you peel back the layers, a lot of times it’s coming from expectations from other people.
So, I have a couple things I ask myself when I’m facing a “should” that I find helpful. Basically, first of all, where is it coming from? Sometimes, I think I’m saying it to myself but when I peel back those layers, I’m like, huh. That’s really coming from what I think this person is going to think. Does that person have an agenda for me?” And it helps me deconstruct that a little bit. I also say, “Can I authentically say that I want to do this thing?” And if I don’t, then that’s a red flag for me. Okay. What’s that about? Explore that a little bit more.
Does it feel expansive or constricting? I find that to be a really important litmus test for anything. It keeps me in tune with my personal guidance system and not everybody is in touch with that or has that experience. I think looking at those physical sensations are really helpful. How do you feel when you think about doing this thing? Does it make you feel big and you’re smiling and you’re going, “That’s going to be the best trip?” Or does it make you feel like, “Oh my gosh. That seems horrible, all these things I have to do.” And so, it’s just, listen to those little guides from inside.
Another one for me is, can I do it with joy? Because I truly want to approach things in my life with joy and delight, because I feel like it makes things so much more fun and it just keeps that energy where I want it. And if I can’t do that, then again, that’s another red flag to examine.
Now, I still may choose to do whatever the thing is, even if it doesn’t meet these criteria, even if I can’t do it with joy. But checking in with myself helps keep me on track and not sucked into someone else’s agenda or some sort of self-shaming that can happen when we start to have these “shoulds” and “have to’s” starting to weigh us down.
It really boils back to that choice. Then I know, you know what? Yeah. This feels hard, but I’m choosing to do it, because this is what I feel like doing for this reason. I’m going to have this outcome or whatever it may be why I might make that choice. But I think that’s why I find choice so empowering and I believe that we always have a choice, because it just changes that energy to, I’m choosing to do this. I’m choosing to go to work. I’m choosing to finish this. I’m choosing to do that. Because this is what I want to do, even when it feels like it’s a task that can be difficult at times.
PAM: I just went through that whole shift myself this morning, because I’ve got a deadline for my book coming up, to get it to my editor. I didn’t even realize. I was having fun, having fun, writing, and I know I have lots more that I want to do before I send it, but that was starting to feel like a “have to”. I didn’t realize it at first, but what was starting to happen is that every time I stood up to do something else, like get ready for this podcast, anything else, I was starting to feel guilt and shame for doing that. And then, what was happening was even when I sat down, it was hard to get started with writing, as well, because all that negativity, like you used the word “constricting”. That’s exactly what it felt like.
And then, even when I was sitting down, it was even hard to get to work. But the minute I realized what was going on, that I had lost the feeling of choice, everything opened up. All of a sudden, I could do, “It’s okay that I choose to wipe down the table before I set up for the podcast and choose this and choose the other.” That’s not time taken away from my writing. This is time that I’m choosing to do something else.
And all of a sudden, now when I sit down, I’m sitting with joy and excitement to get to writing and then I can actually start. It’s amazing that that one little shift to realizing that this is a choice, even with deadlines, even with whatever, these are still choices that you’re making in every moment. And that brings back the joy and just the energy that you put into everything that you do.
ANNA: Right. For me, it’s that weight, when you feel that weight. A lot of time, like you said, you didn’t even notice it until suddenly, you’re pinned to the floor with the weight of this have to. You’re going, how did this happen? How did we get here? But that shift to seeing the choice and deciding, what I found when I’m listening to that and making the choices that bring me joy and connect me to the people around me, suddenly it’s like, time opens up. Things change and things flow so much faster. What I was making hard by saying it was a “should” or a “have to” really becomes easy when we’re following that flow.
You may have needed to just focus on the podcast and cleaning the kitchen or doing something else to open up an idea that then you’re going to run with when you go back to sit down to write. And that’s just how that process works, instead of forcing yourself to sit there looking at the screen.
PAM: Flow is amazing!
ANNA: Yeah. It is.
PAM: Another important part, for me, that I found in deschooling was developing trust. So, that could be developing trust in the process of unschooling, trust in our children, trust in ourselves. Why do you find that so valuable?
ANNA: For me, trust, I find it this place of calm and peace. I like that I know this place is waiting for me when I choose trust, trust in myself, trust in my children, trust that we’re exactly where we need to be, and trust that things will work out when they need to. That doesn’t mean that everything is rosy all the time, but even in the dark times, I have this trust that things will turn around and that I have the ability to do that, to choose, and to see the way out of a place back to peace and joy again.
I guess I find trust is a just this quick touchstone to get me back into the frame of mind that brings joy back into my life. I think a big piece of that is bringing me back to the moment. I think unconditional acceptance comes into play here, too. I think we all want unconditional acceptance. We have the power to give it to ourselves and to give it to others and also to see and accept the situations in front of us. I think a big part of getting there is trust. So, I really see those two intertwining, this acceptance and trust. Again, I think they’re these touchstones that bring us back into the moment with our children.
PAM: Yeah, that’s true. And there’s another piece of trust that I was just thinking about. Often when people first come to unschooling, we talk about, “Trust the process.” But sometimes I get the impression from how people are talking about it that they’re using trust almost like an armor to get through situations. We are just using the word “constricted”. I can kind of feel them, like they’re closing in on themselves, to trust that things are going to work out fine. They’re just closing off to get through the moment.
For me, developing trust was actually about building a bunch of experience. This was trust that developed and deepened over time. And it was completely by really connecting and involving myself in the more challenging experiences and seeing how we reacted to what we felt, brainstorming our way through it.
It was the actions and the connections that helped me develop more trust in us. I even see it in my kids, the trust that they develop in themselves having gone through these situations, rather than holding trust up as some sort of shield or something.
ANNA: Or something to hide behind. I think it’s such a great point that it isn’t a place of isolation. It’s this place of bringing us back together, so that we’re working together and we’re trusting this process, and our kids are seeing that. Because I think you’re right and I think you see it with people that are newer to the journey. They’re saying, I just trust that it’s going to work out. Hands off. It’s not hands-off. That’s when you dig back in. That’s when you reconnect.
Something you’ve talked about before is when you’ve recognized that shaky moment, that not trusting, there can be some disconnect there and it’s a sign of, wait a minute. We need to reconnect.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great way of looking at those clues. Trust isn’t a substitute for engagement. Maybe there’s a way of putting it.
ANNA: Yeah. I think that’s really powerful and important.
PAM: Now, sometimes, we’re reminded that the things that we’re doing are very unconventional. They really are. And we can find ourselves feeling anxious and unsure. What helps you move through those moments?
ANNA: Well, I think we’ve talked about some of those things already. One that hasn’t come up yet is gratitude, that I want to talk about. And it’s such a game-changer for me. And, somewhat related, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the power of a smile and how it actually changes brain chemistry. So, sometimes I just start there, with a smile and looking around my environment and looking at what’s going on around me and look at my kids or my husband, our life, and finding that joy. Even on the hardest day, it’s there.
If you’re having trouble finding it, I turn to the small stuff. It’s the sun beam, or the laugh from the next room, or the breeze signaling that spring is coming. Sometimes, it’s just that I have a soft bed waiting for me at night and it’s time for this long day to be over and that’s okay, too. But at any moment, we can find these things to be grateful for, and in doing so, I think we open up our eyes to more things and suddenly we’re seeing all this beauty and this connection in this life around us.
I truly believe that what we focus on is what grows. I choose to focus on joy and connection as often as possible because of that. In doing so, I’m attracting others that find joy and who want to find joy. We show people the true reasons for our choices, that it brings us joy and that it brings us connection and that they can do the same. And then I feel like, it doesn’t feel so unconventional after all, this life that we’ve created of connection, joy, and living our passions.
PAM: That’s a great point. Now when I think back over the times about, what would I do when I was feeling that? I think very often, I would just turn back to my kids. Now that I realize it, I would probably be more apt to feel that anxiety and feel, oh jeez, this is really different, when I was feeling disconnected from them. Because I wasn’t connected to what we were really doing, so I would just go sit in the room and hang out with them and, like you said, I would see them laugh and I’d see them play. I would see them learning. It’s like, oh yeah. This is the point. It’s not to worry about what everybody else is doing. This is really the root of the point of it.
ANNA: This is that richness of everyday life, those conversations and the rabbit holes and the connections that happen, because we’re here, present together. That’s the beauty of it. And I think it really does quiet that noise from people outside that don’t understand what this life looks like when we just come back to that moment and see, yeah. This is pretty great.
PAM: It does often come back to connection. We keep coming back to that so often in a lot of these topics. That’s very cool.
One of the other challenges I want to ask you about is hot buttons, like you mentioned them a little bit earlier. These are things that we react to almost unconsciously before we even realize what’s happening. Yet on our unschooling journey, as we start to gain more self-awareness, I know, for me anyway, I began to see those automatic reactions as overreactions to the actual situation that I was involved in the moment. And then, I didn’t want to do that to my family, bring all this other stuff to it. So, what are some ways that we can change that up?
ANNA: First of all, I think it’s important to even be aware of hot buttons and to find what your hot buttons are, because we all have them. It is that thing that’s said or done that instantly you’re reacting to, or like you said, overreacting to.
I think they can develop from some different places. Sometimes, it’s serious. It’s past trauma. I have a friend who struggled with the physicality of her young son at times because of an abusive past. She had to recognize that her reactions were coming from this past trauma and not about what was happening in front of her and not what was happening with her son. So, when she was able to see that, his actions stood alone and she was able to find a way to work together so they would both feel comfortable without putting that baggage on him.
But just the very definition of hot button is just this quick reaction. We come out of it and I think it can startle people and so, it just helps to be aware. For me, a biggie is the treatment of children. I have this gigantic justice button and I can put up with a lot of things. I think, oh, I’m this Zen person. I accept a lot. I trust people on their paths. But you start talking ugly about children and I tend to get really, really upset.
I know this about myself and I’m able to recognize it and calm myself down. While you’ll still find me advocating for children whenever possible, I don’t need to bring this overreaction and all of the poor treatment of all the children in the world onto this person in front of me who may have honestly just had a bad day. That awareness is really all it takes to see them as passing thoughts. And that allows that 90-second rule to play out, so that I can choose my next steps and my next actions and hopefully it will be something that’s connecting. Hopefully I’m able to recognize, hot button here! Let’s get through it. And then I can choose the reaction of who I want to be in the world.
I think a tool that’s helpful for me with the 90 seconds and with dealing with a hot button are mantras. I think they can really help us when we’re getting through the 90 seconds and through a hot button that’s been stomped on.
I think, each person’s mantra is going to have to be different. It’s about finding that simple phrase that can instantly calm or ground you or change the energy of a situation. So, I’m just going to talk about a few of my favorites and then that might get people thinking about what might suit for them.
The first one that I want to say is, “There’s plenty of time.” So, especially in my earlier years, I was type A, get everything done. And I can really get caught up when there’s time pressure involved. I put that stress on those around me. “We can’t be late. We’ve got to get going. What’s happening? We’re going to the park! It’s time to have fun, damn it!” And so, it’s like, wait a minute. Step back. There’s plenty of time. It’s okay if we’re late to the park. And just reminding myself of that instantly calms me. And, what do I want this time to be about? Not about me rushing to meet this deadline that doesn’t even really exist.
“I’m exactly where I need to be,” is another one and we’ll give a shout out to Amy Steinberg. It’s a lovely song. But this one is so helpful just to get to that place of trust and acceptance again. It’s like, it’s okay. I’m right here where I need to be. This is where my journey has taken me. I’m learning something here. So, that helps ground me.
“Be kind, not right,” is another important one for me. This is back to my justice buttons and also that I tend to be a debater. It’s helpful to remember that what I really want to be is a kind and compassionate person who looks for opportunities to connect and is less worried about proving that I am right about everything. And so, that’s again why these are so specific to people, because that’s that one that speaks to me. “You don’t have to be right about everything, Anna. You can be kind to the person, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying.” So, that helps me.
And just one more is, “All is well.” And this one reminds me, of course, of our dear friend Anne. Honestly, just that alone puts a smile on my face. I can see her face so clearly and hear her laugh and her smile and her easy energy. For me, it’s about that foundational trust again. It’s just a quick way to get back there and feel the peace and calm that truly trusting can bring that all is well and this is a beautiful life that we have.
I think finding those phrases or words that instantly ground you can be so helpful. And so, I think it’s worth putting some time into that, looking at your hot buttons, looking at what sends you into those 90-second loops and figuring out a way of something that can just bring you out of it, can just ground you, can bring you back to the moment and out of your head. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise.
PAM: Yeah. I know sometimes I used to have a little stone in my pocket. Another nice piece is, when you’re open about it, which we are, explaining what’s going on, our kids start to understand that, as well.
One of my hot buttons is quick change. I’m not very good with change. That’s something that my kids learned. I would warn them as I was learning about it, too. That 90-second rule, that’s really cool that it’s coming up again, because they would come to me and they’d say, “Hey, Mom, what if we did this instead? And I will give you some time to think about it.” And off they went, because they knew I just needed those few minutes, like one minute, three minutes, to just process through that. Whether you call it hot buttons or whatever you call it, because they knew if they demanded an answer right away, it would be no. I can’t see my way through it yet.
ANNA: We had this other plan. But given that time to process, we don’t have to attach ourselves so strongly to this one outcome. Again, there’s that. We can be open to this different outcome that I hadn’t thought of.
PAM: It’s super cool. I love it. Well, I wanted to say thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Anna. I could really, truly listen to you talk about unschooling and relationships for hours. Because I find your perspective is both inspiring and grounding at the same time. It’s really cool how you manage to do that. So, way to go.
ANNA: Well, thank you! I have a great time talking to you, so it was lots of fun.
PAM: Lots of fun. And just before we go, quickly, where might people be able to connect with you online?
ANNA: Well, I have a few old things, papers, essays, and links and stuff at a place called ChoosingConnection.com and it might be possible to connect with me through there. Or you can find me through Shine and Facebook, I guess. Or they could even probably find me through you if somebody needs me.
PAM: Sure! And if anybody has any further questions, they can always comment on the page for this episode and I will tweak Anna.
ANNA: Absolutely and I can answer stuff there. So, I can look there. And then, also, we also have the cool Q&A stuff each month. So, if people want to ask questions for that, it would be fun to talk about, too.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great idea. Stick your questions in the Q&A. We’re lining up for one of those at the end of the month.
PAM: Thanks very much, Anna!
ANNA: Thanks, Pam. Bye.