PAM: Hi, everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia and today I’m speaking with Idzie Desmarais. Hi, Idzie!
PAM: And happy belated birthday!
IDZIE: Thank you.
PAM: I’ve known Idzie’s mom online for many years and watched as Idzie started her blog, “I’m Unschooled. Yes, I can write,” way back in 2008. In 2010, when I was hosting the Toronto Unschooling Conference, I asked her if she’d be interested in speaking. I was thrilled when she agreed and she spoke in both 2010 and 2011. Her TUC Talks are available for free on my website. I’ll put a link in the show notes. So, it’s great to have you on the show.
IDZIE: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
So, to start off, can you share a bit with us about you and your family?
IDZIE: Well. I am a now 25-year-old living in the Montreal area with my family. This is where me and my sister, who is two and a half years younger than me, grew up and where my family unschooled. I don’t know what you want to hear more about.
PAM: Just basically give people an idea. So, the four of you are living together, right?
IDZIE: We are at this point, yes.
PAM: And a menagerie of animals.
IDZIE: And a menagerie of animals, yes.
PAM: So, one of the questions I wanted to ask was what your family’s move to unschooling looked like.
IDZIE: Okay. Well, I started out in kindergarten, but it didn’t last very long. I was there for a few months and I was okay with it, but there was some trouble with other children making strange phone calls to the house, just some stuff that ended up being disciplinary issues, ended up being something that I think made an impact on my parents. And my mother, she had always been interested in homeschooling. My father was a little more hesitant, but that was enough for them both to get more on the same page and feel like, okay, maybe we should give this homeschooling thing a try.
And it started out as a relaxed homeschooling sort of approach and over the years it just became a natural transition to unschooling. My mother always had the strong idea that people would learn things when they were ready to learn them and a very enthusiastic and flexible approach to how she saw learning, so I think it became a very natural transition for my family.
PAM: That sounds awesome.
So then, how about we peek a few years in, when your family was more comfortable with unschooling. What did your days generally look like?
IDZIE: I always have some trouble with this problem. I try and look back at what the days looked like. They were so different. So, that’s always the first thing, but in general, there was always a lot to do with words and with stories in my house. My parents have both always been avid readers, and so, I think my sister and I definitely picked that up and we would play word games together. And we would read aloud to each other. And we would write poetry and stories, and that was always a big thing. So, we’d do that together.
We were involved in a local homeschool co-op off and on over the years, so sometimes, there were various classes that me and my sister had chosen to participate in. There were always projects going on, always crafts. It really depended. It’s hard to come up with a, “This is what a day looked like.”
PAM: But really it was about just whatever you guys were interested in then.
IDZIE: Very much so.
PAM: Yeah, oh awesome.
Now for many years, I have wondered why people just seem to accept that strained parent-child dynamic like we so often see in books, and movies, and TV shows when adult children go home for holidays and vacations. We accept that that is normal.
So, I was curious if you could share a bit about what your relationship with your parents was like growing up and what it’s like now, because I suspect they’re probably pretty similar.
IDZIE: Yeah, they are very similar. My father used to like joking in our teenage years that me and my sister would never rebel, because we had nothing to rebel against. And I’ve always thought that’s pretty accurate. I had a really good relationship with my parents. And while sometimes it was closer than others, with one or the other of them, it was always amicable. There was never really anything more than, sometimes there were arguments or what-have-you when a family is living together and having to share space and time. But yeah, I always got along with them very well and it’s very similar now. I feel I have very strong relationships with both of my parents.
PAM: So yeah, it hasn’t really changed, other than just grown with you guys.
IDZIE: Yeah, of course it has changed. As you say, it’s grown with us. Me and my sister are now both adults. The relationship we have with our parents is definitely different, but it also never felt like there was any sudden turning point or anything. It’s always been a respectful relationship and it’s just a gradual growing, changing thing, as we grew up.
PAM: Yeah. One thing I wanted to mention is you summed up in your most recent blog post, titled “Fun is More Important Than Education”. In your last line you said, “Have fun and the learning will take care of itself,” and I really loved that. Because I remember, when we first began unschooling, I was always looking for the learning, especially since my kids were in school for a few years or at least the eldest one was. That was part of my deschooling process, gaining experience and coming to trust unschooling.
Over time, I realized that the most engaging learning happened consistently when my children were enjoying themselves, when they were having fun, and eventually I stopped looking for the learning altogether and just looked for the fun. Do you see this as a step that’s an essential part of moving to unschooling?
IDZIE: I would say so. I think, as you were saying, in the deschooling process, there’s often a big emphasis on learning. People are trying to find the learning. Where is the learning? Is the education happening? And whether you call it fun or just living or whatever term you want to use, I do think it’s an essential part of deschooling and coming to understand unschooling that you realize it’s all part and parcel with each other. That you don’t need to look at learning as a separate thing.
PAM: Yeah. Because when you’re looking at learning just as learning, you’re still stuck in that mindset that learning is more important than your everyday things. So, that’s why I found that really important.
Now, you haven’t gone to college or university, and none of my kids have chosen to do so at this point, so I wanted to talk about that for a moment with you, because even unschooling parents can have a hard time with the idea of their kids not going to college.
Now, I know my daughter has probably considered it the most closely so far, but when she looked at some of the photography programs in detail, she saw that she had already learned much of it on her own during her teen years. So, when she was interested in finding like-minded community, rather than choosing the structured framework of college, she chose to go and check out New York City.
IDZIE: Oh. That’s great!
PAM: Yeah. I see college as a tool that someone might choose if it aligns with their goals. See, her goals were to learn more, but because she wasn’t seeing that she would be learning more in the college programs that she found around Canada and a couple in the States, she was really looking to immerse herself with other people, because there weren’t that many people around our place that were that keen and interested in photography.
IDZIE: So, it’s just about finding that community.
PAM: Yeah. And because, within your community, that’s where you’re with people who are just as interested as you and you can learn so much, right?
IDZIE: For sure. Yeah, so I feel similarly that I see college/university as a tool and as something that can be great for people if it aligns with what they want to do, but the things I’ve been most interested in have not been anything that would lead me to college. And I’ve looked at it over the years, off and on, at writing programs and different things, but it’s never seemed to align with the type of stuff that I want to do.
I have considered culinary school, but the fast-paced restaurant world is the last place I would be happy working, so it’s just looking and saying, “No, I think I can better create the type of opportunities I want outside of an institution right now, in my life.”
And I think it is also an important thing that neither me or my sister see it as, “Oh, I am not doing it now, I can never do it.” It’s not like there’s an expiration date, so it’s just sort of looking and saying, “This isn’t right for me right now,” and if I feel differently in the future, knowing I can always reevaluate that choice.
PAM: Yeah. And it’s so individual, isn’t it? Because, I bet there may be some people who are interested in culinary arts who would find that atmosphere inspiring and engaging, a fast-paced one, and ones that don’t. So, I think it’s so much more important to focus on the individual and how they learn, what their interests are, whether this will really align with them. My kids are older now, so they’ve had friends whose parents have said, “You need to get a college degree. I don’t care what the program is. You just need to come out with a degree,” because that’s a level of comfort for the parent.
IDZIE: For sure. Of course we both know, of course, that a college degree isn’t the guarantee of the job that so many people tend to think it is. Because I’m watching now with college graduate friends who are struggling to find work, so I think that, too, has made a big impact on me, that it’s never seemed that this is some type of guarantee. This is just one more risk that I can choose to take or not, just like any other choice.
PAM: Yeah. I just finished writing a chapter about this for my book, so it’s at the top of my mind. And one of the things that is so fascinating is because our society has changed so much in the last couple of decades. The pace of change is fast. And, as parents, sometimes we don’t realize how much the world of work has changed from when we were young. We’re looking back at ourselves when we were graduating high school and into the college years and that was quite a few years ago now.
So, our perspective, the way we’re looking at the world, really isn’t as up to date. And they’re not coming out of college into the same world that did. We were coming out still where there were jobs that looked like the classroom, cubicle jobs where you had your work time, you had your job document to follow, just like the curriculum and you were comfortable there. But that stuff doesn’t really exist anymore and we’re insisting our kids participate in something that may not be preparing them as well for the way their adult life is going to look.
IDZIE: For sure.
PAM: I think it’s so much nicer to help them find their way, because they’re living in that world now. So, they actually have a better idea than we do. Another blog post that you wrote that I loved, is called, “In Praise of the Unexceptional: Because Unschooling Doesn’t Have to Be Impressive,” and I was hoping to read a quote from it.
IDZIE: Go ahead.
PAM: All right. “The unschooling community doesn’t need to fall into the same trap of judging people’s success by their productivity or large achievements or traveling lifestyle. Instead, let’s just make sure that we can convey, in all our words, in our speech and writing and advocacy, that all learning is important. We need to celebrate all those quiet lives too.”
And it’s true. Unschooling young adults do things that look impressive from the outside, but the difference that I’ve seen is that they’re doing these things because they want to, not because they want to impress others, or do what they’ve been told, or what they think will look impressive. Unschooling is definitely not about being a different path to raise a conventionally successful adult with all those conventional goals.
How important do you think it is that we revisit our definition of success as we embark on the unschooling journey?
IDZIE: I think it’s very important and I think that it’s something that you can’t help but do and do again and again, because there’s a lot of pressure to be conventionally successful. And honestly, I do find, as a grown unschooler, that there is pressure, as well, to somehow prove unschooling success by looking impressive. And I don’t think it is necessarily a pressure that many unschoolers succumb to, but I think it’s something, from discussions that I’ve had with other older unschoolers, that a lot of us feel.
So, yeah, I think it takes for both parents and us as unschoolers to remind ourselves that, as you said, this isn’t about creating either conventional or unconventional success. Depending on how you define it, you want a successful life, but it doesn’t have to look impressive or it doesn’t have to impress other people. And yeah, I think that is really important.
PAM: Yeah, I think, as you see unschooling being looked at by a wider audience now, I start to see some comments. People are saying, colleges and universities are starting to look for homeschoolers. You worry that people will say, oh, this is going to be an easier, as in less confrontational, way to get their child to that same conventional goal.
IDZIE: For sure. I feel like I’ve seen the same thing.
PAM: Yeah. And then I look at it from my perspective now, as I talk about my kids, when I talk about unschooling, I think so much of it is in the way you frame it and the words you use. Even when they were growing up, when we would visit family and stuff and they would ask how it was going, I framed it positively, because I’m really happy with the lifestyle.
So, I’m sure you feel this too. You are 25. My eldest son will be turning 24 this year. And you both live at home. And conventionally, that can be looked upon negatively, but we don’t at all. So, when I talk about it, I talk very excitedly about the fact that Joseph is living with us. And my daughter moved out a couple of months after she turned 18 and she’s just visited home since then. And they both grew up in the same place. That’s the whole point. It’s so individual.
IDZIE: That’s it. They’re both different people.
PAM: Yeah! So, I can frame it very positively, because I’m very happy with all of their different choices, because I know they mesh well for them, right?
IDZIE: Yeah. For sure. I feel similarly and it’s funny, because you say that and I still feel that pressure, because often when that comes up, I’m like, “Yeah, but I have lots of schooled friends who are my age who also live with their parents,” so I still find myself wanting to justify those things and always reminding myself to take a step back and be like, wait a second, I don’t have to do that.
PAM: Yeah. Because if you justify it against that, because that’s already seen negatively, “Oh look, they had to go back home and live at their parents’ house.”
PAM: But there is so much positive to it. Anyway, that’s a big bug of mine.
You took that idea, as well, and gave a talk at the Northeast Unschooling Conference in Boston last year. And you posted your talk as a series titled, “Unexceptionally Exceptional.” And, for listeners, I’ll link to that in the show notes so you can read it, because there’s such cultural pressure to be demonstrably productive and attain conventional success that those messages are unavoidable.
And even though as part of my unschooling journey, I came to deeply value the quiet times and the small, everyday moments in our lives just as much as the bigger ones, that’s also a journey our children need to make on their own. It’s not something we can just tell them. So, I’ve had lots of conversations about it with my kids over the years.
And, similarly to the conversation we were just having, can you share a bit about your journey to seeing past the conventional noise to finding the profound value in downtime and in being true to yourself?
IDZIE: Yeah. And I think it’s actually one of these things that, it’s easy to feel confident about unschooling when things are going as well as they can be, when everyone is getting along, when everyone is productive, when things are going great. I think what really pushes you or really has pushed me to value the quiet moments and the richness of a quieter life, has been the more difficult times, as I discuss in that speech.
It’s when things are harder, when things maybe aren’t going the way you want them to, or there are difficulties in life, that I’ve been forced to really find a quiet space and just take a step back and realize that it’s okay to not be where I envisioned myself being, or it’s okay that this is taking me longer than I thought, that it’s okay when things aren’t going the way I had imagined them. And to really value those lovely little moments of everyday life that really make your life a more positive experience as a whole. I don’t know. I don’t know how to put this.
PAM: And they help you discover yourself, right?
IDZIE: For sure.
PAM: You understand yourself so much better.
IDZIE: Oh yeah.
PAM: I think one of the big things, that I think now, as I look back at our conversations is that now when I talk to my kids, even when they are going through a low moment, they know that there’s another side to it.
IDZIE: For sure.
PAM: They know that this is not failure. This is not forever. This is part of the process. Because they’ve had the freedom and the quiet time to become self-aware. They notice those times, so they know that things go up and down and up and down. And they’ve even seen sometimes when they go back up, that you realize you’re not losing things, that that time isn’t lost. That when things are looking back up, they’re looking back up from a deeper spot, because you’ve actually picked stuff up along the way, even though it didn’t feel like it when you were down.
IDZIE: For sure. And in that talk, it really forced me to explore in words when I was writing it. Just thinking about that and this came out of a really, really difficult year. And looking back and realizing how much I had grown as a person, and just how much had changed, even when it felt like things weren’t.
PAM: Yeah, even when you are feeling stagnant.
IDZIE: For sure. A lot is still happening.
PAM: Now, you’ve talked online a bit about your challenges with depression and I definitely feel for you, as my husband lives with this as well.
Do you think the perspective on living and learning that you’ve developed through growing up unschooling, that deeper level of self-awareness we were talking about, and understanding how you tick, helps you with your depression?
IDZIE: I definitely feel it helps. For me, depression is kind of an offshoot of anxiety. That’s the main thing I have dealt with since I was very young. I’ve always jokingly said that, because I was unschooling, I think I am less of a basket case than I would have been otherwise. I do feel that for sure I was learning to manage my anxiety. Being able to push myself as much as I was able to and to really retreat into myself and take myself away from really stressful situations when I needed to, made such a difference that I had that control.
And yeah, with depression, it’s a little bit harder for me to maybe pinpoint how growing up the way I did has helped. I don’t know. I think it’s one of these things that’s difficult no matter what your background is and will always be a struggle, but it is true that being used to finding the joy in even difficult situations, that I’ve tried to cultivate that, is always helpful in more difficult periods.
PAM: And I think your point about feeling in control is really helpful, too, right?
IDZIE: For sure.
PAM: Yeah, because with that time you have managed to understand yourself better.
IDZIE: I have.
PAM: Yeah, even if it doesn’t work out, as different tools or things you tried to do to work through your anxieties in those moments, even if they don’t work out, you’re still disposed to learning from them. Not seeing them as failures, but as another piece of information.
IDZIE: For sure.
PAM: Yeah, that’s awesome.
When you look back over your childhood, can you see a thread or two that weaves through your interests over the years? A common theme that it uniquely Idzie, even if those interests themselves varied widely?
IDZIE: Yeah. I think, for me, and this is true to some extent for everyone, but for me especially, things have always had to feel immediately relevant to my life or to people close to me. If something seemed too abstract, it was never able to capture my interest, so I think that most of what I focused on has been things that I can create.
Over the years, it’s changed, whether it’s gardening or cooking, or all different things. There have always been things that tended to be more hands on or just things that I’m able to create and do and make something of it. I’m not really someone who has ever enjoyed reading big books about philosophy or being more into academic stuff, which I’ve always found kind of funny because my sister is. I joke that she’s the cultured one. She’s super into Shakespeare and she’s an amateur Arthurian scholar and she’s always getting her friends who have university library cards to take out books for her. She’s really into a lot of different, denser material, but yeah, I really like things that feel really tactile.
PAM: And that relate to your everyday.
IDZIE: Exactly. Things that I can put into practice every day, and I can make a part of my life in a really hands-on way.
PAM: Yeah. And I think that’s so awesome. You guys growing up in the same house, isn’t it amazing how individual people are? So different.
IDZIE: For sure.
PAM: Yeah. But with the same openness to life. It doesn’t matter. You support it either way, whatever way works for each person. It’s beautiful.
IDZIE: For sure.
PAM: Okay. Our last question.
As someone who has grown up unschooling, is there a piece of advice you could share with unschooling parents who are just starting out on this journey?
IDZIE: I guess I’d probably want to go back to what we were talking about earlier about how learning is in the fun, to maybe stop being so attached to looking for learning and to just focus on paying attention to what’s actually happening to the joy, to the exploration, to the struggle, to whatever it is. Just pay attention to what’s happening instead of trying to assign learning to things or create artificial learning moments. To just focus on yourself and your kids and your lives and just try to share a rich life together. That’s where the learning really happens.
PAM: That’s beautiful. Yep. That’s exactly it. It’s hard though, when you first start, because you’re still so worried. Childhood is so inextricably linked to learning in society’s mind, so that’s a huge piece for them to give up.
IDZIE: It is. And I think even years later, there can be moments of doubt and moments of, “Is this right?” and moments where you want to grab onto things that look traditionally educational and productive. And I think that’s something that you never completely stop fearing, but just to be moving in that direction of letting go of these expectations.
PAM: And looking at your kids.
IDZIE: Very much so. Or yourself. It works just as well when it comes to looking at yourself.
PAM: Yeah, as long as you have cleared that luggage away and you are not judging yourself.
IDZIE: Yes. Oh for sure. That’s what I mean. Giving yourself the same. Look at what you’re actually doing, what is actually happening instead of having these unfair expectations of yourself or of your children.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great point. Thank you very much, Idzie.
It has been a lot of fun speaking with you. I was wondering if you would share the best place for people to find you online?
IDZIE: Yes. The best place is my blog, as you mentioned earlier, “I’m unschooled. Yes, I can write,” which, though I could spell out the address, it’s probably easier to google “Idzie” and “unschooling” and you will find it.
PAM: And I will put a link in the show notes, too.
IDZIE: There we go. So, that’s the best place to find me. And there is contact information as well, though I admit I’m not always very good at getting back to people.
PAM: Give Idzie time to reply.
IDZIE: That’s it.
PAM: All right. Thank you very much for speaking with me today.
IDZIE: It was lovely talking to you.
PAM: Yay! Have a wonderful evening.
IDZIE: You too.