PAM: Hi, everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia and today I’m here with Joyce Fetteroll. Hi, Joyce!
PAM: Joyce is a veteran unschooling mom and creator of the wonderful unschooling website JoyfullyRejoycing.com. She has been answering unschooling questions online for many years. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t looking forward to reading her responses. She has been a wonderful influence on my unschooling journey, so I’m excited to have her on the show.
I have ten questions for you, Joyce, so let’s dive in!
First, can you share a little bit about you and your family?
JOYCE: Sure. I have a husband, Carl, and a daughter, Kat, who is now going by Danny. I studied electrical engineering a bajillion years ago. It was so long ago, I learned programing on punch cards! After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University, I had a job as a software engineer and a technical writer.
Carl is an adjunct math professor at three colleges. He’s also a triathlete. So, it’s fortunate that one of his colleges is a sports college and it’s like he gets paid to train!
Danny is 24 now. She’s currently working as a barista at Starbucks in Chicago. She loves both Chicago and Starbucks. And anyone who’s met her knows she’s pretty much the epitome of the best Starbucks barista you’ve ever had. It’s a job to give her free time to pursue drawing or writing, sports and music, which are her big loves in life. She was geared up to start college to be an athletic trainer, but then this dream opportunity fell into her lap a couple of months ago.
When she was 10, she fell in love with Bobby Kielty who was a player on the Oakland Athletics baseball team. She’s always been drawn to underdogs, so it sparked in an interest in the team, too. A few months ago, someone from the online sports platform, SB Nation, which is Sports Blog Nation, saw some of her drawings of the Athletics players on the internet. And that led her to having a blog there where she gets to draw and write about the Athletics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay anything yet, but that’s what Starbucks is for!
PAM: Perfect! Our second question is, you’ve been active answering questions on Quora.com, tagged as a top writer there for 2016, and you’re the most viewed writer in the topics of unschooling, homeschooling, and child development. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Quora is a question-and-answer website where questions are asked, answered, edited, and organized by its community of users. And I will link to it in the show notes.
Joyce, I was reading your bio there and I loved your answer to the question, what is unschooling? You’ve also tackled that question recently on your blog. Can you share your answer with us? What is unschooling?
JOYCE: I will try. The frustrating challenge of defining unschooling is knowing that any definition is not going to paint a good picture of what unschooling is until someone understands unschooling.
Now, I’ve been writing about unschooling for 20 years and I still struggle to define what unschooling is for a more general audience. The definition I wrote on the Tumblr blog built on some wording that Sandra uses to describe unschooling.
Unschooling is creating a rich environment where natural learning flourishes. So, to break that down, creating means intentional and deliberately, actively. The environment doesn’t just happen. Parents don’t sit back and let kids learn. The environment needs to be consciously created.
And a rich environment is everything, not just what’s in the house, but the stuff that families do outside the house, the opportunities available, and the parents’ own attitude. It’s the parents’ attitude that creates the atmosphere, the attitude toward curiosity, play, and towards the kids. A rich environment lets kids explore their interests while also swirling opportunities through their lives to discover new interests.
Then natural learning is how kids learn to talk and walk. It’s the learning that naturally grows in a rich, nurturing, supportive home life.
Flourishes is not merely existing, but growing and thriving. If the kids are ignored, they’ll learn. If the kids are given loving support and a rich stimulating environment, they will learn. But the two learns are universes apart. Unschooling focuses on learning that flourishes.
So, while that definition captures what unschooling is, to someone still stuck in school mode, it could also describe a really nice school environment where there are situations for exploring science, math, and art in ways the teacher thinks is best. So, I’m still working on a good definition.
I do want to share something that Bob Mahan wrote on Facebook last week. Bob wrote, “What if you met someone who said, ‘I want to help you achieve all your goals. I want to assist you in developing your skills. I’d like to introduce you to interesting people and take you to interesting places. I have resources and connections which will allow you to grow in every way that you wish to grow. I will acquire the tools you need and the training you desire, so that you can learn whatever you want to learn, so that you can do whatever you want to do. We will do this at your pace, only doing as much as you want to do when you want to do it. I’ve worked hard to build relationships and accumulate resources so that I can facilitate your plans. I am willing and able to help you create the life you want and you won’t owe me anything. I would consider it an honor and a privilege to work with you on building your dreams. Are you interested?’” Then he concludes with, “If you would say yes, why not unschool and do that for your kids?”
So, Bob’s description of an unschooling atmosphere is what I’d like to capture in a description. But as beautiful a picture as he’s painted, I suspect a schooling parent would rip it to shreds as a naive fantasy.
PAM: Yep. That’s true. It’s so hard. It’s such a huge paradigm shift. We’re just so used to school’s version of learning as the only way to look at learning, the only way to see it. So, that’s a huge one. But I love his description!
Question number three. What was one of the more challenging aspects of your journey to unschooling?
JOYCE: Well, I mentioned Calvert School earlier, the little ads in the National Geographic. And the engineer in me still wants learning to come in nice, neat packages. I would love to get a box of curriculum on my doorstep. And I love the idea of learning a chunk of knowledge that has a clear beginning and end. You start at the beginning, go to the end, and you own that knowledge. I’m still frustrated that learning doesn’t work like that.
The best learning follows wandering paths and it’s chaotic, it’s hands-on, it’s full of, “Let’s try this to see what happens.” It’s more like building a million-piece jigsaw puzzle by working on whatever strikes your fancy. I think, though, that my disturbance with how learning really is is what keeps me writing about unschooling, even now when Danny is out in the world.
PAM: That’s true. I trained as an engineer, as well, and it’s just fascinating, the whole web of learning, the way they jump from here to there, the wild connections that you couldn’t have even imagined before. You’re so used to plotting this step, this step, this step, because that seems so logical. But it’s not the way it works!
Question number four. I love that you’re drawn to sharing your insights into children and unschooling through the question-and-answer format. Not only through your participation on Quora but it’s also how your website JoyfullyRejoycing.com is organized.
So, I have a few questions you’ve addressed that I’d love to talk about with you. One is, what did you make available or do with your child to help them learn to read? I keep hearing about playing games and putting labels on furniture. I have asked my seven-year-old if he would like to do that. He says no.
JOYCE: So, schools have become freakishly obsessed with kids and reading, as though learning to read were barely doable even with experts guiding it. They’re making parents freakishly frightened.
Learning to read is hard in school. Out of school, learning to read is as natural and effortless as learning to speak. It’s easier, in fact. When kids learn to speak, they don’t even know what language is, yet in three or four years, they’ve mastered it. After that, it’s just refining the details.
But learning to read is almost a matter of matching the spoken language to the squiggles on the page. At least the child has the bulk of language down before they start reading. But learning to read involves decoding. There’s some step or steps the brain needs to do to match spoken words with written. So, how a child does that is different for each child. Some build from letters up. Some build from whole words down.
But whatever the process, it’s like learning to walk. Parents create the environment and kids figure out how to make their legs work. Also like with walking, reading doesn’t happen until the brain is developmentally ready. Once the brain is ready, like with walking, kids can read. Some kids report it’s like a light switched on. For most, though, it’s slower. But either way, all unschooled kids learn to read in a supportive, print-rich environment.
The most important aspect of learning to read is having positive experiences with what reading is for. Reading is like a doorway. School focuses on the doorway, but the doorway isn’t all that interesting. It’s all the things that lay beyond the door that are interesting. If kids are exposed to what’s interesting beyond the door, they’ll want to go through.
The most helpful thing a parent can do to support a child learning to read is positive experiences with words. Reading books is important, but just as important is stopping when the child is done. If the purpose is learning to read, then all words are important, not just the ones in the books. The McDonald’s sign is important, game instructions are important. Anything the child wants to tap into that’s printed is important. Also, anything connected to reading, all forms of storytelling, movies, TV, puppet shows, plays, storytellers connect the kids with what reading unlocks rather than focusing on the key.
PAM: I love that door metaphor, because at school, they’re so focused on just learning to read. That’s it. But when they’re actually trying to accomplish something, they see all the stuff that reading can give them. It’s something that they pick up along the way, with exposure.
One other piece I thought that was interesting, when she mentioned, “I asked him if he would like to do that,” her seven-year-old son, most often, his goal isn’t going to be to read and let’s do the things to help you learn to read. When you ask him, of course he’s going to say no. That’s not something he’s interested in. But if there’s some things that you think might help along the way, I found if something makes a connection, why not try it?
If he had asked, “How do you spell couch?” or something like that in a conversation, that could be something that you plop up couple labels on and see what happens, see if that’s interesting to him. So many times, if you ask, because you’re coming from a different perspective than they are, they’re not going to join you in your perspective. But you can see the connections with their lives and you can just try things out.
JOYCE: Yes. Exactly.
PAM: Question five. Here’s the question that touches on the value of learning through experience. How do you help your child learn gratitude?
JOYCE: How can children learn love? Or joy? Don’t those seem like odd questions? Even worse is when it’s raised as, how do you teach a child to be grateful? The word “teach” often kicks people into a lesson mode. They want a lesson that they can use to teach the thing they want their child to have.
So, I’m glad the question was originally framed with “learn”, but even then, the problem with questions like, “How do you help your child to learn gratitude?” is that the question seems perfectly clear, but it isn’t. The meanings of the words change depending on the situation. But the parent doesn’t realize the meaning has changed since the words are still the same.
Sometimes the question means, how can children learn to express gratitude, like saying thank you? Sometimes the question means, how can children learn to feel gratitude? And how in the world do you teach or get or make a child to feel something? Even attempting is likely to make a child feel angry. Sometimes the question is code for, this child is ungrateful. So, it helps to unpack the question and get at all the different things a parent expects to happen.
So, first is kids learning how to express gratitude. Let them see how it’s done. Say thank you to them. Say thank you to your spouse. Say thank you for your child and with them. Ask them if they would like to say thank you, but don’t pressure them. Don’t connect thank you with discomfort. Keep the experiences with thank you joyful and pleasant for them. Let them see how it’s done. Let them become conditioned to feel when and how thank you is said.
And if a gift-receiving occasion is coming up, you can do a bit more. When kids get a present, they don’t feel grateful. They feel happy or confused or disappointed, yet they’re expected to smile and say thank you. How confusing is that? Learn to see through your child’s eyes. You can help them by coaching beforehand. Let them know what will happen. Let them know that can get presents they won’t be thrilled with or duplicate presents. Let them know how they can respond. Then, be with them. Be a team. Be what they can’t yet be. Expect them to be overwhelmed and forget all the coaching. Be there to say thank you for them. Be patient. They’ll pick up on it over time.
See their stumbles not as a reflection on your parenting but as the same way you saw their stumbles when they were first walking. Stumbles are just part of learning. Another thing you can do is play act. Make a game of wrapping up pretend gifts. Give each other goofy or horrible gifts and play up your delight of receiving the gifts. Say wonderful things about the wrapping and the gift and how thoughtful the gift giver is.
And then, as for cultivating a feeling of gratitude, turn the situation around. Give them opportunities to be on the giving end. Give them experiences doing thoughtful things for others. Let them know how it feels to give and to be thanked. Do random acts of kindness. Draw your child into doing nice things for others in the family. It’s especially fun to do it secretly. Do random acts of kindness with strangers. There’s a May Day tradition of secretly hanging flowers on the doors of neighbors.
Express gratitude randomly. Notice the nice thing someone has done. As part of bedtime, go over the day. Think about the things you each liked and what you’d do differently if you had a do-over. Some kids find this easier than others. Expect that. You might be doing the bulk of the sharing, but the point is to cultivate feelings of gratitude rather than expressions of a feeling that the kids might not yet feel.
PAM: That’s a huge difference, isn’t it? It always makes me think of the character development teaching at school, those programs, and how they think things that are based on feelings can be taught like facts, rather than through experience. They need so many situations and places. You gave so many examples of ways they can experience it and then bring it into themselves and understand it and eventually, take on what works with their personality. That’s cool.
Question number six. Another common question when it comes to living together closely in an unschooling home is, how can I get them to do their chores?
PAM: Have you heard the chore question before?
JOYCE: Yes! Parents often have an unrealistic vision of children and chores. They imagine that some parents have a secret, magical way of getting kids to do what they’re told and they just do it. What fuels that fantasy is, occasionally we do see kids helping without protest. But there’s no magic formula. Some kids are people-pleasers and some kids are tidy and then the parents take credit for it. I suppose the parents did supply the genes, but other than that, the parents just got lucky.
Then some kids have been trained through threats and punishments not to protest, so we can only see the outcome, not what created it. Parents should be cautious of judging their kids against the behavior of others. You may be comparing apples and sea cucumbers.
Parents want all sorts of magical benefits from chores. They want kids to appreciate what they have. They want kids to be part of a team. They want help. But from the kid’s point of view, being made to help feels like being used as conscripted labor. If you’re conscripted labor, do you feel appreciative of what you have? Do you feel part of a team? Do you feel like giving your best? Of course not. You feel used and disrespected and your effort shows it, just as the kids’ attitudes and effort does.
But parents just don’t know what else to do, so they push on, hoping that if they expect kids to act the way they should, that they will magically do that. What they actually get is years of kids complaining while doing half-assed work. So, instead of focusing on getting the chores done properly right now, focus on the big picture. Create an atmosphere of helpfulness.
What helped me switch mental gears is to see the chores as mine. One of the analogies I’ve used is to imagine you have a project in church or some other group. How do you get people to help? Most parents would be stumped, because the model they experienced the most growing up was being made to help. They can imagine assigning tasks to people. They can imagine guilt-tripping people into helping. They can imagine giving up and doing it all themselves. So, give your kids better experiences than that to draw on. Show them how to ask and inspire and encourage others to help.
You can do that by making clean up part of doing. Just naturally say, let’s get this cleaned up before we start something new. And then be mindful that they don’t want to spend 15 minutes cleaning up. Just do a quick job. Be mindful of what they can do. If all they can manage is putting the scissors away, let it be that for now. Then come back and do a more thorough job yourself. They’ll get better at helping as they get older. They’ll get better faster if it isn’t turned into a struggle.
And then, be someone they want to be with. Invite them to be with you while you do a chore. Talk about stuff they’re doing, listen to an audiobook together. Make it about spending time together. Draw them naturally into helping, just as you might with a friend. Be mindful that the things that you’re asking them to do are interesting, just as you would with a friend. Accept “no” as an answer. If they can’t say “no”, then it isn’t a question.
Make it fun and fast. Clean up toys by throwing them into bins. Put rugs down. Roll the rug up and pour the toys into bins. Put on music. Turn clean up into a game. The simpler it is, the more kids will be willing to help. Also be mindful of when you ask. You don’t want them demanding that you drop what you’re doing for some pointless-to-you task. Don’t do that to them. Assume they’re busy people. Ask for help and again, accept “no” as an answer. If they say “later” but they forget, show them how you want them to ask you if you say later and you forget. If you need help right now, don’t make it a question. Let them know that you need help. If you do cultivate helping hands, be mindful of the tasks each prefers. Some kids won’t mind going along with headphones on. Some won’t mind the dishes. Some won’t mind the trash, because it only takes a minute. Let them experience how to ask people for help and support them in learning how to politely turn down a request for help.
PAM: I love all that. It’s just making it part of life, the flow of the day. And the connection between you all, who’s available. By considering them, one of the things we’ve found is how much you got that back, how considerate they were of their parents in return.
JOYCE: Yes. As a teen, Kat was very helpful. I would ask her if she would help me and she would say, sure! How many other teens will answer that way?
PAM: Yeah. It’s true. It was amazing during the teen years, young adult years, whenever they were home. It’s nice. It’s connected and it flows.
Question number seven. Developing a deep trust in children is a process. I loved this question. Even if your children are happy and joyful, how can you know whether they’re learning without measuring it?
JOYCE: Well, when they were learning to speak and walk, there was no need to measure. That’s because we trust them to learn and speak and walk. We know kids can do that. We don’t trust that living a rich and varied life and exploring their interests will get them to be able to live independently. Part of the transition to unschooling is learning to see learning. See them making connections, learning things, figuring out things you know they didn’t get from you. Learn to see the learning they pick up from playing and entertainment.
The other part is growing and understanding of how exploring and discovery can be enough. How that can’t only be in school. That’s the hard part. You can’t really see how well it works. So, it helps to, one, read about unschooled kids who are now out in the world and that builds confidence that it works. Two, get to know how unschooling works and why. Three, learn to see it working. There really isn’t a shortcut to all that.
PAM: That was a huge point, learning to see the learning. I love that piece. Because so much of it, when we talk about deschooling, is just watching your kids, because when you’re looking for the learning to look like school, it’s so hard to see at first. But you get there!
Question number eight. It’s a seemingly simple question, but I think it hits a really big truth about living unschooling. And the question is, is it bad for children to eat their meals while watching TV?
JOYCE: That’s another one of those questions that seems clear. Bad how? If you ask a dozen different parents, they’ll express a dozen different fears they’ve heard. But the short answer is, no. It’s not bad. If the question is about a child eating while watching TV instead of eating at the table with the family, I’d focus on making the table more welcoming to the child.
What’s in the way of joining? Does eating take too long? Are table manners a pain? Are kids just expected to sit while the adults talk over the day? Maybe the child can just join for dessert. Work on what’s in the way, then be patient. Kids get older and their tastes change.
But if the question is about the whole family watching TV with dinner, that’s what we did. We’re a family of introverts. Conversation takes a few minutes with us. Carl and I tried eating at the table when we were first married, and that was pretty boring. Watching TV was much more pleasant. It gave us shared experiences, something we both enjoyed. There really wasn’t a downside. So, when Danny came along, we just continued. The whole family has a massive, shared movie and TV history together. We can talk in movie quotes and know exactly what the other means.
In fact, every night was a lesson in negotiation while we worked out choosing one movie we all wanted to see. If one of the big selling points of family dinner is bonding, watching TV while we ate definitely did that. We talked other times. We didn’t need to set a time each day to stare at each other in case someone had something to say.
PAM: That’s funny to think of that way. We’re spending our days together and we’re connecting and we’re talking about things as conversation comes up. To have to make a date to sit down to talk seems very uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
JOYCE: It is. Especially for introverts.
PAM: Yeah. Exactly.
Question number nine. Your answer to this question has been viewed over 5000 times on Quora and was featured on Slate.com. I love how unschooling helps us see how children live and learn and grow naturally, which often looks very different than the children in school. So, here’s the question. How do you raise well-behaved children?
JOYCE: There’s another seemingly clear question, which isn’t. What is a well-behaved child? Is it one who is obedient? One who behaves appropriate to a situation? Are well-behaved children the same as well-behaved adults? Do we say of adults, “He’s so well-behaved”? What does that even mean? If well-behaved means learning how to be someone others want to be around, then be a good role model. First, you can assume that kids are always doing the best that they can. It’s not only usually true, but it puts the parents in a better frame of mind to respond. And second, see kids as visitors to a foreign land. They’ve only been on the planet a few years. There’s so much to know and figure out. If they’re failing, then there’s something that can’t figure out. They need someone’s help to see how things work.
Even if it’s been explained several times, there’s something they can’t yet get. Third, see you and your child is a team. If your child fails, your team has failed. Be what your child can’t be yet. Kids need to watch us and see how it’s done. Trust that they want to be better at this life thing and they will when they’re able.
If the child isn’t doing as well as they need to, stop the behavior. But then move on to what the child was trying to do and help them do it in a better way. The child needs to see how to meet their need in a better way. What need was the child trying to meet? They couldn’t figure out how to make what they know work to meet their need. They need your help to see a better way to meet the need.
If you focus on correcting the behavior separate from the needs, your words will be drowned out by “Yes, but what about what I need?” thoughts.
Your child may not be old enough. If you’ve explained better behavior in the past, your child may understand but not be old enough to do. Behavior has a big emotional component. Knowing what to do comes quite a bit before being able to control one’s actions. So, if kid’s emotions often seem like alien creatures that take over their bodies, be patient. Age takes care of it.
If the child has shown that they can’t yet be quiet in church, then a failure to be quiet in church the next Sunday is the adult’s failure, not the child’s. See it as a conflict between your child’s needs and other’s needs. Your goal isn’t to suppress your child’s needs but to help him meet them in ways that don’t step on others’ toes.
Also, be your child’s partner. If the child will be in a new situation, give them some tips on what will happen and what’s expected, just as you would a foreign visitor. If, despite your preparation, the child can’t sit still in a restaurant, for example, then take them out to run around while you wait or don’t go to restaurants that require quiet behavior for a while.
As kids get older, so does their ability to delay their needs. So, when they’re young, that’s expecting too much. The child will let you know if they’re ready. Don’t compare. Kids develop at different rates. Don’t look longingly at small kids who can sit still. Their parents don’t have special powers. The kids were graced with calm genes. If your child can do better but isn’t, something is in the way. It may be hunger, tiredness, overstimulation. These are factors that make a situation more complicated.
Stop the behavior, but then look into what’s getting in the child’s way. Kids behave ever so much better when they have someone helping them meet their needs in ways that are safe and that don’t step on others’ toes. Kids find it easier to think of others when someone takes them and others into consideration.
PAM: I just love the way you can take a question and break it down so well.
JOYCE: I think that’s the engineer in me!
PAM: I think so! That was beautiful. Thank you. Okay. We’ve made it to question ten.
Looking back now, what has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling?
JOYCE: Well, this is a short answer. It’s definitely the great relationships that we have. I think because I learned so much on my own outside of school, I didn’t worry that much about the academics. I was concerned about interest-driven learning being enough as we were going on, but I didn’t worry that she couldn’t learn. The best side benefit of unschooling is growing great relationships.
She has a great relationship with her dad. They watch, do, and talk sports together. She and I have a great relationship. We talk about writing and drawing and Starbucks. What I learned with her kept the relationship with my husband strong, too. It’s just been one big relationship win all around!
PAM: That’s true. It does help your relationships with everyone. I think that was one of the biggest things for me, because my kids went to school for a while. And when they came home, at first I was just looking to replace the learning. Soon enough, just a few months down the road it was just amazing to me that these kinds of relationships were even possible. I mean, we had good relationships while they were in school. I was helping them and supporting them, but I had no idea how strong and connected they could be. So, that was a beautiful answer.
Well, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me today, Joyce. I really appreciate it.
JOYCE: You’re welcome. Thank you for thinking of me.
PAM: No problem! And before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
JOYCE: Probably either Unschooling Mom2Mom on Facebook or Radical Unschooling Info or me personally, I guess Facebook is easiest.
PAM: Perfect. I will add links to those in the show notes. Thanks again!