PAM: Hi, everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Heather Newman. Hi, Heather!
HEATHER: Hi, Pam!
PAM: It’s great to have you on the show. Today, Heather and I are going to talk about deschooling, specifically about when kids start unschooling after having been to school. Heather and her husband David have three children, but better to hear about her and her family right from her. So, let’s dive in!
Heather, can you share with us a bit about your background and your family?
HEATHER: Sure! I can do a brief history of the Newman family. I met David when I was a freshman in college. His roommate was in art school with me and we were the first two young people he had met with tattoos, so he felt that we should meet. That’s our big love story is the tattoos.
Now, 25 years later, we have Ben who’s 18, Arthur 15, and Ethan who’s 13. We lived in Rhode Island, moved to Montana for a few years after spending many meals studying a map the United States that we had taped under some clear plastic on our kitchen table, and it was some place that we had never been before. Then we traveled in an RV for a year before landing here in Maine five years ago. And in the middle of that, we sent kids to school, took them out, tried school at home, stopped doing that, and ended up unschooling. That was our circuitous journey.
PAM: That’s a great place to start.
So, what did your family’s choice to take your children out of school look like?
HEATHER: Ben was in second grade and we had already decided that he wouldn’t go to third grade and we’d homeschool him, because I was just spending so much time at the school trying to fix what was unfixable. It just seemed to make more sense to put that energy into just being home and working on things at home.
After a meeting with the primary department where Ben’s teacher told some not quite true things about a conversation we had, we told Ben he could stay home for the rest of the week. And David just looked at me and said, “If we had a babysitter who was treating our kid like this and not telling the truth, would we have them back?” And it was, no, of course you wouldn’t. You’d never put them back in that situation. So, he said, “Okay. Why would we send him back to school?” And we didn’t.
So, we asked Ben if he wanted to stay home for good and yes. He said that it was the happiest day of his life. And he put on a Los Lobos CD and danced around the house. He was so thrilled not to ever have to go back to this place. And then, Arthur and Ethan came home a year after that, because they were slated to head into the special education programs in the school.
We just thought spending all day, every day, in an environment where everything you do is being judged and you’re being told that you’re not good enough and who you are is broken was something that was too damaging. So, they came home, too. That’s how we ended up. We said it was like jumping off a cliff. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time to go in this great unknown.
PAM: Yeah. I remember how excited my kids were, too. I said, “I found out you don’t HAVE to go to school. Would you like to stay home?”
HEATHER: “Wait. What?”
PAM: “That’s an option? Wow!”
HEATHER: “We should have been doing this earlier!”
PAM: So, I was wondering.
Did you know about unschooling already when you pulled Ben out or was that something you discovered once everybody was home?
HEATHER: I discovered it after we’d been home and it felt way too scary and weird and kooky for me to do. It just really hit some nerves in me. So, we ended up trying one of those prepackaged curriculums and then creating our own and just none of it worked. The boys were having none of it.
So, we ended up coming into unschooling not so much because of the benefits to the learning environment, but more because we wanted to heal our relationships with our boys after so many years of doing school and traditional parenting and school at home. We were tired of the conflict that kept arising from the fight for control. Thank goodness my kids never broke or gave into it. They constantly were speaking up and saying, “No. This is not right. I don’t feel good about this. I won’t acquiesce.”
They knew what was right for them and I ended up being drawn back to the unschooling because of the stories about the great relationships people were having with their families. It was where we wanted to be, so we decided to give that weird, scary, kooky advice a try. And it worked. It’s been great.
PAM: That’s lovely. I do love how you guys were still open when it wasn’t working and you decided to put the relationships first. That’s awesome.
HEATHER: That’s what ends up being the most important.
PAM: Because that’s long-term. That’s life.
HEATHER: I don’t know how we can parent like this, where we’re in conflict and trying to control them for 18 years, and then end up having this great relationship as adults. It just didn’t make sense to us. It didn’t line up.
PAM: Yeah. So, I’m curious.
What kinds of things did you and the kids end up doing those first few months you made this scary leap?
HEATHER: Mostly we just went back to playing, which was nice, especially Arthur and Ethan who were so young. We went to the playground. We hung out at the beach. We lived in Newport, Rhode Island at the time. We got together with friends. And Ben discovered a love of Nova and completely dove into all things Nova and science and the universe and string theory and all of those sorts of things. The one thing he did like out of the prepackaged curriculum was the little reading books that they had, the ones where you have all the little stories and the questions at the end. He completely ditched the questions. Those were useless to him. He’s like, “Don’t ask me these questions. That’s ridiculous.”
But he loved the stories. And the one that stuck with him was one about puffins in this town in Finland where the puffins would come once a year and it was a big event. He always said, “Someday, I’m going to see puffins in the wild because of this story.” When we move to Maine, a local homeschool group set up a puffin-watching tour, so we got to go on a boat and he was like, “My dream came true!” Which is really cool that the whole full circle from when we started back to where we are now that he got to do that.
PAM: That’s awesome.
So, of your kids, Ben was in school longest. Were there any activities that you noticed he avoided for the first while after he came home? Questions at the end of the reading book!
HEATHER: Any irrelevant, ridiculous, redundant questions. Don’t ask them! Reading was something he stopped doing, which I was really sad at the time about that. I’m a huge reader and that was something we had done together. He was reading well when he went into kindergarten and they put him back into doing phonics exercises, which to him was just ridiculous and mind-numbing. Can you imagine you’re reading things like Harry Potter and someone is like, “Well, let’s do phonics books.” It’s a torture.
So, he stopped reading altogether and he told me later that being forced to read in a particular way killed his desire to read for fun. It just was no good to him anymore. And it’s funny, because this is something we’ve encountered over and over again with some of our friends who have been to school, where Ben will be excited by a piece of information and the response is always, “I don’t need to know that for school. I don’t want to hear about it.” We saw it in him and we just see it over and over, that desire and the joy in discovery of knowledge gets flattened. And it took him a while to recover from that and enjoy books and stories again. It took a while. Yeah. A couple of years.
PAM: Yeah. That sounds about right. Lissy moved far away from reading, as well, when she came home. That was at least a year and change. And for Joseph, my eldest, it was writing. His last teacher didn’t like his handwriting the first week of school and erased his worksheet and from that moment on, he refused to write. Even at school. But it was no longer an issue once he came home. Like you said, they don’t put up with that.
HEATHER: Isn’t that great?
PAM: Yes. I’m always thankful that I was the one who had to keep learning.
HEATHER: Yeah, because I think if they had broken down, my family wouldn’t be here, if my kids hadn’t stood up and said, “Absolutely not.”
PAM: Yeah. It wouldn’t have pushed me to find different answers. I think I remember after the first year or so I mentioned to them, “Hey, we’ve been out of school for a year.” And Joseph was like, “I don’t think I picked up a pencil in a year.” I was like, “Yay! But you’re still communicating, right?”
HEATHER: There are so many ways other than with a pencil.
My next question is, what changes did you see in your children after they had been home for a while? Did you find a big adjustment period for them?
HEATHER: They were much more relaxed and ended up being much happier than they’d ever been. Being able to get enough sleep and eat when they wanted to and just being in control of their own lives just made such a huge difference to them. Ben had the biggest adjustment period. Arthur and Ethan adapted quickly, because they were so much younger. But he had spent the longest time under our traditional parenting and schooling regime that we had going on, so we found there was just a lot of trust that needed to be repaired and built back up. It took him a long time to really feel like, “Okay. I can trust what they’re saying and this is where we’re going to be.”
The other thing that we did that turned out to maybe not be the best decision and we’re going to be the cautionary tale here on this, is that we announced that there would be no more limits on things like video games. And it made it a really rocky transition for all of us. I later read about simply saying “yes” more and I thought, oh! That would have been so much nicer. If I had read this article six months ago, a year ago, it would have been a much easier transition. Don’t make a fanfare about opening up the gates. Just open them and let people walk through and say “yes” all the time, until it’s the norm. But that was our steepest learning curve and adjustment.
PAM: I loved that image of just opening the door and seeing what walks through it instead of announcing and getting everyone all worked up.
HEATHER: Yeah, because then everyone’s running at the door and it’s a mess!
PAM: They’re all charging through.
HEATHER: They don’t know if that door will stay open, so they’ve got to get through while it’s open.
PAM: Definitely. I think that’s a huge piece of deschooling. I’m trying to think back. I don’t think I announced it, per se, but I still found, because you’re learning so much. It’s not about finding a balance, but about supporting them in what they’re interested in. Maybe they’re not interested in staying up late or maybe they’re not interested in playing A B or C forever. If you announce it, you put it in their minds. Finding a way to not set things up so they feel out of control, I think that’s a huge part of deschooling.
HEATHER: Yeah. And that’s what happened when we announced it. It was now forefront in his brain and because we didn’t have the history of trust because of the way we had been living, it just came a big obsession. For us, it was the video games. And that’s the thing that we all go through when starting out or a lot of people go through starting out is understanding that video games aren’t evil and they’re not going to rot a way if they play them all the time. It really is okay.
PAM: That’s true. It is all about building up the trust in the relationship. That’s what comes. That is a good word for what I meant for “balance”. It’s not finding balance. It’s finding the trust in the relationship that opens all that stuff up for people. That’s cool.
I was curious about you. As you were deschooling, what were some ways that you enjoyed learning more about unschooling and did your understanding of unschooling grow in stages over time or was it one big light bulb?
HEATHER: I read everything I could get my hands on. I’m a bit of a research geek, so I love to gather information from different places. Sandra Dodd’s website and books were a huge help. Joyce Fetteroll’s site at the time. I printed up pages and pages from their sites and I still have this huge binder just full of articles about all the different things that I had worried about one after the other.
PAM: I did that too! And email folders full of them.
HEATHER: Stuff I snipped from the Yahoo groups and saved all the great snippets. For me, I feel like the understanding grew slowly. There weren’t necessarily big aha moments. And there was a certain amount of faking it till you make it for me. I realized that I had made it when I was talking to a friend about there being no timeline for learning. A skill is a skill no matter when you learn it. It’s valuable no matter when it comes into your life.
I realized as I was talking to her that the belief had moved from being something that I understood intellectually down into something I believed in my soul and there was just this real peace and acceptance around it. It wasn’t words anymore. It was really a part of how I viewed my world and my children and how life works. That felt really good! I was like, I’m here! I made it. It’s the shift.
PAM: Yeah. That’s really cool! I love those moments when it’s no longer almost like a question and answer. It’s just totally felt in your bones. You know that this is the way that it is. That’s awesome.
HEATHER: Yeah. Even when people ask questions about it, it doesn’t feel scary or defensive. It’s just, you know. It just is. So, it’s easier to talk about, because you come to this place of deep acceptance.
PAM: That’s very beautiful.
So, my next question is, how did you build trust in the process of unschooling? And when did you know it was working well for your family? That was kind of a story of that, too.
HEATHER: Watching, just watching and watching and watching them every day and learning how to listen and shut my mouth and to be able to step back into the background. Being available for them and present, but not driving what they were doing. To be able to just step back and see how they learned and what they were interested in and how they processed it really helped me build my trust in them, that they did have interesting and engaging things to do, even if it wasn’t a structured curriculum that we had all grown up with.
When they started coming to me excited to share all the amazing and cool stuff they were discovering and learning, that was when it really started showing how well it was working for our family. I remember Ben and I were driving in the car one day and he was so excited to talk to me. He had tied together the storylines of Harry Potter, a video game, I’m not sure which one it was, and Avatar The Last Airbender. And how all these different story elements had in common and the characters related and which one’s connected to each other.
And there was a day when Arthur went into our library and he just started pulling books off the shelves and it looked like random books. Then he went through and opened each book and each page had an image of marbles on it. So, he remembered all of the books in the library that had marbles and he had been thinking about marbles, so he wanted to see all the different pictures. Isn’t that cool?
Or Ethan will leave scraps of paper or things on the whiteboard, things that he’s written to himself, letters or words or drawings. And it’s just really cool to not be the person handing that to them, but be the person receiving what they’ve been passionate about and connected with.
PAM: That is something that’s so hard for more conventional parents to see and to understand, because it’s not what they see in their own kids. Like you said, Ben’s friends saying, “I don’t want to learn that, because it’s not in the school curriculum.” So, all they see is kids who will only learn what they’re told they have to learn. And they can’t imagine that if you stop telling them, that they will actually explore things on their own and learn things on their own.
HEATHER: And much more than I could ever show them. The stuff they’re learning is so much cooler than what I would have come up with and so much better for them.
PAM: I know! I know! It’s just amazing.
HEATHER: Arthur is the master of the YouTube rabbit trail. He’ll come and show me these videos. I’m like, how did you get here? This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! And he doesn’t know. He’s like, I’m just following the side bars.”
PAM: I know. I had the same experience with building trust. It was just by watching them, so that you actually got to see this stuff in action, because before, you wouldn’t believe it.
HEATHER: No. You think you have to change it in some way or direct it instead of just exploring with them.
PAM: It’s that trust piece. You need to not direct but not stay hands off, like you said. You want to be able to help them, because you want to be there to see it in action. But then, your mind’s blown.
HEATHER: Yep. And multiple times.
Next question. How did your relationships with your children change over that first year?
HEATHER: It ended up taking a little longer than a year, just because we went through our ill-conceived school-at-home phase. Bad, bad stuff. But I feel like we have a deeper, stronger relationship than we ever had before finding this radical unschooling. We still have disagreements and we still have conflict, because you cannot have five people living in this space together and spending as much time together without that. But the difference now is that there’s this solid foundation of trust, back to the trust, to work from, where they know that I’m going to work with them to help them find the solution, rather than being this authority coming down from on high to demand and direct.
I found that, while it takes more time to build that partnership and it may take more time to resolve the conflict by working through it, the emotional toll is much less draining than it was to be the authority and try to enforce things. The emotional energy around problem-solving just feels so much better with them, to be able to be equals. I don’t think there are enough words to explain how great that feels. It’s wonderful, but it’s so much more than that, because they’re your kids and because they’re a part of you and you have this deep connection. And trust is powerful stuff.
PAM: I think you made a great point, because yes, definitely resolving challenges this way takes more time than just telling them what they have to do. But it’s so worth the connection. It’s the relationship connection. The relationships are great. But imagine all the things they’re learning through the process just about how to relate to other people, too.
HEATHER: Yeah. And I see it. Arthur and Ethan are buddies and they spend a lot of time together and they’ll have conflicts over video games or sitting on the couch next to each other, because someone’s taking up more of a cushion. And they’ve now learned how to work that out with each other, just because we’ve put the time into conversations and being partners. They don’t need us to step in as much anymore. They have those tools and they use them. That’s really exciting to watch them step up and handle things.
PAM: Yeah. That’s very cool. Every question ends with, yeah. That’s awesome.
HEATHER: Yeah. I’ve got this huge grin on my face just thinking about it!
PAM: Okay. We have a couple of questions left.
The next one is, as deschooling shifted into unschooling for you, did you find any unexpected benefits with the lifestyle, things that you didn’t anticipate but turned out to be wonderful?
HEATHER: Yes, yes! So many things. Yes! One piece that David and I hadn’t expected was that our relationship became so much better as we started being more respectful and considerate with the boys. We have better communication now and a stronger connection than we ever had before. I don’t think we would have such a good marriage if we didn’t have this whole radical unschooling piece that came into our life.
We’ve also found we respond less to social expectations or pressure. As we learned to question schooling and parenting mores and, “This is just the way it is,” it enabled us to better listen to ourselves and what made us happy and what felt good to us and what would work for our family, worrying less about external judgments coming in, which was very freeing. I didn’t realize how much the weight of that was on us until we started questioning it and pushing it away.
The idea that nothing in life, at least nothing thus far for us, is unconquerable. You go out and find all these interesting and unique resources and ways to support what your kids are interested in. And we’ve found that we now have a flexibility in thinking that enables us to problem-solve when life presents challenges. Nothing feels like a dead end. Nothing feels like it can’t happen, because you’ve got those tools in place to be like, “Okay. Well, what’s another way to find it?” “This doesn’t look good. How else can we achieve this goal?” And I didn’t expect it to bleed over into the rest of our lives so much, which I guess is why it’s whole-life radical unschooling. That’s where the name comes in.
PAM: That is a great point, because you don’t think how it tumbles out so much. And, so often, you don’t realize how plugged-in you are to the conventional messages. And the relationship with your spouse, I found that, too. You learn so much better how to relate to people, just like so much more respect for people. You watch your kids and you see they’re real people. They’re not just adults in-training, waiting to grow up. And you realize that everybody is a totally unique, wonderful person.
HEATHER: Right! With a rich inner life and thoughts and things that you can’t know about that are theirs. There’s a lot that goes on that you just can’t see. And, again, the relationship with the kids, we came to the unschooling wanting to have the better relationship, but I just had no idea how deep it would be. It’s better than anything I hoped for when we started with the unschooling. I never imagined it being this wonderful. Even in the hard times, you feel like you’ve got this strong connection.
PAM: Yeah. Sometimes, when people are learning about unschooling at first, a lot of times they’ll say, “But I want to hear about the hard times. What’s a challenge of unschooling? What about all those hard days?” When you think about it and you think of it through their eyes, okay. Yeah. We have hard days, from that perspective, but because you’re so connected and you’re all working together, it doesn’t feel like such a hard thing.
HEATHER: It’s not the end of the world when something happens. It feels like, okay. This is life and sometimes life is bumpy and sometimes you just have easy days, but none of it is holding this weight of negativity to it. It just is. It’s just life and it’s fine.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great point, because when they ask, what’s hard about unschooling? It’s not the unschooling. The challenges that come are life!
HEATHER: It’s going to happen no matter where you are. You’re going to have conflict. You’re going to have cars break down. You’re going to have people unhappy with jobs. You’re going to have people who haven’t eaten and are cranky and picking fights.
PAM: There you go! That’s great, because it’s not the unschooling. I don’t want to give any Pollyanna impression, but it’s not the unschooling! It’s life.
HEATHER: I have friends on Facebook who are like, your life is so wonderful! And I’m like, whoa. My life is just my life, like anyone else’s. I guess it’s just our perspective that we take on it. We’re not fighting against everything that happens. We just sort of accept it, because it is.
PAM: It is. And you work on ways to move through it, because that’s what we always do.
HEATHER: Yeah, that creative problem solving.
PAM: That leads wonderfully into our last question.
What does life look like for you guys now?
HEATHER: It’s good. They’re older now, which is a whole different dynamic, a house full of teens, which is fabulous. Ethan is sort of in an introspective period. So, he spends much of his days engrossed in storytelling. He loves stories, fanfiction videos on YouTube, and shows on Netflix. He has his own stories that he makes up. He’ll use his iPad. He’ll put a show on his iPad and act out his own stories with the show on the iPad as a soundtrack. He’ll put on Code Lyoko and that gives the background noise for his own Code Lyoko stories. He’ll use the whole downstairs and flick lights to do Star Trek and all that good stuff.
Arthur is coming out of his introspective period. One that’s coming out and one that’s going in. That’s sort of the flow of where we are. He’s really interested in social interactions right now. He goes up and introduces himself to people when we’re out at the grocery store or when we’re out doing things. He starts up conversations with them.
And that’s a big deal for him, because for a couple of years, he was at a point where he didn’t want people to even look at him. He was like, “I can feel your eyes on me,” and I’m like, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’ll take them off.” So, that’s a huge shift for him. Like I said, he loves YouTube and finds really interesting stuff. Recently it was art cars, the Art Car Parade in Houston, Texas. So, he now has a couple of books about classic cars and art cars that he’s really into.
Ben is working at a local bakery. It’s his first job ever and he really enjoys it. He likes the people he works with. He enjoys the job. He started doing the cake decorating, which is something he’s been wanting to get into for the six months he’s worked there. And he said he likes it so much in large part, because he knows he doesn’t have to stay. His boss was surprised by that. She said, “Don’t you have to pay rent and electricity?” And he said, “No. I live with my parents. They don’t expect me to do that! I’m here because I want to be here and I’m having a good time.” That was sort of mind-blowing.
PAM: That freaks people out, doesn’t it?
HEATHER: Yeah. I think his boss is intrigued by him, because he gets really excited about interesting things at work in a way that other people don’t. But he’s loving that.
David and I are working on expanding his bicycle repair business and that’s a huge learning curve for us with business plans and financial plans and loans. That’s been an interesting up and down process. For me, now that the boys are older and don’t need me as intensively, they still need me and I still support them, but they don’t need me right there in the way that they did when they were younger, I’ve been able to dive back into creating my own art, which has been wonderful to have the space to do that again. It’s been good for my soul, to feed my own interests a little bit now that they’re older. And that sums it up.
PAM: I’m going to link to your page, because I’d love for people to check out your art, because I love it deeply!
HEATHER: Oh, thank you!
PAM: It’s beautiful. I will be visiting your Etsy store!
HEATHER: I’m having fun with the robots right now!
PAM: I love the robots!
HEATHER: That was something that Ben said that had nothing to do with robots that completely sparked this whole thing. He had an idea for a graphic novel and I was like, “But what about this?” And he was like, “No, no, no. That’s not my graphic novel. Go do that yourself. Get your ideas off of my idea!”
PAM: Well, thanks so, so much for speaking with me today, Heather. I really enjoyed diving into deschooling after school with you. Before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
HEATHER: Probably Facebook is pretty much it for me, aside from my Etsy and work pages, which aren’t about unschooling. But Facebook is probably the best place to find me.
PAM: Excellent! Thanks very much.
HEATHER: Thanks, Pam.