PAM: Welcome to another Q&A episode! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Anna Brown. Hi, Anna!
PAM: Anne isn’t able to join us today, but Anna and I are excited to tackle this month’s questions. So, why don’t you start us off, Anna?
ANNA: Okay. So, first, we’re going to start with a question from Caitlin.
“We’re radically unschooling with our three-year-old. I found your discussion on family visits to be really helpful. I think it was episode four, briefing and debriefing, taking seemingly critical comments and questions playfully, etc. My daughter is prone to meltdowns, sometimes just because we couldn’t understand what she said or something’s frustrating her. She can’t get her words out and gets really upset and needs to be by herself. It makes it harder with my family, because these tend to be preceded by mild loss of control, like screaming at someone about something she wants.
Their response to that is to ask her to say please, but often by that time she’s already frustrated and has a meltdown and some of my family members will persist in trying to make her say “please” even when she can get the words out. I’ve already made a really conscious decision that it’s worth it to visit family.
She really loves being with them, generally, but how do I reduce the stress? It’s so hard on her. In the moment, I can go with her into a quiet room to recover, but I’d like to coach family members to prevent these happenings in the first place.”
I will start and, basically, I just want to talk about how early on we introduced the concept of space with my oldest, who would also get really overwhelmed in some social situations and family situations. And we would recognize that there were signs that something was coming before the events happened and when it was becoming too much.
And before we get to that point, we’d say, “Oh, let’s take some space,” or, “Hey, do you want to take some space?” And we started this when she was very young. When we would go into a new environment, we’d actually scope out the quiet place. Like, “Oh, this looks like a good place for us to have space if we need it,” when we’d first come in. We talked to the host if necessary and all of that.
So, we knew that it was there before things started to get overwhelming. And part of that process was talking about how our body feels when overwhelm is starting and that can be things like tightness, or it’s hard to have a thought, or noises or lights may start to bother you more, things like that. So, we talked about those physical things that she could start identifying from a very early age, because we really found that preventing was the best strategy for all involved. It’s really hard to coach other people on a certain way when they don’t understand.
And really, what we found is, it’s just a super helpful skill to take with you throughout life, knowing when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed before it becomes an issue, knowing the tools that you need to calm down and recenter, is just so helpful in so many environments.
But I do think there can be an educational piece for family members maybe about different personalities. You know, for us, we’re all introverts. So, crowds and parties really aren’t the easiest for us, so, in a separate situation, talking with family members about how they see things, what they do, that can just be really helpful in understanding that we’re all different. In my family, we all did the Myers-Briggs, just for fun, to see and it just opened it opened up some really fun conversations about the different ways that we process information. What about you, Pam?
PAM: I love that focus on all the things that you can do with your child to get through these moments. I’ll focus a bit more on the family member side, because she’s asking about coaching family members. And I agree, thinking of it as coaching family members isn’t probably a very useful perspective to bring to it, because you’re trying to control their behavior rather than your child’s. And unless they’ve asked for your help or they want that kind of coaching, it probably won’t go over very well, because it’ll feel like control.
So, what I’ve done in similar situations, long ago, was that I would approach them like I would my child, as in I would share information with them. Then you just see what they want to do with it. That sharing, certainly for me, wouldn’t have been done in a formal way, but that depends on how your family communicates typically. But I would watch for when a space might come up in a conversation, away from the visits themselves. I loved your idea of scoping out spaces for you guys to go and that would be a great thing to bring up in the conversation with other family members.
But basically, it’s validating and understanding where they’re coming from, and then just explaining what you see, in your case with your daughter, how you know the kinds of situations where she might get frustrated, that you’re working with her, but that once it bubbles over, that you’ve noticed she’s not able to communicate well and insisting that she do that doesn’t really help. And then, sharing with them what does help. Sharing with them that we have this space set up, we’re going to go there, because then you almost enlist the family members to help you out.
Definitely the other piece I was going to add was watching the environment and looking for those clues ahead of time, so that you can get involved before it turns. So, your space idea or some sort of shared word that one or the other one can tell that it’s time for us to do this process, to go off, calm down for a little bit, regroup for a little bit.
But if your family members understand that that’s what you’re doing, they see you doing something, so they don’t feel like they need to insist on their way and they can maybe even come up to you and say, “Hey, I think she’s starting to get worked up over whatever,” and point it out so that they can say, “Hey, let’s go find your mom,” or come get you and you guys can take over from there.
But I think the main thing is to share that information with them, to validate what it is they are trying to do, because they’re coming at it from their perspective. They’re not trying to piss your daughter off. I found that when I shared information like that and not in a big sit down, like, “I think we should sit down talk about how you treat my daughter,” type of conversation, but it’ll come up here and there. And just see what they do with it.
They may not be interested, and that way you know to make sure that you’re close by right now when she’s having more challenges, so that you can try and see the signals and jump in before it happens. I think that’s really all you can do with family, because it’s their relationship to develop. No matter how much I wanted to see my parents or other family members, however I imagined it in my head, I can’t force the two of them to have a relationship. So, all I can do is support each of them as best I can and let them know what’s going on and then see what happens.
ANNA: I think something that’s really important about what you said is helping them find their role, because especially with a new grandbaby and a three-year-old is still pretty young, we’re all kind of feeling our way. And I think when we’re working together, it doesn’t become just, “I’m the parent, I know best, I’m going to take my child over here.”
It becomes, “Oh, this is what’s happening,” and we’re talking and they do have some kind of role, even if it is just to bring the child back to you if they’re feeling upset or if they know about the space, if that works for your child, or they know or they know about another special way to calm them, I think that just helps everybody feel engaged and involved, because they do want to be a part of those kids’ lives.
PAM: Exactly. And they can feel so much more helpful, because they don’t want a lot of conflict either.
All right. Question number two. Another one from Caitlin.
“This is the second question about my two-year-old. We are radically unschooling in the sense that she makes decisions about food and bedtime and clothes and baths and we give her information about those choices and try to think of options that work for everyone. One of the last things I’ve been forcing is nail trimming.
She’s really scared of it and when her nails are too long, I usually have a standoff where I talk to her about it and won’t do anything else until she lets me trim them. But I’m currently trying out letting this be in her control. The result is that her nails are really long and breaking in a couple of places.
I don’t think she wants her nails to be long and I try to talk to her about it, but she tells me she’s scared to cut them. I tried asking her how to make it less scary, but don’t get a response. I’m not really sure what direction to go next.”
So, I’ll start with that one. I think, just in general, from the way you phrase the question, one thing that might be helpful to think about is not to think of anything as being in your control or her control, but to think of it as you guys working together. I think that is one of the big pieces when you first start learning about unschooling or living it with your family, because it’s not about one or the other. You still have that dichotomy set up. It’s like, “Okay. I’m ready to give up control over this and give it to my child.” That’s a lot of responsibility to hand to your child.
But when you think of yourself as helping them, it gives you so much more freedom, I think, to work together, to come up with solutions, to actually be involved. Giving things to her control seems like, all of the sudden, you’ve taken on a passive role in the situation. So, that’s something to consider.
Specifically, questions to ask, you said you think she’s unhappy with her nails being long, but we don’t know that for sure. I think by now, from the way you’ve described it, she certainly knows that by trimming her nails is an option in the situation. I think what you might be able to focus on more is what’s happening with it, if she is inadvertently scratching you or other people while she plays or hugs. Share that kind of information with her.
Show her what’s happening, not theatrically like, “Oh my goodness! Look what happened! You scratched me! Oh, it hurts!” But just show her, “That scratched me. Careful with your nails.” Ask her to be careful, because I’m sure she doesn’t want to be going around hurting people. That’s the root issue. What you’ve done by focusing on the nail trimming, you’ve jumped right to a particular solution, rather than trying to work together to figure out a way through it.
So, maybe you can live for a while with longer nails and see what actually transpires. I think what you’ll find is, once the pressure that she’s feeling to submit to nail trimming subsides a bit, and you really get to looking at the root issue, which is being careful not to hurt others with longer nails, I think she’ll be more open to brainstorming ways to do that.
At that point, here we are back to that control piece again, rather than handing it to her and asking her ways to make it less scary to trim her nails, you can brainstorm ideas with her. It’s something you’ll figure out together. I know when my kids were younger, they didn’t like it and I used to bite their nails shorter for them.
There’s just so many different options when you don’t jump to your particular solution. Sometimes it’s hard to realize that there are other options here. But when you let it sit for a while, it’s really cool what things can come up. So, what do you think, Anna?
ANNA: We always say the same things! That’s sort of what I was thinking is that I’m guessing that she probably would initiate wanting to trim them in some form or another if given the space. It might involve some cracked nails. She might figure out that it doesn’t work for her with some of her games to have longer nails. Then she’d understand the utility of cutting them. That way that decision is coming from her. I think she’ll be more inclined to find ways to make it work when she feels the need herself, versus mom coming in and anticipating this need and then providing the solution.
Again, if the nails are impacting you, the mom specifically, they’re scratching or something along those lines, then I would definitely share that impact, just like you talked about. My approach is really just to share my observations and my own personal boundaries, but understand that that individual is going to take that information and their own information and make the best decision for themselves. So, we work together on that.
They tell me why they like the nails or why they don’t want to trim them and I talk about what’s working for me and what’s not working for me. One of my kids really did have very long nails when she was young and she liked them that way. They would sometimes break, but she just didn’t like trimming and she didn’t like nail biting. So, I just gave her some tools to keep them clean or share observations if I felt like, “Ouch. That was scratching me,” or they’re impacting something else she’s doing.
And I guess, for me, the bottom line is kids are really able to understand so much more than they’re given credit for and I think we don’t know that, because they’re not given time. We swoop in with our solutions and agendas before there’s even space to form an opinion and decide for themselves. And, given the chance to decide for themselves, they will and then you have this sense of autonomy that I think is so important for children, especially in our society where they are given short shrift a lot. I think it’s just all those things tied up into one, but it’s working together and sharing observations and giving some time and space around coming to those conclusions.
PAM: Yeah. I think time is undervalued conventionally, but it is one of the most important things with unschooling, because you give time for things to develop, time for people to think, time for people to observe, for things to happen, for information to naturally come in, so that it can be part of the decision. I think one of the challenges, when we talk about control, is because we do talk a lot about it being their decision, because that’s how they learn.
“OK, I think this is my best choice right now,” and then seeing how that plays out. And then that experience gets brought into the next choice and the next choice, but letting them make the choice does not mean you’re not involved in the process leading up to it. It’s sharing information, listening to them, and really understanding the information they are sharing and their perspective, and all that kind of stuff. It really all comes together there, doesn’t it?
And again, like I think I shared in another podcast before, but my mantra is, “There’s plenty of time.” There always is time. It doesn’t have to be done right this second. It really doesn’t. Nails are going to be fine. Nails are going to get long. Nails are going to break. And even if a nail gets hurt, because it breaks below the quick or something like that, that’s okay. We don’t have to protect from everything.
If that’s what she’s needing to experience, if that’s what she’s wanting to do. We talk about information about that and sharing what’s happening. It’s just that back-and-forth dialogue. It’s not, “It’s all up to you,” or, “It’s all up to me.” It’s that interplay between there.
Our next question is from Beth.
“I really enjoyed listening to the podcast episode with Brie Jontry talking about unschooling a child with chronic illness. We have been unschooling for three years and I’m definitely still deschooling. We don’t have chronic illness in our house, but my eight-year-old son as well as myself have chronic tooth decay tendencies, which can be kept under control, there’s that bad word, ha!, by following a very similar diet to one you would ideally follow with Type I diabetes, minus the insulin.
For several years, I did tightly control his diet in this way, as I do my own, because we do not have dental insurance and do not have the money to pay for expensive dental work. I recently had conversations with him apologizing for my control, telling him that I respect him, and explaining how our food choices really do affect our teeth, and that mommy and daddy don’t have the money to pay for more big dental work.
I told him that he has the freedom to make his own choices with food now, and asked him to honor what he knows about his body and our finances and his choices. I made sure to add that he is worth all the money at the dentist, just that I don’t have it, haha! He is not wanting to honor these things, which makes me believe there is healing that needs to take place in his heart from the years of being so controlled. He also seems to be angry for the very fact that his body is this way and doesn’t want to accept it.
What wisdom would you offer to me about facilitating healing, shutting down the fear in my own heart, as I see him reaching for food that, to me, looks like dollar signs and credit card debt at the dentist?”
Well, this is a little bit tough, because I think you’re right in that he’s rebounding from that earlier control and so there’s that binge period and clamping down and, “I’m going to control it myself,” and not taking in other input. I think that’s really common when you’re bouncing back from that control piece, but I really have seen in many other situations where that thing evens out. And so, here we go back to, “There’s time. There’s plenty of time.” The tooth decay isn’t going to happen instantly. Just take that deep breath. And trusting and having that energy of trust helps.
And maybe there are some tools that you can find that would help mitigate things a bit, that might make you feel more comfortable, maybe like brushing more frequently, or adding foods like bone broth and healthy fats, things that can help with teeth and tooth decay.
So, instead of thinking of it as it’s just avoiding foods, focus on adding foods that help our teeth, so he doesn’t feel this deprivation, but we’re adding new things. I would also look at the foods he’s reaching for and find alternatives together. So, if he’s looking for something sweet or salty, understand what he’s looking for, and then together create some yummy foods that have ingredients that you feel more comfortable with and that he loves and tastes and understands.
For me, it all just falls back to what we are talking about before, sharing my best information and the impacts the person has, but knowing that ultimately the individual makes the decision about their own body. And we’re going to continue to work together, because I think that’s the critical piece. So, sharing the information and working together.
I think you’ll see, as he begins to trust that you’re actually working together on this and it’s not a top-down decision, that he’ll want to participate in finding solutions that feel good to you both, which may be things about different foods or creating different things or different brushing habits or whatever that looks like. There is a huge number of solutions that we can find, so just trusting that. And as you start trusting that working together piece, all kinds of new solutions can come up.
But I do feel like addressing your piece about his heart was hurt, honoring him and his emotions through this transition will go a long way in healing any past issues. So, that would be my focus, the relationship over the teeth, because I think you’ll find the rest of it falls into place, even though I know that’s kind of hard to let go of sometimes at the moment. Pam, what about you?
PAM: Yeah. I think that’s the biggest piece. You said right there in your question, it’s going to be a lot of processing for you so that you’re able to facilitate that healing. The way you worded it here, you have still set up a lot of expectations. Even though you’ve opened up in telling him what he can choose what he eats, you still have a lot of expectations on his choices.
As you said, you are seeing dollar signs in credit card debt every time he is picking some food. By talking about teeth only in the context of money, like boiling it down to that money, it really feels like you’ve handed him a whole bunch of issues and fears surrounding money, not really health. As Anna said, if you open everything up, there is so much more to the situation about caring for teeth and what you choose to eat, so much more than the maybe money that it might cost.
Certainly, if you find higher risks and things, those are part of the conversations, but it does seem like you’ve said, “Okay. I have all these fears about food. I know I don’t want to control you, because I can see that controlling your food hasn’t worked well for our relationship, but I’m going to hand you control and I’m going to hand you all my fears around it. And I’m going to hope that you make the same choices that I think you should make.”
So, rather, approach it as a learning experience for both of you, something that you’re doing together. And yeah, the trust piece is going to take a while.
As Anna said, he might feel the need, as part of it, to test that. But once you open it up to not just food that’s going in, when you look at all the other things that you can do, like adding things, changing up brushing, all sorts of other ways that you can approach that question and explore that question, I think that can go a long way to helping you guys feel like you’re working together.
I can see how much you’re focused on the diet and that works well for you and maybe even talking about an ideal Type I diet. That’s something that we really don’t talk about and don’t have. We don’t have an expectation. The insulin is there, because that’s what their body needs to process that. You guys are going to find that things that help his body process what he is choosing or wanting to put in.
Because once you set up an ideal of anything, that’s an expectation. And then, all of a sudden, that adds so much pressure to the choices. The choices become about the ideal and not about the person’s individual needs. And then they’re not really learning as much about themselves, because they’re just comparing themselves to the ideal. They’re not looking to see how their body reacts or how their body takes on what they’re putting in. They’re just judging what they put in against that ideal, so they’re missing a huge piece of the self-awareness that they can develop around the issue.
ANNA: I think that’s so important.
PAM: Okay. Question number four. This one is from Susan and it’s a quick one.
“Can you talk a little about how unschooling with an only child is different from unschooling of siblings?”
For me, I don’t think the unschooling itself, from the parent’s point of view, is any different. You’re supporting your child. You’re helping your child explore the world and supporting their needs and interests and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes, I hear concerns about learning social skills when it’s an only child, but they are still living and engaging with other people, with their parents. There are still people in the house.
They’re not living on their own. When they want to do things at home, they still are considering other people’s needs. Sure, they don’t have other siblings’ needs that are part of the equation, but there are certainly lots of other things to consider. They are still gaining that self-awareness. They’re still learning how to live with other people.
And as an unschooling parent, if your child is wanting more engagement with other children, there are so many ways to support that rather than just siblings themselves. You can invite other kids to play. There are group activities all over the place that they can join up. It all still becomes about self-awareness, helping them become aware of what they would like, introvert, extrovert, all those points in between, the interests, how they like to learn, all that stuff. It’s still, ultimately, from my perspective, the same unschooling. It just may look different how it works for your child, but that’s it. It looks completely individual for all unschooling children.
ANNA: Yeah. I would agree. I have several close friends who have only children that they are unschooling and honestly my first thought is, it’s a little bit easier! Because what I see is that they’re getting to devote their facilitating energy to one child, as opposed to having to meet some competing needs in the same household. It works beautifully.
The two people that I’m thinking of, one is extremely more on the extroverted scale and one is more in the introverted scale, and so those day-to-day things look a little different, but again it’s just about knowing your child and that self-awareness. Because with unschooling, what’s so great about it is that we really are living in the real world. We are talking to our parents and we’re solving problems in our house, because we’re actually living together. We’re not all off separately. We’re at the grocery store. We’re going to museums. We’re doing different things. We’re interacting everyday with all sorts of different people.
So, the socialization piece that people talk about really just isn’t a concern, because they are socializing with different ages, different parts of town, different things. I think it all unfolds naturally. I think it’s about listening to your child. The process of it is really no different, because it is just about learning that individual child and facilitating. But it’s going to look different for each child within your three, my two, or Pat’s one.
PAM: Do you want to take the last question, Anna?
ANNA: Sure. Okay. So, we have our last question, question five, from Stacy.
“Hi, Pam. Thank you so much for your podcast. It has been very helpful. I have a question about evaluations. In our state, we are required to have a yearly evaluation. My concern is that we have been deschooling. I have an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old. The first couple of months were challenging to us to let go of the “old model”. After a few weeks, we were finally able to let it go and my girls have really been enjoying their free time to stay up late, sleep in, watch TV, draw. It has been seven months since we decided to unschool. Probably more like five, if you consider our “sticky start”.
We need to have an evaluation in a couple of months and I do not know how to prepare for this or what to expect.
My kids have been resistant to anything that appears like schoolwork or projects. They watch a lot of TV and definitely learn a lot from the shows they watch, but I’m not sure how this transfers into the evaluations. Do you have any suggestions for us? Thank you.”
My first thought is, I feel like I need a little bit more information about the type of evaluation, because it’s very different from state to state and maybe in Canada. I’m not sure exactly how that works for you guys. In general, I’ve seen that children who are unschooling and even in that deschooling phase are taking in lots of information and really don’t have problems with testing or evaluations. In our state, we have an annual testing requirement, but it is such a non-event.
I remember early on, we were taking a test. The kids were young, in the elementary school age, and it was dealing with subject-verb agreement. They sailed through it. It was so funny, because it was like, would anybody else pick these other answers? We’ve never had a lesson in subject-verb agreement. We’ve never done a worksheet. We read and we talk! I felt so bad for the children that had spent hours and hours doing worksheets on subject-verb agreement, because you just live your life and you’re learning all the time.
So, I think you might be surprised. But again, I think it depends on what kind of evaluation, so I would say to really investigate what options your state has and to understand what they’re looking for. For us, we do a standardized test that we can administer in our home and then we just keep that on file. I know there are some places that do portfolios, and so you have to translate what you’ve been doing into this education-ese for the portfolio.
But there are people unschooling in all the states and Canada and beyond, so it may mean talking to some of your local unschoolers about what those evaluations look like, if you’re not clear about that. But I don’t know, Pam, if you have more information or know anything else you want to add to that?
PAM: Yeah, no. That was my big point.
Evaluations are very specific to the place where you live. I know that states and provinces here in Canada are widely different. So, my biggest suggestion was to check in with unschooling groups in your particular area, because I know for those that have evaluations, that’s something that comes up on those lists and in those groups and they even share examples of their own. I think, in general, what it is is taking the time to translate what you’re seeing in their lives, unless it’s testing, and translating that into the language of the evaluation. And that’s what you’re going to see from your local information.
I would start with whatever it is they’re asking for, and then just brainstorm ways that you see that unfolding in their lives. I think it’ll take a bit of a mind shift at first, because that’s where you are. Like, I don’t know how to do it. But once you get started and your brain shifts into that mode, I bet you will see all sorts of ways that you can translate all the learning that’s in your children’s lives right now into their more formal language.
Because, as Anna said, they really are learning lots. I think there’s an article or two floating around, just in general about that translation of activities into education-ese, so I will definitely link to those in the show notes. But definitely follow up with local groups that you know and just ask, because they’re always so generous in sharing that kind of information.
All right! That was our last question! I want to thank you so much, Anna, for answering questions with me and, as always, if you would like to submit a question for the Q&A show, just go to livingjoyfully.ca/podcast and click on the link. Wishing everybody a great day!