PAM: Hi, everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from living joyfully.ca and today I’m here with Jennifer McGrail. Hi, Jennifer!
JENNIFER: Hi! Thanks for having me!
PAM: No problem! Thanks very much for joining us. Jennifer, if you don’t know, is an unschooling mom to four awesome children. She’s the owner and writer of the Path Less Taken blog and Facebook group and also the host of the Free To Be unschooling conference in Phoenix, Arizona. I have ten questions for you, Jennifer, so let’s dive in!
JENNIFER: All right!
PAM: The first question is, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you came to unschooling?
JENNIFER: Well, we actually had no plans on unschooling or homeschooling at all. We were high-school sweethearts and we got married at 18 and 19. And, when we first became pregnant, I was working full-time and I just assumed I’d go right back to work, didn’t think I’d be a stay-at-home mom.
Then I had my first son, and once I saw him, everything that I thought I wanted to do went out the window and I wanted to be home with him and I didn’t want to go back to work. Attachment parenting was something I read about when I was pregnant, but it sounded crazy. Suddenly, it didn’t sound so crazy anymore! That was what I was naturally drawn to.
And from the beginning, I just followed my instincts. From attachment parenting, he was still an infant, but I knew it didn’t make sense to me to send him to school. So, I went to the library, got all the books, I read John Holt, and it just clicked, and it just made sense. So, for us, the parenting piece came first and then it just naturally progressed into keeping the kids home and into unschooling and eventually radical unschooling. And we never looked back. He’s 19 now. And we have three others. We never looked back. It was just right.
PAM: Wow. That’s so cool. I hadn’t heard of homeschooling or even attachment parenting here in Canada. It hadn’t quite hit. My eldest is 24 now, but as soon as I found it, it just made so much sense. It just clicks.
JENNIFER: Yeah. When I grew up, there were some homeschoolers down the street from us and they were really sort of radical. They lived in tents on their compound. We whispered about them, “Oh, those weird unschoolers.” That was the only exposure I’d had to homeschooling. Who knew I would be here now?
PAM: Okay. Let’s move to question number two.
I definitely, and I’m sure our listeners too, would like to hear more about your unschooling kids, like what they’re interested in right now, how they’re pursuing it, and maybe how that interest came about.
JENNIFER: Okay. Well, my oldest who’s 19, right now he is figuring out what he wants to do next. He just finished a small engine repair course. He’s the kid who, ever since he was a toddler, loved to take everything apart and put it back together again. We’d save all the old VCRs and things for him to just completely take apart and put back together. And, as a 19-year-old, he still does that, but with weed whackers and lawn mowers, and bigger things like that.
He’s not really sure if he wants to do that as a career. Right now, he’s looking for a first job to get some money coming in. He’s very active online. He runs a few Minecraft servers. He’s very, very computer-literate. All my kids are. They’re the ones I go to for help. He is in an in-between place right now, where he’s deciding what he wants to do next. And what’s awesome about unschooling is that he’s able to do that with no pressure. We’re not pressuring him, “You’re over 18 now. You need to figure it out.” I didn’t know what I wanted to do then, so I’m glad we’re able to give him that time.
My 15-year-old, his big thing at the moment is he is in a band with some friends. It’s kind of a long-distance band. The rest of the band members are in Michigan and they practice over Skype when they’re not together in person. It’s amazing.
They performed together for the first time at the Free To Be conference last year, and since then, he’s flown out to Michigan and they’ve done open mic nights and they’ve performed at birthday parties and it’s been really cool for him.
It’s been a few years now since he started playing guitar and I don’t know what started it, but he was mostly self-taught. And then he decided he wanted to go get professional lessons for a while. He did that for a few months to refine his skills. Music is his thing. That’s what he does with most of his time. He practices his guitar. They’re writing their own music. So, it’s been really cool to watch how passionate he is about that. That’s what he’s doing.
My 12 year-old, actually, today is his birthday. He turns 12 today.
PAM: Happy birthday!
JENNIFER: He’s still sleeping. He won’t be up for quite a few more hours. He is one of my kids who has loved to try everything. He’s the one who has done the most sports. He’s done Scouts, and he’s done gymnastics, and he’s done karate. He loves to try new things. He’ll do them for a while and then he’ll try another one.
Right now, his big thing is football. He’s been playing for three seasons now, flag football. He’s loving that. He can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than 30 seconds. He’s also very computer-literate. He does a lot on the computer. He’s busy. He’s a busy 12-year-old. But his big thing right now is football. He’s also very musically-inclined. He plays the bass guitar just for his own pleasure. He’s completely self-taught. He’s self-taught on the piano.
My eight-year-old, she’s the one who keeps me running around. She’s the only extrovert in a family of six, so that’s been a big learning curve for me. She loves to be around people and she loves to be busy and she also loves to try new things. Her big new thing is performing of any sort. She loves to act, and she loves to dance, and she loves to sing. She’s in The Wizard of Oz right now, a local homeschool production of The Wizard of Oz. She’s a dancer.
For two years in a row now, she danced with the dance team cheerleaders for our local arena football league. There were 10,000 people in the stands, so she likes to drop that into conversation, “That time I danced in front of 10,000 people!”
PAM: That’s awesome!
JENNIFER: Yeah, she’s fun. She has taught me so much about parenting, just her personality, but also having a girl after three boys, it’s been a whole new learning experience with her. It’s been great. They’re busy kids. They’re happy kids. Those are their big things right now.
PAM: Very cool. Question number three.
What has been one of the more challenging aspects of your unschooling journey so far?
JENNIFER: For me, I think it’s been figuring out where my own self-care fits in. I tend to be an all-or-nothing personality, so I figured early on that it was very easy for me to make it all about the kids all the time. A certain amount of that, you need to do unschooling well, but I had to realize that if I burnt myself out, that I wasn’t any good to my kids or myself. I had to figure out where I fit in in the whole of unschooling and how I could take care of myself and also be there, fully-present for the kids.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great point. I remember struggling with that, too, and that’s something that changes with time, as well. The things you find that re-energize you change over time and also, as they grow. Because, when they’re younger and they need more hands-on help, your moments for re-energizing feel limited. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways I could do it while I was still with them.
For me, at the time, it was just having a cup of tea while they were doing things, or a little more quiet activity, or just going out for a walk. So, they’re looking at their things and I’m looking at my things, seeing the gardens and that kind of stuff and how that changes over time. But it is an important part, because putting our needs into the mix is part of learning how to all live together. That’s a really big piece of it.
JENNIFER: It is. And there seems to be a push by society, that it’s important for you to get away from your kids. My oldest was still just a baby and people were offering to babysit. “You guys should go out,” or, “You should go away for a weekend.” It wasn’t that I wanted to get away from my kids. I wanted to learn how to take time for myself and still be present for my kids.
PAM: Exactly. I can’t remember how many times I was asked, “I’ll look after the kids. You go do this,” but that’s not what I want, either.
JENNIFER: It’s hard. It’s a balance. And I noticed, for me, something that was huge was that my kids are all about three and a half years apart. So, once I had a toddler that was getting a little more independent, then all of a sudden, I was pregnant and then I had another new infant who needed me so much. So, for many, many years, it was that way.
Then once my daughter, who was our last child, reached toddlerhood, I started to have almost like an identity crisis, because I thought, wait a minute. I’m not having another baby. She’s getting more independent. I almost felt like I had lost myself. I had to refind the things that made me happy just for me. I had to think, “Did I used to have hobbies?” It was a big growth period, trying to remember what I used to do outside of kids, even things I could do beside the kids, my own hobbies and creative pursuits.
It’s been good for the kids to see me doing my own things and getting joy from my own things, a lot of which I can share with them. They can do art with me. They love to bake with me. But yeah, it was definitely a period of figuring out where I fit in into all of it.
PAM: That’s a great point. I love when you mentioned sharing that with them, because for them to see adults doing things that they like to do, continuing learning and everything, that really hits home the whole idea of lifelong learning, that this isn’t something they’re learning as kids and we’re doing something else as adults. This is a way of living your life.
JENNIFER: Right. Absolutely. About three years ago now, I went and got certified to teach yoga and that was a big thing. That was when my daughter was getting older and I was going through my, “What am I going to do now?” That was a big thing for them to see me devote time to something that I wanted to do, something else made me happy and was my own. The kids did yoga with me. They came to a lot of my classes. It was fun. It’s a good thing for them to see you pursuing your own things, definitely.
PAM: Awesome. Question number four.
You are very well-known for taking on parenting stories that are making the rounds on social media and then sharing a wonderfully fresh view of that situation through the lens of unschooling and gentle parenting. You recently wrote a blog post entitled, “I’m not the meanest mom,” which has been spread all over the place.
I was so excited to see that. It was in reaction to a Facebook post that was making the rounds from a self-proclaimed “meanest mom,” in which she shared that when her children didn’t say thank you to the server for their ice cream cones, she threw them away to teach them a lesson. Your list in your blog post of what children are actually learning in those kinds of situations was great. I was hoping you could share that with us.
JENNIFER: My thing with those posts is that I can’t wrap my head around how the general public seems to have such a disconnect between how parents treat their kids and how adults treat other adults. They all praise it. In droves they come and praise that behavior, but nobody takes a step back and really thinks about what it is that they’re praising.
If someone offered me a treat and then bought it and handed it to me and then didn’t like the way that I behaved, so they took it from me and threw it away, I wouldn’t respect them. Everyone keeps saying, oh, they’ll respect the mom now. I wouldn’t respect them. I’d be really ticked off. I’d be embarrassed. I would be humiliated. And I probably wouldn’t want to get ice cream from them again.
What I think people aren’t seeing is, well, everyone says, “Well, they’ll say ‘thank you’ next time.” They might. But they’re not saying “thank you” because they have gratitude. They’re saying “thank you” because they don’t want to get their ice cream thrown away.
PAM: They have fear!
JENNIFER: It’s total fear. No one advocates for treating people that way in any other instance, bosses or co-workers or spouses or any other relationship. But they seem to think that using intimidation and fear and bullying, which is really what it was, she bullied them. So, she was teaching them that if someone doesn’t behave the way you want, that it’s okay to bully them. I don’t understand why people don’t see that. They’re so wrapped up in, “Well, she was a mother. She needed to teach them,” but they’re not seeing it for what it is, which is bullying.
If they’re learning anything from it, it’s all negative. They’re learning that it’s okay to bully, that it’s okay to parent with fear and intimidation and humiliation. I do believe that parents who parent like that probably have good intentions, but I think that they’re not realizing what they’re actually teaching their kids. I want my kids to say “thank you” because they’re thankful, not because they’re afraid I’m going to throw away their treats if they’re not.
PAM: Yeah, I know they’ve got a purpose. They’re not trying to do harm. They want what they call a well-behaved child and this is the tool they think will work. Sometimes it seems like they’re choosing these tools because they don’t think the kids can think for themselves. It’s the old, “They’re empty vessels to fill up,” that their kids won’t absorb the lessons that you’re talking about from being treated that way, but they absolutely will.
Their brains are working. They’re taking these actions and they are internalizing how they feel from it and learning from the actions, instead of from the words. When you tell them, “Make sure you say ‘thank you’,” and you want them to treat other people so nicely and respectfully, and yet, through those actions, they’re being treated so badly, it’s the actions that I think really speak.
JENNIFER: Definitely. That’s what I talked a lot about in that blog post. I think our kids learn so much more from our our actions than from our words. And, of course, obviously have the conversations with them, but it’s your actions. People aren’t seeing the hypocrisy in trying to instill a sense of being polite in your kids by treating them rudely. It doesn’t make any sense.
PAM: I like to think of it as, when your words and your actions are in alignment, that’s when you’re building trust. Because your kids trust that your actions will back up what you say, so all the messages are in the same direction, rather than being opposed or hypocritical.
JENNIFER: I think that part of the problem, too, is that there is a desperation that people feel. They think that, “Oh. Kids these days, they’re so entitled.” Anytime they see someone, a parent, doing something, they latch onto it, because they’re doing something. But they’re not realizing that what they’re doing is negative.
When they post about it and they say, “Oh, I’m the meanest mom. I did this and this,” we feed it, because, so overwhelmingly, the response they get is positive. People like me who say, “Yeah. You know, maybe this wasn’t the best way to handle the situation,” I get told, “You’re being too judgmental. You weren’t there. At least she stood up. Your kids are probably ungrateful brats.”
It feels so backwards. I don’t know this woman. It wasn’t about her personally, but she made this public, very public. She has millions of people who follow her and she very publicly said, “Here’s what I did,” and I think it’s important that some of us do say, “Maybe you could have handled it this way instead.”
PAM: Yeah, seeing options. That’s great. Another question from your blog. Question number five. We’re almost halfway done.
You mentioned that one of the questions that you get a lot is, “If don’t spank, what do I do?” So, I was curious how you answer that.
JENNIFER: It is a question that I get a lot. And it’s frustrating. Pople usually aren’t happy with my answer, because I think what they want is something immediate they can do that they can trade spanking for, like one-for-one. If I don’t spank, then I can take this specific action. And it doesn’t really work that way, because, with gentle parenting, you need to reframe the whole situation and change your whole mindset. It does take more time to listen and to connect with your kids and to empathize with them and to provide alternatives. Spanking is immediate.
I think what people want is an immediate answer. Of course, there are things you can and should do, particularly with toddlers. I know they’re the ones that people struggle with the most when they do things like hit or throw or something like that. Yes, you intervene. You hold their hands. You tell them, “Gentle hands.” You provide alternatives. But you don’t trade something for the spanking.
You have to put the time in. You have to stop. You have to connect with them. You need to listen to them. You need to empathize with them.
And, usually for toddlers, it’s just a matter of growth and time and maturity. All the things that people punish their young kids for aren’t even “bad behaviors”. They’re just age-appropriate behaviors. It’s normal for toddlers to throw and to hit and to dump out glasses of water. It’s all normal exploration and they get punished for it.
You can connect with them and help them explore the way they want to explore safely and keep everyone from getting hurt. But in terms of doing something instead of spanking, you just need to put the time in to make the relationship important. And once you have that relationship, everything else becomes easier, because they trust you. They trust that you’re not going to spank them or yell at them or treat them harshly when they do something. You’re going to maybe stop the activity if they’re doing something dangerous, but then you’re also going to say, “Let’s do this instead.”
I always like to tell this story, because when people come to me very frustrated, “Oh, my kid won’t stop hitting or throwing,” my most spirited toddler, I’ll say, the one who was the thrower and the hitter, he would shove sandwiches into the VCR. He was busy. People say, “Well, some kids just need to be spanked.” The one kid that people would have said fell into that category, we parented him gently through it all, and he is the most laid-back teenager you would ever hope to meet. You would never know that he was that way as a toddler. I think you just need to love them through it.
You can’t think of trading spanking for something else. I tell people the first step always has to be to breathe, because it calms you down, it calms your voice down, it calms the kids down. You breathe, you address the immediate behavior that needs to be addressed, you offer alternatives, you empathize with them if they’re upset because you stopped them from doing something that was fun, and you give them alternatives. And it really is just a matter of time and patience, because they grow up. And with consistency, they really do learn not to do those things.
Once you’ve done that, once you get past those young years, my kids don’t do things I would punish them for, even if I did punish, because they have no reason to act out. We have a good relationship. Our home is peaceful. And I am glad I never spanked, I never punished, because the proof is in the pudding, like they say.
I forgot what the original question was now.
PAM: That’s okay. I think you did a pretty good job of that. The, if I don’t spank, what do I do? And yeah, the relationship, and putting the time in.
JENNIFER: Relationship. You equip yourself with the tools. You breathe, you listen, you empathize, and you model. You show them, through your actions, how you act. And you don’t sweat the small stuff, because it really is small stuff.
PAM:Yeah. That puddle of water is just fine. That’s totally true that it seems like a lot of time in the moment, but, oh my gosh, the payoff from investing that time in the relationship and empathizing with your child and being with them as they work through it, as they get older, they gain the skills naturally to take over a lot of that and catch things before they happen.
JENNIFER: Exactly. I think a lot of mainstream parenting advice, when they tell you steps of what to do and how to discipline, they’re almost treating it like you’re in a transaction with your kids, instead of in a relationship. You do this action and you’ll get this result. But it doesn’t work that way, because they’re humans and you have to treat them like humans, not like a transaction, where you put in this input and you get this out. It doesn’t work that way.
PAM: That leads nicely into our next question, which is another idea about parenting without punishment that I hear about pretty often and it’s natural consequences. And, for me, it’s a bit confusing, because I regularly see examples of parents, whether it’s online or around in our community, parents that almost seem to be setting up their kids for what they call “natural consequences,” almost wanting things to go wrong. But, to me, if the parents have to set their kid up to fail, that seems artificial to me. That’s not natural. So, I was wondering what your perspective is on that.
JENNIFER: I agree with you in that it’s confusing. And I do see exactly what you say a lot. People will come on some gentle parenting pages that I’m on and ask a question. They’ll be like, “What’s a natural consequence for this? What can I do as a natural consequence for this?” But if you have to think it up, it’s really not a natural consequence. Then it just becomes a punishment.
I do think that natural consequences, when it’s something benign, that we can help our kids through, an example I use a lot, because it’s just so basic, is a toddler not wanting to put on a coat. If it’s not 25 degrees below zero, it’s not going to hurt to say, “Okay. You don’t have to wear your coat. I’ll bring it in case you change your mind.” And then, if they get outside and feel, “Oh, it is cold,” then they can put on the coat. And they felt why you asked them to put on the coat in the first place and you gave them the coat.
So, you’re not punishing them. And then, they trust you, because they understand that you had a reason. And they understand that you’re there with them to help them through it, instead of making them suffer and saying, “You should have worn your coat,” and then just letting them be cold.
There are times, though, that you can help them learn about natural consequences without having them go through the pain of actually experiencing the consequences. As an example, my daughter, she loves stuffed animals. She has tons and tons of stuffed animals. And we have a dog that chews up stuffed animals if they’re left out. She knows this and we’ve talked about it and I try to remind her, but she plays with them and they’re all over the house.
And if I see a stuffed animal on the floor, some more punitive parents would be like, “Well, that’s going to get chewed up and then that’s a natural consequence and so, that’s how she’s going to learn.” If I see it and don’t do anything about it, then that’s on me. That’s just me being a jerk, really, and unkind. So, that’s when I can just pick it up for her and nicely say, “I don’t want this to get chewed up.” And what happens with that is that they not only learn the consequences, but they learn about helping each other with the consequences.
I’ve had something that was left out somewhere and had one of the kids bring it to me and say, “Oh, I don’t want this to get wrecked,” or whatever. They do what they’ve experienced. It comes back to learning from your actions more than your words.
PAM: Exactly. Modeling helping each other out as much as we can. That’s so huge, I think, in relationships within your family. You’re just showing them how we help each other out as much as we can. And then sometimes you don’t see that stuffed animal in the corner. Nobody sees it. And it gets chewed up. There are going to be so many times when nobody can anticipate or see what’s coming and things are going to go wrong. You don’t have to set your kids up for those.
JENNIFER: Exactly. And it’s another example of people wanting to treat kids differently than they would other loved ones. If my husband, using that same example, had left something out where it could get ruined or there was something outside where it could get rained on, I wouldn’t see it and leave it there to teach him a lesson. You don’t do that to each other. So, setting your kids up to fail, to me, is just another example of treating them with less respect than you’d treat other people.
It’s not a kind way to do it, because the fact is, there are real consequences. There have been stuffed animals that have gotten chewed up that haven’t been noticed. I didn’t know she left it out. She didn’t remember she left it out. And that’s unfortunately a real thing that happens. There are natural consequences, but it becomes a punishment when you know what’s going to happen and you don’t stop it.
PAM: That’s a great way to look at it. Let’s move on to question seven.
With unschooling, we choose to actively help our children pursue their goals. We talk to them like we’re a team. We’re working together. So, when they ask to do things, together, we can often find a way to say “yes” or some workable version. But sometimes, things just don’t work out. And oftentimes, that’s because some things just aren’t under our control. So, I’d love to talk with you about things we can say to our children when things don’t quite work out and they’re having a hard time.
JENNIFER: I think that’s another area where people aren’t really treating their kids as humans. They’re almost expecting them to be robots. When kids are upset about something or disappointed about something, it’s okay for them to express that. It’s okay for them to be disappointed. It’s okay for them to cry.
You see articles. I wrote a response to one that was something like, “Five Ways to Nip it in the Bud When Your Kids are Acting Out”. The whole article was talking about a kid who was disappointed when they had to be told “no”. The mainstream advice is that kids need to learn to hear “no”. And they’re going to learn that, because, like you said, there are going to be things that are outside of our control and sometimes we’ll have to say “no”. I think most unschoolers say “yes” as often as they can.
When I truly do have to say “no”, sometimes they’re going to be disappointed and that’s okay. They’re allowed to have those emotions. My thing is, this is really always my default in parenting, is putting myself in their shoes and, how would I want to be treated in that situation? I would want someone to empathize. Empathizing is the big thing. You just want to feel heard. You want to know that someone gets it. So, I would tell my kids, “I’m sorry. It really does stink when XYZ happens.” And I would want to tell them that I hear what they’re saying. I hear their frustration. I understand how they feel. I would want to tell them, it’s okay to feel.
It really creeps me out the way a lot of times we’re advised to stop the crying, like you don’t want kids to have emotions. They can have emotions. It’s good to have emotions and get those emotions out. I noticed that as adults, people apologize when they cry. Every time someone gets emotional about something, they’ll start to cry, and they’ll be like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And I wonder if that’s because, as kids, they were so often told, “Stop crying,” and so it was all shoved in. And then we become adults who feel like emotions are something not to show.
So, I want my kids to know that it’s okay to have those emotions and that I’m on their side no matter what it is, even if it’s something that seems small as an adult. Sometimes a kid will be really, really upset because they got the wrong color cup. That’s something that, as an adult, seems so little. But to a kid, it is so, so huge. And I want them to know that I understand that that thing was important to them and that I’m sorry and that I’m here to help them and that I’m on their side.
Finally, I would problem-solve with them, help them figure out, “Well, we can’t do this right now, but next week, we can do this,” or, “How about if we call this person and do this?” Figure out the next thing. You can’t take away the disappointment in the moment, but together, you can plan and brainstorm and look forward to the next thing.
If it’s a toy they want that you don’t have the money for, you can save up the money. You can help them keep a list. You can figure out ways to let them know that what’s important to them is also important to you and that you’ll help them find a way to get it there. I think that, in itself, is huge, because people just want to be heard and kids are no different. They want to know that what’s important to them is also important to you and that you get that and that you’re going to figure out a way to make it happen.
PAM: I think there’s that piece there at the end about how it helps them see that there’s another side. If you want to call it the light at the end of the tunnel. Once they experience that you’re helping them find that, over the years, at least in conversation with my older kids now, they know that even when things are going really wrong and they’re upset about something and they don’t know what that plan is, they know that there will be time after. They’ll be able to move through it. It’s not the end of world in the moment.
The other really big piece that I think can sometimes trip people up when you’re empathizing with them, as you pointed out, is realizing that, even if their emotions are a lot stronger than you think you would have in their place or that you think is appropriate, whatever, those are valid, because that is how they’re experiencing it. Once you’ve validated it and then don’t sit there twiddling your thumbs waiting for them to move on to the next step, it’s joining them where they are. And when they’re ready to start looking and brainstorming other things that they can do to move forward, just doing it on their timetable instead of trying to pull them along on yours.
JENNIFER: Absolutely. And sometimes, there just needs to be a period of letting them be upset. My daughter was upset because she had a sleepover she was really looking forward to. Something came up in the other family and they had to cancel. She cried and I asked her, “What do you need me to do? Do you want me to help you take your mind off it? Do you just need to be sad?” She’s eight. So, she’s not little, so she was able to tell me, “I just need to be sad today.” I sat with her. She wanted me to be in the room with her, but she didn’t want me to talk or play. She sat. We sat on the couch and she was sad. That’s what she needed from me was just for me to let her be sad.
When she was feeling ready, then we talked about it and then we were able to reschedule the play date and all was well. But in that moment, my job was just to be there. I think that parents, a lot of times, want to immediately fix. You can’t always do that. So, when you can’t immediately fix, then, like you said, you need to just meet them where they are.
PAM: That time is so important. And it can make us uncomfortable, because we’re not used to it. But I think it’s a huge piece.
I’d like to shift gears a little bit for these last couple of questions. You host the Free To Be unschooling conference in Phoenix, Arizona. I was wondering if you could share what inspired you to start that.
JENNIFER: Sure. It’s actually kind of funny. I shared this story at the first conference. When I first mentioned, “Oh, maybe we should start our own conference,” I was joking. What happened was, we had gone to Flo Gaskin’s conference in San Diego for the three years that she had it. When she decided not to do it anymore, we were really bummed that year, because it was something we had looked forward to every year.
We felt like there was a big gap in that time of the year and in this part of the country. There was no more conference. We were riding in the car and talking about it and saying, “It’s a bummer that that conference isn’t happening this year.” And I said, “We should just start our own,” totally off-handed like that. My husband was like, “We should!” What? We checked with the kids. We wouldn’t have done it if all four kids weren’t on board, because it’s a lot of time and a lot of work. We felt it had to be a family experience.
The kids thought it was a great idea. We didn’t talk about it for very long before we were like, “Let’s just do this!” We gave ourselves 18 months before the first one when we announced it. I emailed some people I knew who could give me some advice, but, other than that, we just jumped in, and we just researched, and we did it. We got a really, really lovely response right away from people who were excited about us doing it. We just kept thinking, I hope we can pull this off.
Like I mentioned earlier, we are big introverts. We don’t host parties. So, the idea of us doing it was sort of funny, because it was so far outside of our comfort zone. But we were excited about it and so, we just jumped in.
The first year just went so well and we got so much lovely feedback. It was exciting to know that we had put together this thing. The speakers and all the people who came out and registered, it was amazing. We were so glad we did it. And even now, we’re planning our third year and I still keep saying, “It’s so weird we really did that. That we started a conference and that it’s in it’s third year.” It’s been amazing.
PAM: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about some of the things an unschooling family might get out of attending an unschooling conference. What kind of feedback do you get from attendees?
JENNIFER: There are a lot of things. I think one of the biggest ones is the social aspect, but not just as in seeing friends that you haven’t seen for very long. That part is great. One of the most rewarding things for me is seeing people, particularly teenagers, something about seeing them in the lobby, running across the lobby to hug their friends they haven’t seen for a long time, that is a really cool feeling.
The social aspect, not just getting together and talking with, but being able to see in real life how other unschooling families operate, because some people don’t live in an area where there is an unschooling community and all their exposure is online, so they’ve never actually seen it in person. Seeing it in person is really powerful, to see the interactions between the parents and the kids and what that actually looks like in real life. I think that’s really powerful, particularly for those who are new to unschooling and might have doubts, to be able to see it is really reassuring.
Which brings me the next one. I think the biggest thing and the most positive feedback we’ve gotten or the strongest feedback, is the people who have had a spouse who maybe wasn’t all the way on board yet and who had a lot of questions and doubts and were able to get their questions answered and have that lightbulb moment, when they see and it clicks for them.
At a conference, we tried really hard to have a big mix of really seasoned unschoolers, and moms and dads, and grown unschoolers. With the grown unschoolers, it was powerful for the spouses to see how well these kids were doing and the interesting things they were doing, and how successful they were and how happy they were and they could see, “Wow. Unschooling really does work.” These are happy, productive kids who have grown up unschooling.
Even the teens, I had one mom send me an email about her husband. He wasn’t quite there yet with unschooling. He listened to the teen panel and afterwards, they hung out in the hallway and he just asked his questions. He kept a notebook. He filled up a notebook all weekend with all the questions he asked and the answers. The teens stood with him and they answered all his questions.
After that, she said that’s what he needed to hear to be convinced that unschooling was not just a valid option, but an awesome option. These kids were learning and happy and engaged. He didn’t need to be afraid, because is really was a great way to learn and to live with your family. Those have been the coolest things for us, as the organizers, to hear these people who came to the conference not really sure about unschooling, but four days later, they left very confident in unschooling. That’s really cool to know.
PAM: I got goosebumps listening to your teen story. And really, I bet it dawned on him that he was actually talking to the teens, that they were answering his questions. So, it wasn’t the questions themselves. It was the actual the interaction, as well, that I bet really helped him.
JENNIFER: Yes. One of those teens was my teen who shoved things in the VCR as a toddler.
PAM: Exactly. All right. We have made it to question number ten. And I love asking this of all of our ten question guests.
Looking back now, what, for you, has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling?
JENNIFER: This is the easiest question for me to answer, because there are obviously so many benefits to unschooling, seeing the kids learn and seeing them love to learn and seeing them have freedom and be happy and not going through the angst I see other kids go through. All of that is great, but for me, far and away the best thing about unschooling has been my own relationship with the kids.
I know that, obviously, regular homeschooled kids and public schooled kids can all have good relationships with their parents, but I think unschooling and radical unschooling in particular, lends itself to creating strong relationships. Relationships come first in the whole unschooling journey. I have a wonderful relationship with all my kids, from 19 down to eight, and I credit unschooling for that. We live together. We work together. We operate as a family. I couldn’t imagine not having such a close relationship with my kids.
As teens, the societal thing of, “Oh! Wait until they’re teens!” is terrible. I am enjoying my teens so much. They’re so interesting, all the ages. I’m finding that I enjoy my kids more and more as years go on and as they get older and they get able to talk about different things and do different things. They are my best friends, even though society says you’re not supposed to do that, either.
They’re amazing and we have such a close relationship. You go through different seasons and periods. And you go through times that are harder, but you work it out as a family. And the relationship is always first. And I couldn’t ask for a better relationship with my kids. That, to me, has been the most valuable part of unschooling, by far.
PAM: I love that. I found the same thing, too. When we first started, I had no idea of the relationships that would develop, but those relationships are going to last me for a lifetime and they have been the most powerful thing that’s ever going to come out of it. So, that’s great.
JENNIFER: I see the focus of being the meanest parent and everything. I do wonder what those relationships are going to be like in the future, when you’re spending your time now in such an “us versus them” mentality. I don’t want to be adversaries with my kids. We’re partners. Like you said, those are relationships that you’re going to have for the rest of your life. And I look forward to being strong when they’re adults, but I’m also enjoying it right now, right at the ages that they’re at.
PAM: The teens were and are a great time, too. Kids are just awesome!
JENNIFER: They are!
PAM: They’re fun! Well, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Jennifer. Thank you.
JENNIFER: Thank you for having me. It was fun.
PAM: Yeah. Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
JENNIFER: You can find me at www.JenniferMcGrail.com. You’ll find the links there to Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat. I’m all over!
PAM: Perfect. I will add that link to the show notes. Thanks again, Jennifer, and wishing all the listeners a wonderful day! Bye!
JENNIFER: Thank you!