PAM: Hi, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Jennie Gomes. Hi, Jennie!
JENNIE: Hi, Pam.
PAM: Jennie is mom to three young children ages six and under and they’ve been unschooling for a couple of years now, or more specifically, deschooling. Jennie and I have chatted on and off over that time and she is actively working to shed the control and punishment she grew up with and not pass it on to her kids. I’m really looking forward to diving into her deschooling experience with her.
Jennie, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you first came across the idea of unschooling?
JENNIE: Hi, Pam. Thanks for having me. I’m honored that you’ve asked to interview me. Thank you very much for that.
We started unschooling or I came across unschooling as I was looking to try to find alternatives on homeschooling. So, what happened was Madalyn went into JK and she was fine. She’s always been a strong little girl, so we didn’t have any of the crying when he dropped her off. But she was always observing and she was always paying attention to what was going on around her. I was going back to work, so the decision was obvious. We’ll put her in JK and see where it goes from there. I had never thought about homeschooling or unschooling at all at the time. I had only heard about it because I’m in La Leche League. I had a friend of mine who homeschooled and thought, it’s not for me. I don’t think I would ever do that.
Dropping her off at school that day, I was really sad, because I wasn’t going to be spending any more time with her. And so, I was really sad about that, because I love spending time with her. But I went along with the process. And so, dropping her off that day in JK I saw her taking everything in, what was going on around her. We had always practiced attachment parenting and we always had very good open communication with one another. And she was good.
She walked on in there and she was like that from the time she started until June. And then, in June, she started to say things like, “You know what Mommy? I don’t want to do what everybody else does. I want to do what I want to do. And when I’m sitting on the carpet, my body wants to move, but my teacher is telling me that I have to sit down and so I’m confused about what I have to do.” And this was coming from a four-year-old, a very in-tune four-year-old.
I started to hear these things and when I went to meet with the teacher, she would say things like, “Well, she isn’t writing her name.” I thought, well, it’s not important to me that she knows how to write her name at four. And it just felt like we were just not on the same page. I was hearing these things from her and I was very quick to take that and put that little kernel in my brain. That’s when I started to look at homeschooling and other ways to not extinguish her fire, not extinguish her flame and her passion, because she’s always been a passionate little girl.
I was due with my third in October, so I thought I won’t enroll her in SK, because JK and SK are optional here in Ontario, which means you don’t have to enroll your kids in either. So, I kept her at home for SK and it was wonderful. We had a wonderful time. We spent time together. I love spending time with my kids. So, we spent lots of time together. I watched her flourish. I watched her creativity come out. And I watched her experiment. And it was just a no-brainer from there on in. I was going to keep her with me.
Grade one came around and I thought, I won’t enroll her in grade one and we’ll just take it year by year. And that’s where we are now. She would be at the end of grade one right now.
PAM: That’s so interesting. I love that story. It sounds like the biggest concern was what you were hearing from Madalyn and how you saw her and school fitting together or not.
JENNIE: Actually, another quick story. In December, she expressed an interest in going to school, because she’s been watching a lot of shows about kids going to school and I think she likes the drama of it. She’s a big people watcher. I thought, okay. I said we can go on a tour. I met with the principal and we went on a tour of the school and here she is and I’ll never forget.
She decided to wear this beautiful long skirt, a floor skirt, so it’s dragging down to her feet and she’s got a white tank top on and she decided to wear these beautiful butterfly wings. She’s got these butterfly wings and she’s walking down the hall with this principal and I’m standing behind and I’m watching her and she’s got this beautiful spirit and aura, this untouched purity as she’s walking down this hallway. She walks into this classroom and all these kids are sitting on this carpet and she’s watching them. You’ve seen grade one’s in a classroom. They’re all kind of jittery. They’re kind of moving around. And the teacher is trying to tell them to look over here, that she needs their attention over here. She’s teaching them money, about toonies and loonies.
And Madalyn, we had just gone to Joy Ride, which is a bike park here in Markham. They had her behind the counter taking money from the customers and selling them chocolates, because we go there all the time. And so, she had learned about toonies and loonies and what change she needed to give back and things like that. So, she was in there for about 10 minutes watching the classroom and then she walked out and she looked at me and she goes, “I don’t want to be here, Mommy.” And that was the end of that. I plan to take her back if she wants to. I’m always open to that. But it was a big eye opener for me, that moment.
PAM: Yeah. It is beautiful.
I was wondering what some of your bigger fears or uncertainties were as you first began unschooling and what they look like now after a couple of years.
JENNIE: My biggest uncertainties, especially having small children, where I’m catering to a lot of their needs, “Mommy can you get me orange juice? Mommy can you get me that?” I was always worried that I might not be doing enough for her, because I was always catering to the other two. I have three small children. And even for my son, too, when I had a newborn and I had to just sit and nurse for long periods of time, I had a carrier, too, but you can only do so much.
My worry was that, was I doing enough for her? And can I support her as much as she needs me to? Can I reach into those areas of uncomfortableness and work through that in a way to help her in whatever she needs me to help her with, even if it’s really uncomfortable? Even if I can just stand back without judgement and just help her through it. So, that was my biggest concern going into it.
And how it looks now, I’ve realized and I’m still learning, obviously, as she gets older and she starts being exposed to more, I know I’ll have to go deeper, I’m sure. But what I’m noticing now is that I feel like there’s nothing I can’t get through without taking a moment to pause and breathe and think in my head, it’s going to be okay. I trust her completely. Nothing is an emergency. And we’ll get through this together.
So, through these little mantras, in my brain, stop first, quiet. I’ve learned to be quiet and that was really hard. I’ve learned to be quiet. So, when she comes to me with something that sounds completely outstanding right now, for a seven-year-old, I’ll stop first. Before, I used to react. I’ll stop. I’ll take a moment. I’ll think about it, and she knows now, too. Mommy needs a moment. Then I realize that there’s nothing we can’t get through. So, we’ll take it day-by-day and that’s how I’ve been going on.
PAM: I remember that time, too. It was so much about finding the mantras or the messages, the little things that worked, that connected with me so that I could use them. I could try something, see how it worked, and then when it’s been a couple of years now, it’s really about the experience isn’t it? Just seeing those worked that time, well maybe not the next time, but then they worked again and they worked again, and it’s building up our tool set that helps us deal with all those little day-to-day things.
You were talking about how she knows how to give you that moment now. Our kids learn that, don’t they? My kids know when I need a couple of minutes to adjust to a big change in plans or just something out of the blue. And they know. They come and say, “Mom, I’m thinking this. Take a minute.” Even now, because this is about the root of us as who we are. We’re going to change and grow, but there are still some things that are still us, our personality. Oh, that’s so, so interesting.
So, I was wondering if we could talk a bit more about what your family’s move to unschooling looked like. I was wondering if you tackled a couple of changes at a time around issues or whether you tried across-the-board making changes.
Your daughter obviously knows that going to school and not going to school is an option. Or maybe has the shift been more internal for you? Like you taking these mantras and using them to change how you respond to your kids and the expectations that you have of them.
JENNIE: I learned about unschooling right away and I came across your website first when I was looking into homeschooling. For some reason, I thought SK, we’ll leave it as it is. She’ll go through. I’m not going to put any curriculum on her. We’ll just go through the days as usual. But for some reason, I thought, when she hits grade one or what would have been grade one, I feel like I needed to introduce some workbooks. So, that was my mindset. I’ll keep it easy, keep it flowing, and I’ll introduce a couple of workbooks.
So, we went away for the month of September. We come back in October and I’ve got fresh, brand-new workbooks and I had them out. I thought, we’ll have a routine. In the morning, we’ll do a couple of hours, and in the afternoons, we’ll have it easy. At first, she was excited about the workbooks, but then they quickly became very tedious and very hard and she didn’t want to do them anymore. That’s when the light bulbs went off for me. This isn’t going to work. I’m putting a flame out here. I’m forcing something. Anything that’s forced doesn’t feel natural, doesn’t feel right.
I don’t want to go into battle with her every day. I don’t want to challenge her every day in this way. I want to challenge her in other ways. I want to see her smile. I don’t want her being angry at me for trying to force her to do some workbooks.
And so, I gave that up. I think it was in November. A month. So, I started to explore and go back into unschooling again and look at unschooling. Up until that point, I still had controls on screen time, controls on food, on that type of thing. Food, it was really just sweets, like, no sweets until after dinner. All this talk. So, at that point was when I started to read more on your website and Sandra’s and all the wonderful information that’s out there. I looked introspectively at myself and what I wanted for my children. That’s when I slowly started to let go of controls and provide abundance for my kids. That has been hard, but it has also been rewarding in so many ways.
Just last week, actually, I had a friend over for dinner and the kids were playing and they were running around. And I don’t preach too much to people about unschooling. When they ask, I’ll answer. But for this one particular friend, he is a big supporter of it. He doesn’t have his own kids yet, but he thinks with an open mind. I said to him, “Look at this.” He said, “What?” I said, “They’re playing.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Do you know what the beautiful thing is about this?” He said, “What?” I said, “They could be watching TV right now, but they’re not. They’re playing. They’ve been playing for three hours and I haven’t had to say ‘No iPad. Turn off the TV.’ They’re just doing it because they want to and how beautiful is that?” So, it’s in these little moments, it’s in these little kernels that I take away and I store them in my brain and I think wow, this is beautiful, it’s wonderful!
PAM: I know. People, completely understandably, want to soak it all in and fast and get to doing it right, but it truly, truly is a journey and takes time, because you need to see it in action. You do all that reading and intellectually, it makes sense, but the process of living it and seeing that reality in front of you, to me, that’s the hugest piece of deschooling. Because we have these questions and it’s like, okay, well, that makes sense, that makes sense. But it’s so easy to wonder, well, that it makes sense but how does it actually work?
JENNIE: It’s when you start to see it work and that takes time. And getting there is a lot of internal work. That’s where the hard stuff comes in. And because children are so perceptive, especially my Madalyn who is a people watcher and she picks up on things, I had to have a very open conversation with her. And the second part of your question was, did I tell them? They don’t know about the term “unschooling” but I do always make sure that I tell her that I’m constantly learning and I’m learning to try to be a better mommy and I’m learning to try to help her as much as I can so that she feels like she can come to me and trust me.
My son has recently been on this big learning kick. He’s four and he asks me all the time, “Is so-and-so still learning? But they are an adult. Are they still learning?” It’s important that they know that I had this change but it’s only because I’m learning. I’m learning to be there for them more and so she accepts that.
So, sometimes, if she sees me kind of teeter off, she says, “Mommy, you need to start learning again. You need to do a little bit more learning.” She helps me stay on track, too, which is wonderful for me but at the same time, having that open dialogue with her, letting go of control from one moment to the next, she knows it’s a gradual process and I have to get there. And I’m getting there still slowly but we’ll get there eventually. I’m definitely a lot further on then I was at the beginning of my deschooling process.
PAM: Oh, I know. It feels like I talk about it a lot, but our children really are our best guides as to how we’re doing, aren’t they? We focus on keeping that open connection and communication with them. Maybe sometimes it’s hard to hear when they say, you need to do some more learning or however they phrase it, but if we’re open to that information, they just so clearly mirror it for us don’t they?
Next question. I was wondering how your relationship with your spouse has been during this transition period? Or continuing! It’s life, right? It goes on and on, I’m sorry to say! I’m still learning!
JENNIE: We work together. I wanted you to ask me this question, because I thought it was important, because I think that during this process when you’re doing it with one person, just yourself, that’s hard as it is. But when you’re trying to get there with two people that have had these backgrounds and come from these different experiences and you’re trying to be as open as you can with your children, that provides a whole new set of challenges, a whole new set of ideas. You each come with different ways of thinking about things and different ideas. So, I think this is an important question and I’ve always wondered as well from other listeners out there. So, I thought, well, why not put me on the spot? Then I can try to go there.
So, I thought about this answer a lot. Just from a logistics perspective, my husband isn’t much of a reader and he’s very wrapped up in his career, which is wonderful. He loves what he does. So, the kernels that I give him have to be small. They have to be direct. They have to be to the point. So, if I find a fantastic article, I read through it and then I’ll send it to him and I’ll say, “This is worth your reading.” For the most part, he will read it. The podcasts have been wonderful in that regard. He’s on the go. So, he listens to podcasts when he’s on the train and that’s really helped him, too.
But at the end of the day, if I can sum up the other stuff, the emotional stuff, in a way, it’s to say that we’ve always had conversations. We’ve always had differences of opinions. What I have found is that unschooling has brought that up, but it’s really helped to shine a light on it and it’s kind of helped to almost put more of a focus on what exactly is the driving difference. What exactly it is that we bring to the table that’s different.
We used to have these conversations before we had kids and even at the beginning of our unschooling journey. You never really knew exactly what it was, this difference. But as you start to expose yourself more to helping out your children and providing them abundance and letting go of control, you really start to look at and examine what it is that bothers you so much on a day-to-day. Where do you even feel these feelings? Do you feel them in your chest? Do you feel them in your head? Where are they coming from? It really forces you to go there in a way that nothing else that I have ever experienced has.
PAM: That is such a great point, because when we’re having conversations with our children, we want to explain and understand. As we start looking at them and understanding their motivations, their personalities and stuff, we find we have to understand ourselves. So often, before unschooling, it’s just we’re busy, we do this, we do this, we don’t really take that time to dig in and deeply understand ourselves.
JENNIE: Right. So, I feel like this unschooling journey, what it’s really done is it has caused us to really go deep, figure out what it is that really bothers us and then once you’re there, you can grow from that. You can decide what you want to do with that information. That’s where we’ve allowed ourselves to grow and it is an ongoing process.
There are still things that he does that drives me crazy with the kids and I’m sure there’s stuff that I do that drives him crazy with the kids, but if we can go there at the end of the day, if we can go to those moments and examine what it was about it that bothered us or why it bothered us, that is where we can start to grow and to try to be better for our kids. It’s been a wonderful journey and I know it has certainly brought us closer together. It’s forced us to go places we weren’t ready to go to sometimes, but the end result is, once you go there with someone, it’s really brought us closer together for sure.
PAM: I think one of the realizations, and we’re talking years in, this isn’t all like easy, I get it all all at once. Judging your spouse’s relationship with your children is something hard to move away from. It’s like, “Oh, look. I’m developing this amazing relationship with my children. I wish my husband could have that.” So, I found myself trying to give him tips. I realized I was giving him tips to develop the same relationship that I had with my children, but who’s to say that mine is better?
So, the realization that my husband and extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they will all develop their own unique relationships with my children. And I think part of it was I noticed that if there were things that he was doing with the kids that bothered me, like you mentioned, I looked to my kids again and it didn’t bother them. Then I came to realize, it’s just different, but it’s okay.
And then if there was something he was doing that I noticed was bothering the kids, that would be information I could share with him, because that wasn’t about me. It wasn’t me in the picture. It was, “When you did X or didn’t stop when they asked to stop, did you know they got upset about it?” Or, “When they do this, that means they’re upset.” So, I was able to share more information about the kids. It wasn’t about me. It was only about me trying to support whatever relationship they were developing. That was a big piece for me.
JENNIE: I’m going to use that Pam. I like that.
PAM: No problem. It took me awhile to figure that out. I’ll pipe in, too, I had the same thing with my in-laws. When that realization came with their aunts and uncles, my sisters-in-law, just support the relationship that they were going to have and not negate it or say something like, “She doesn’t care what you’re up to. Just do this, this, and this.” But to phrase it and frame it positively, because they’re all doing their best. They all want some sort of relationship.
So, over the years, as the kids have gotten older, other adults are able to relate to them, to connect and converse with them. They got a fresh start because I haven’t sabotaged it along the way. Cool piece!
I think a big piece of the deschooling, and you talked about this when we were getting ready for the interview, so much of it often turns out to be shedding the control and punishment paradigm that we grew up with. As we’ve been talking about so far, this is definitely a process. It takes time.
So, I was wondering, when you falter, how do you recover? Then, as you dig into that again, what we’ve been talking about, have you found a pattern to these kinds of moments? Does it happen more often when you’re tired? Or is it particular situations that trigger it or things like that?
JENNIE: When I do falter, I’ve learned to almost give myself permission to take a moment. In the past, I always felt like I had to have a reaction if something happened, if the kids did something. As an example, scribbling all over the invitations that I’m about to send out. I walk over to my desk and I see the invitations, they’re all written out, but there’s marker all over them. Normally, in the past, I would have had a reaction to that. Who did this? Why did you do that? Just go down this repertoire of making everybody feel terrible.
Now, I’ve given myself permission to take a moment. The silence thing comes in again and it was something that you sent me, Pam, that I read that you wrote that was beautiful. This silence, just learning to be quiet. So, I stop, I take a moment. And my daughter, she knows right away, “Mommy, what happened?” “Mommy needs a minute. I need a minute.” Then I go into the conversation, “Who did this? Why did we go down this path?”
Sometimes when it doesn’t look that calm, I always ensure that after I’ve given everybody some time to settle down, settle into their feelings, myself included, I always ensure that I go back and talk to them about it, my six-year-old and my four-year-old. My 20-month-old doesn’t get into very much trouble yet. I always make sure that afterwards, I take that time to go to them and either apologize for yelling, apologize for storming out of the room. Let them know that I was wrong and that I should have taken a deep breath, how I could have handled it better. And then we will always have a conversation about it.
I feel like it’s working, because even when my daughter gets upset now and she has a reaction to it, moments later she’ll come to me and she’ll say, “Mommy, can I have a hug?” and that’s sort of our reconnecting, like it’s okay. Everybody has these reactions and we’re working through it and we’ll get through it. But at the end of it, if we can still come together, and you know that I still love you, and we still support one another, and we still have a commitment to one another, then we’ll be okay. We’ll make it through. So, that’s how I recover.
PAM: I love that. There was one thing I just wanted to pop in with that. I remember those times, because sometimes the emotions can get so big in those moments, so you go to the quiet, that everybody needs space to calm down, and you figure out the kinds of activities or non-activities, whatever each person needs individually just to move through it. But I found, certainly at the beginning, so often I was like, “I don’t want to talk about it. That thing stressed me out and I was upset about it and now everybody’s calm and they’re doing X, Y, and Z, so let’s just kind of forget that that ever happened.”
The challenge is, all the learning is in the part after! It’s just going to keep going and going if you don’t address it after. Sure, it’s nice that everybody’s relaxed now, but let’s talk about what might it be that we can do next time something happens. Finding out what the little triggers were that led up to that. That is where we learn so much about ourselves, our kids learn so much about themselves, and we learn the kinds of tools for working together so that we can reconnect. It can be so tempting to just not do anything but it’s really important to take that last step.
JENNIE: I think so, too.
PAM: So, have you found any patterns to those moments? That’s just a question about your own learning.
JENNIE: So, having three small kids and having to be the person who stands outside the washer to make sure the zombies aren’t coming, get the glass of water, get the snack, do everything, it can be tiring at the end of the day. I’m lucky. I have a lot of energy. I manage to keep up with it to a certain degree. My trigger points tend to be things like loud noises, screaming. My daughter has this beautiful voice and she goes into this wonderful singing but sometimes it reaches these pitches where it’s deafening! “If you want to sing that loud, go outside. It’s too loud for my ears.” It’s good, because I’ve learned through time not to be so reactionary and to give them alternatives.
It’s only been through working through reading and learning about you and Sandra and reading other people’s experiences that I’ve been able to get there, because, in the past, I would have had a much different reaction. The patterns are really that. I have the same trigger points that I see happening. It’s just working through those. And it’s amazing because they’ve gotten less and less, as I’ve managed to meditate on a lot of stuff. Not that I’ve been able to put up with more, but my kids have also, as they’ve gotten older, we’ve sort of grown with each other. They know what bothers me.
I know that if they’re doing something that I know that they know bothers me, it’s because they need me or want my attention for something. And so, instead of having a reaction, I have to turn to them and say, “What is it that you need from me in this moment? I can tell that you’re bothered about something.” So, it’s much more of an open dialogue just because we’ve learned so much about each other as we’ve been going through this deschooling process, as opposed to me thinking they’re bothering me or they’re irritating me or they’re just doing this to bother me. It’s not like that. It’s much more of a back and forth, if I can explain it that way.
PAM: Yeah. That is one of the things you learn over time as you’re deschooling. You and your children all learn different tools, because now we know that the other person is paying attention. Your children are now comfortable that you’re paying attention and they don’t often have to up their activity, their energy, their noise to get your attention. You’re noticing it sooner, more often than not.
JENNIE: And that’s been really nice, because so often, I find that there’s a disconnect. When I look at other families or I watch other families, I see that there’s that disconnect. You can see the child pulling and the parent is having a different reaction. It’s amazing to me. When you stand back and you look at it all, at the end of the day when the child is most tired, that’s the time when they need you the most. That’s also the time when you have to do homework if you’re going to school. You have to make dinner. Everybody is seeing each other.
There are so many expectations on those three hours before bedtime and it’s the worst time of the day for small children. They’re exhausted at that time of day. They’ve had so much stimulation all day. They’ve had to behave all day. They’ve had to sit on the carpet all day. So, you can see that disconnect happening when you’re standing on the outside and you’re looking in.
I walk along in my own world and I always feel so good, because I feel like I know this little secret. I don’t know if other unschoolers feel like this but I walk along my day and I feel like I know this secret, this secret to living this beautiful life with my children, that I get to appreciate them every single day and I get to be with them every single day, on their good days and on their bad days. I get to love it all and enjoy it all and watch them grow and take my time. It can take me an hour to walk to Tim Hortons or to the local corner store, because they’re picking up a rock or a flower. “Mommy, look at that bird.” I can take that time and it’s beautiful. This is the part of unschooling that I absolutely love.
I walk around my world, but when I’m watching from the outside, I can see this back-and-forth happening with these parents and I just want to go to them and say, “They just want a little bit more attention. They just want a little more of your time.” When they’re on their phones or they’re reading something because they haven’t had time to do anything for themselves all day, it can be overwhelming when you’re standing on the outside looking in and you’re seeing these interactions between parents and their kids. It can be really hard.
PAM: It’s just a warmth that you feel on the inside it’s like, oh, baby! And you try to explain it if someone’s interested. Even when you imagine trying to explain it, when you look at it from the other parent’s point of view, as you said, those hours at the end of the weekday that they get with their children are their children’s most difficult. And then they use that to extrapolate and think, “Oh my gosh. I could never spend all day with my kid!”
JENNIE: That’s exactly right!
PAM: It’s almost impossibly hard to imagine how much different it is when you are living together.
Next question. How do you handle the daily challenges that come with having three children with different ages, temperaments, and interests?
JENNIE: I’m still finding my way with this one. Thankfully, we’ve been deschooling a lot recently and by that, I mean the kids got iPads back in January and so they’ve been really loving their iPads. Madalyn has really been into it. So, that’s been good, because I can still nurse and they spend a lot of time on their iPads watching different shows. Madalyn is just devouring shows. She just loves to watch the drama unfold. This little iPad is like a drama show every day and she loves to watch it all happen and it’s really cool to sit there and watch her reactions and then watch her play out the different characters. Matthew, too, he loves playing all the games on his iPad, so that’s been helpful.
The temperaments can be challenging for me, because I hope I provide this nourishing environment for them. They’ve really flourished into two very different people and I’m talking specifically about my two oldest ones, because my 20-month-old, she’s still getting into all sorts of different things. You see a little bit of a personality there and she has her own moments, but not too much, nothing I can’t handle at this point.
But with the other two, it’s really just in learning and being open to listening to them, sitting beside them as they’re watching, learning about them, that I’ve been able to come up with different tactics on how I’m going to address whatever it is that I can see rolling and coming, making sure that they have snacks or that they’re fed, that they have water. Madalyn’s really sensitive to body temperature, making sure if she’s cold, bring her a blanket. Little things like that that I’ve been able to pick up and I’m still learning so much about them all the time, every day.
So, I almost try to be anticipatory of what it is that I think that they might need in that moment so I can avoid some dramatic explosion of emotion, which sometimes can be unavoidable. They just really need that and they just need me to be there for them while they go through that. Sometimes I might want to go to the zoo, but they don’t want to, so it’s really just following their lead and keeping my expectations low. That’s really helped.
PAM: Yeah. I remember an analogy that used to work for me when my kids were young, because kids are going to get older. They’re going to grow. They’re going to develop more tools. These moments aren’t forever. Sometimes when we get in them, we can get stuck. It’s like, “Oh my gosh. We’re never going to figure this out! They’re always going to be these angry people.” No, no, no. Something that helped me, because my eldest had more of the explosive releases, but as you said, you’re starting to notice Madalyn with body temperature and to notice the triggers for them.
So, my first few years I was really paying attention to all the kids, but Joseph in particular. I would notice that it was like he had a cup’s worth of ability in a day to deal with the day, with things going wrong. So, it wouldn’t necessarily be one thing in particular, but back then we didn’t have iPads. He’s 24 now, so if a show that he liked was preempted, it wasn’t on when he was expecting it, and his socks weren’t comfortable, and something else went wrong, it was the accumulation of challenges to him that day. And after a certain point, the next one was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
But if I could tell, we’ve had three or four semi-major frustrations in the day, I came to know that his cup was teetering near the top, that it might soon bubble over, and then I could, as you were saying, help him do something that would help lower the cup. We would do something extra fun that he loved or I would spend extra amounts of time to help lower that level, so that if there were a couple more frustrations that came up in the day, he’d be able to work through those, to be able to move through those.
For me, that ended up being one of the things that I noticed. It wasn’t necessarily the things themselves, it was how much energy he had to deal with, how many challenges he had to deal with during that day. And so, it was managing the frustration level itself. That was something that he eventually took over. I would say things, because you’re wanting to share observations. I would say, “Oh man, you’ve had a few things go wrong today. Let’s do this or X, Y, or Z.” That was something that helped me to better understand, because it wasn’t like, “Oh my gosh. This happened last week and you didn’t get mad about it or so upset about it. Why is it today?” So eventually, I figured out that it was more a number of frustrations, not the particular frustrations themselves.
Just being a student of our children, as Anne talks about. They are our guides. I keep going back to that. Observing them. Seeing them. You’re helping them learn about themselves at the same time you’re learning about them so you can help them figure out the tools and the way to manage with the personality that they have.
JENNIE: And just add to that, Pam, because I think this is an important piece, I find that even them allowing you to see that takes time. Because for my 7-year-old, because she only had a few years of me being controlling and we did a couple of timeouts and things like that, because she saw that part of me, it was hard for her to trust me, to let me see her, to let herself be vulnerable with me, to tell me that she’s feeling cold or hot or that I didn’t help her. For her to start trusting me again, that came in time. In order to get there, though, I had to continuously be patient with her, because she is my most sensitive one by far. Be patient and be quiet and just be there with her in small little ways on a regular basis, before she really let me in to show me anymore.
I think that part required a lot of growing within me, because as different as our temperaments are, I knew that this little girl who was right in front of me was lost. I wasn’t connected. We had lost a bit of our connection and so, in order to rebuild that, I had to do a lot of growth within myself to try to reconnect and I’m still doing it. The whole deschooling process is teaching me. I can see these little kernels, but only because I’ve done the work to try to get her to trust me again, to be in a vulnerable place with me again. That part takes time and I could see myself wanting to give up a lot of times along the way, because of that thinking that I had in the past of, “Why can’t she just be easy?” Or, “Why can’t it just be easier? Why does it have to be so difficult? She’s just a kid. I know more. I’m the adult.”
Because of that thinking, I had to rest that. I had to quiet that part of my brain and just be with her and trust her. That’s why we’ve been able to get even the short distance that we have in almost a year and hopefully that’ll continue to grow.
PAM: That is such a great point, that trust really takes time to build. And it’s our choice. We want to build it. So, you’re right. It is so much at the beginning and forever our work to do, because you can say, “Well they should trust me. I’m older. I’m their parent.” Those are messages that easily pop up into our mind.
I have an article that I wrote a long time ago and that’s one thing I saw when watching parents out there with their children that we’d come across in activities, friends, whatever, so often, they wanted a good relationship with their child and they kept trying to pull the child to them. “Let’s do this! Let’s do this!” Those are all the things that the parent imagined when they have a kid that they would do these things and the message that you’re saying is, “I don’t know you. I don’t understand you. I have this vision of who I wanted my child to be. Come do this with me.” Your trust is so eroded in those moments. And you have no idea how long it will take and I’m not saying that as in, it’s going to be a long time. It may or may not. It depends on the child’s perspective completely. Go to them instead. That’s where you build the trust. So interesting!
One other thing I want to touch on, and you spoke of it, the curiosity and the energy of young kids is so incredible. It’s just so much. They go, go, go. So, I was wondering what are some of the little things that you do during the day to release any frustration that’s growing with you and recharge your own energy?
JENNIE: Thankfully, I have a little bit of help during the day, in the mornings, and that has helped me immensely to have that. Other than that, like I said, I try to keep my expectations low for the day and really just follow their lead. Not every day has to be a trip to the museum. Not every day has to be a trip to the zoo, especially now with my youngest running off. At 20 months old, she’s into everything. It can be exhausting, because I can’t be in three different places with my three children at different times. So, we keep the expectations low. We might do a picnic at the park if they’re up for it. If they’re not up for it and they just want to stay home all day because we had a really busy weekend, then we do that and that’s okay.
I used to have this idea that it needed to look more like this. And so, letting go of all those expectations has really helped. Sometimes making a cup of coffee in the afternoon, finding joy in little things. I remember hearing something that Sandra said about sniffing the top of your child’s head, which sounds funny. But in the moments when you’re feeling exhausted, you take that moment to look at their hands or their feet or you sniff the top of their head, it just recharges you almost. It gives you a little boost. It gives you that appreciation that you need to get you through the rest of the day. I find that really helps.
Then the mantras really help me. Anna Brown mentioned one, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be” on one of your podcasts. I repeat that to myself now on a daily basis. That was beautiful. It’s helped me so much. So, your podcasts and learning and reading a lot about unschooling has really helped me find little kernels of things that work for me. And what doesn’t work for me, I leave the rest. But these little things that have helped me, that I remember, that I store away in my mind that help me get through the day, that’s what recharges me. And the sun helps! These beautiful sunny days help!
PAM: Exactly. It’s finding all those pieces. Many of us share what works for us. It doesn’t mean that it’s specifically going to work for you. It’s a starting off point to brainstorm what it is that picks you up. Like you said, one of Anna’s mantras really helps you. The sun picks you up. Just gathering information.
I found that to be really useful, too, in just inspiring me, doing a little bit of reading here and there. I used to get up early so I could go and read the unschooling email lists and boards at the time. That would give me a little extra shot of energy to have a bigger smile on my face when I greeted them in the morning. And yes, that pause to smell the top of their heads, it gets you back into their perspective, because their perspective is just always so open and engaged. Even in the most upset moments and in the happiest moments, they’re living it all with full energy. They’re entirely engaged.
JENNIE: And I get to be there and watch that. It’s wonderful.
PAM: I think your point, too, about having help, that’s another thing we learned growing up. We have to do it all of ourselves. But, no, we don’t. Yes, we look to our kids and see what works. If somebody is not working out, you can try something else. Especially when they’re younger and you’re talking about how you need to get juice and you need to change a diaper and you need to do this, there’s all sorts of little tasks that are going on. If you can have an extra set of hands that helps out and that the kids enjoy, there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to do it all on your own. That’s another cool piece.
Okay, so you are now a couple of years into this. So, I was wondering, what do you think or from your perspective has been the hardest part of your journey so far?
JENNIE: I think the hardest part has really been relinquishing control. That is the number one hardest part. Watching them learn and learning, I have always felt in the back of my mind, I remember going to play dates with Madalyn and them having the craft up and them saying this is what the craft is supposed to look like, and me just watching her do her own thing and loving it. For me, I’ve always sort of known that the learning would come and watching her develop and create things is more powerful to me than watching her do a worksheet.
The hardest part for me is letting her waste all of my spices as she’s making something, using up all my flour, all my eggs, and making something. Finding the joy in the end result of that, when I go to find my vanilla extract and it’s all done. So, for me that has been the hardest part. And letting go of the control with the food.
The screen time, I was surprised. It didn’t bother me as much. I thought it would bother me more, but it really didn’t. It was the food thing. My daughter loves sweets, and so, I slowly let go of that. She’s very picky about the sweets that she likes now, which is interesting to me. But I’m still working through that and I’m still working through providing them this abundance, not feeling like it’s a waste of money, that they’re going to get spoiled if every time I take them somewhere, they’re going to ask for something. Putting parameters around that, working with my husband, too, to come to something that we’re both comfortable with. What that means recently is having a budget. We’ll spend this much. That includes games, at the dollar store or toy store, and if they don’t spend that amount then it translates into the next week. So, that’s what’s worked for us.
More recently, I went to the Dollar Store and No Frills, which are two cheaper grocery stores that sell stuff at pretty reasonable prices. I bought her flour. I bought her eggs. I bought her vanilla extract with no name brand and I put it in a cupboard and I said, “Here, go to town!” So, it’s coming up with these little things that work for both of us, where I can kind of get past it. Still being able to give her the freedom that she needs, but at the same time working through it as I’m going through it. So, that’s been the hardest part for me so far.
PAM: That’s a great solution, because you don’t want to give them the freedom with no consideration. There are still realities. There are still things in your lives. If it happens to be money, I know on a Q&A we had a really cool conversation about money and whether that would spoil children. That was fun to listen to. But there are still realities.
It doesn’t bother her what brand of flour it is or how much you paid for it or whatever. You can try to meet everybody’s needs. That, I think, is one of the most creative and fun things about unschooling in the end. It was always such a fun challenge for somebody to have something that they wanted to do and for us to figure out a way to make it happen. That has always been so fun.
JENNIE: It’s true. And I remember hearing you say something the other day on a different podcast where you said, sometimes you say yes and their idea ends up being so much better. And it’s so true how many times I’ve been on the other end of that yes and thought to myself, why would I have ever said no to this? For that split-second, my normal reaction would have been to say no but I just said yes and I went with it. And oh my gosh, I’m so much better off.
Case in point, yesterday we’re getting into the car to drive back home and my kids are in their pajamas, because it was a long drive where we went. And my son said, “Mommy, that sprinkler looks really great. Can I go run through that sprinkler?” I said, “Sweetheart, you’re in your pajamas.” I look at his face and I said, “Go ahead.” And he ran through that sprinkler and he had such a good time for like 15 minutes, just running through the sprinkler and his pajamas and giggling and laughing and it was wonderful. He had to drive home naked, but that’s okay. He had a blast. It was wonderful. He didn’t care that he was driving home naked. He loved it. He was like, whatever!
But yeah, it was great. And I’m so glad that I found this thing that exists, this unschooling thing that exists. It gives you permission to say yes. Just like when I was breastfeeding, I remember when I went to my first La Leche meeting and I was saying, “She won’t nap unless she’s on the breast and it’s driving me crazy! What am I supposed to do?” And they said, “Just nap with her,” and I said, “Oh, okay!” It’s that thing that gives you permission. It’s almost like you need it. It’s sad that you need it, but it’s true. It gives you permission to enjoy. It’s wonderful.
PAM: That’s really cool! That’s a good point, because we are so conditioned to think, “That’s not right, that’s not right.”
JENNIE: Right, to come up with all these reasons why you can’t and the reality is you can!
PAM: Yeah. And as we’ve been saying, that’s why this moving to unschooling isn’t a quick thing. Oh, they’re not going to school anymore. We’re done! To see it, to try out these ideas and see them in action over and over, that solidifies how awesome the whole lifestyle is.
So, on the other end of it, what’s been the easiest part of your journey?
JENNIE: The easiest part has really been sitting back and watching it all unfold, watching them learn. That’s been the easiest part for me, because it’s something I enjoyed right from the get-go, right from when they were born, having a first row seat to their lives and watching them grow, watching what they take interest in, and taking the time to notice what they’re noticing. That’s been the easiest part for me. To trust them with regards to learning has been the easiest part for me.
PAM: It really is fun to watch them, isn’t it? It’s incredible. You’re so conditioned with school to think that children need to be told it’s time to learn. But just seeing them in action, I sat around in awe for years, just watching what they get up to and how they tackle it. It’s amazing.
JENNIE: Just another quick little story about my four-year-old. He was really into watching basketball with my husband, because the playoffs are happening right now. So, he’s been watching all the games with my husband. So, they were having a conversation the other day and they like opposing teams. So, my husband said, “Your team has to win four games in order to win the playoffs.” My son says, “Okay. How many have they won?” My husband says, “They’ve won two.” My four-year-old says, “Okay, so they have to win two more games to win the playoffs.” In that moment, it sounded like any other regular conversation. And to anybody standing on the outside, you wouldn’t really even think. But here’s a four-year-old doing math. It’s just right there, right in front of your eyes. No big deal. He didn’t have to sit and write a test. He didn’t have to learn on a chalkboard. He didn’t have to sit on the carpet for 20 minutes while somebody explained it to him. He just got it. It’s just, boom. Right there!
PAM: They just soak up the world around them. It is amazing.
Last question. Do you ever think that you will feel finished?
JENNIE: I hope not. And I only say that because I’ve learned so much already. I feel like what I’ll continue to learn, through going through this process with them, I think as long as they’re learning, I’ll continue learning, too.
PAM: I think that’s an amazing answer, Jennie! Because it really is true. That’s what I discovered is that what happened in the end is we just all settled into learning. It was just something that we all do. We’re all growing and changing. It doesn’t stop!
JENNIE: Yeah. I hope so. It’s been wonderful so far, so I hope it continues this way, for sure.
PAM: Well, that’s awesome. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
JENNIE: Thank you, Pam. It’s been wonderful.
PAM: Oh yay! I really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your experience and I loved hearing the stories!
PAM: Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
JENNIE: Facebook would probably be the best.
PAM: Excellent. Is it okay if I share your Facebook?
PAM: Excellent. Well, thank you again and have a great day!
JENNIE: Thank you. Take care, Pam!