PAM: Hi, everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today, I’m here with Teresa Graham Brett. Hi, Teresa.
TERESA: Hi, Pam.
PAM: It is so great to have you on the show.
TERESA: Well, I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
PAM: Yay! You’ve been on my list for a long time. It was nice to see you at the Childhood Redefined Summit. It was great to connect with you again.
TERESA: It was wonderful. I really enjoyed that weekend. It was a good time for me to reconnect to all the things that I want to be doing as well, so it was great.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. Just as a brief intro for everyone, Teresa is an unschooling mom to two boys, Greyson and Martel. She has over 20 years’ experience as a social justice educator. She brings that knowledge and passion to her understanding of parenting and parent-child relationships and to the unschooling lives of her two boys.
She’s the author of Parenting for Social Change, in which she walks the reader through the transformative journey from controlling parenting to supportive parenting. She’s also the editor and writer for the Kindred community and co-founder of the Alliance for Parenting Education in Africa. I have ten questions for you, Teresa. Let’s dive in.
Can you share a bit with us about you and your family and how you came to unschooling?
TERESA: Absolutely. So, our family consists of myself and my partner, Rob, and then Martel and Greyson. When we’re recording this, Martel is 14 and Greyson is nine. Then we have our furry friends, family members, as well, who are important especially to Martel and Greyson, a very important part of their lives. Of course, they’re important to us, too.
We came to unschooling, really, I was one of those people who, when we decided to get pregnant, I spent a lot of time reading, researching. I had come across unschooling. At that point, I think it was some of Jan Hunt’s work, and knew that it was out there.
Rob and I had always talked about the possibility of homeschooling, given both of our experiences in institutionalized educational systems. That was always a possibility out there. And then Martel came into our life. We did attachment parenting, all of that sort of thing, but as he got older, probably around two, which is when so many parents, so many of us, are challenged for the first time. Besides the lack of sleep, but when they start to really begin to, in so many ways, share their voice with us in a much louder way. Once they’re walking and moving about in the world and then we’re like, “Oh, I can’t control what you do by picking you up and carrying you everywhere.” That really was a challenging time.
It was probably about when Martel was five, I just found myself starting to control more and more. I was always fearful, if I look beneath the surface. I thought I was doing all the right things in terms of, we’re having healthy foods, and we’re doing all the right things, and we don’t have plastic toys, no sugar, he only watches PBS. I was one of those parents who really believed so deeply in all the things that I had read about in mainstream media about what was going to make for a healthy childhood.
TERESA: Martel was about five. It was at that point where Rob just happened to take a video of me interacting with him. I was pregnant with Greyson. Martel, probably four and a half, said something to me. And Rob was thinking, “Oh, this is a happy family video around the holidays.” Instead, it was a wake-up call to me. I watched it later and I was shocked by the level of disrespect and disregard with which I treated him. It was really just a huge slap for me, to say, “Wow. The things you said you weren’t going to do, you are now doing. The ways you say, ‘Well, if you don’t talk to me in the right way, I’m not going to listen to you.'” I had never thought I would be that parent, but all the things I learned from my own parents, from society, about what my role should be as a parent all were there, whether I knew it or not. I just didn’t see it before. So, that was just a big wake up call and I said, “This is not right.” I started diving in and really trying to figure out how I was going to shift.
I was also frustrated and I was feeling a lot of things in terms of conflict in our relationship. I came back to radical unschooling as a result of coming back into, what am I going to do to do this differently? Because this is not who I want to be as a parent. That really just then moved us straight into radical unschooling. We were not one of those families that said, “Okay. We’re going to say yes a little more often.” We were like, “Throw it all out. Go in.” Which I don’t necessarily recommend for folks, but it was what we chose to do.
PAM: I guess, yeah, once you saw it, that was a big shock for you. So, you wanted to attack it on all sides right there.
TERESA: That was it. I was like, this cannot continue. I cannot be this person. So, whatever it is I have to do, I have to do it in order for him to be whole. I saw the childhood I had, and I was like, no. It can’t happen. It cannot happen.
PAM: I have a couple of those videos lying around too. When they go on, it’s like, oh, I can’t watch. I know it’s part of the process and that’s how I learned. Really, it is a great way to see, because you know what was going through the head at the time, but that’s irrelevant, because you see what the interaction itself was.
TERESA: Right. Our intent is one thing and then our actions are another.
PAM: I would love a quick little update on your kids.
I was wondering if you could just share a bit about what they’re interested in right now, and how they’re pursuing that, and maybe how that interest came about.
TERESA: Sure, sure. Well, as soon as we were ready to dive into radical unschooling, then we let go of a lot of things. They have both learned so much from internet access and media access and computers. They’re still very much using computers as one tool that they use to access the world and learn new things and learn all the things that they are learning, as well as their friendships.
Martel, who’s 14, he has friends that are across the United States, across the world. He talks a lot with them through Skype, interacts with his local friends on Skype, because sometimes their schedules don’t mesh and they can’t get together. He does a lot of gaming. He’s starting to explore a little bit of coding.
He also is just a huge animal lover and connects with Sage and Chester, our dog and cat, and loves to take walks.
Last night, we went to see Miyazaki’s Totoro. It was playing at our local independent theater. He’s still into those things, as well. That’s really what he’s doing. He’s big into gaming with his friends who are all across the world. That’s what he’s doing. That really just developed over time as we released control and let him pursue the directions he was interested in. He went through his Minecraft phase. He went through many phases of exploring the computer. That’s what he’s doing now and continuing to do.
Greyson, he’s very much interested in animals and dinosaurs and nature and plants. We happen to live in the Sonoran Desert. We’re on an acre and a quarter, so there’s a lot of time spent outside digging. Mud is a great thing. Having his friends over and building rivers. It’s funny, we build rivers, but it’s in Tucson. We turn on the hose a little bit and that makes a river.
He also is a big gamer, as well. He has learned so much. He’s gone through a phase most recently about immune system cells and has very much been into the science. He’s into science in many different ways, whether it’s dinosaurs, or genetics, immune system. He loves to play Universe Sandbox. I don’t know if anyone knows that one, but that’s one where you create worlds, universes with planets and comets, and they can crash into each other. He’s really just developed that over time, and that’s where he’s currently at. So, that’s where they’re at right now.
PAM: That’s very cool. That’s one thing that we hear a lot of as we talk to unschooling families, is how wide their connections are, like you were talking about how Martel is online and chatting and gaming with people from all over the place. It’s really cool, because I found the same thing with my kids and as they get older, too, it also invites travel, if someone’s interested. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve gone and visited friends that they’ve met either online or maybe at a conference. Then, they get together. Their world just seems bigger.
TERESA: Yeah. Martel just took his first trip by himself to Virginia from Arizona to visit his best friend, who is an unschooler living in Virginia. So, it’s pretty cool.
PAM: Yep. Exactly, exactly.
You have written on your blog about the concept of adultism. I was wondering if you could explain how you define it and give us a couple of examples.
TERESA: Sure. My definition of adultism comes really from other writers, people that I had read. I came across it initially from Barry Checkoway, who I actually knew when I worked at the University of Michigan. He did a lot of youth work with teens and youth. It was what I read of some of his work that really primed me to be thinking about it more. Then, I’ve been influenced by others, as well.
Some people refer to it as childism. There’s a book out there called Childism. Adultism, from my perspective, and how I conceptualize and think about it and was influenced by others, is really this belief that adults are better than children. Stemming from that belief is a whole range of behaviors and other beliefs which means, because we believe that we know more, we are wiser, we are smarter, we have the right to control children so that we make them into proper adults.
It’s out of those beliefs that adults have the right to control children’s lives, because they are young. Because they’re a part of that group of young people, we then have laws and institutions and systems that all control children’s actions and how they learn, where they go, what they’re allowed to do, what legal rights they have.
I know some of the things I’ve seen in the Brexit vote recently reminds me of that gap between what rights are of those who are under 18 and how they view the world and yet they don’t have a vote. I don’t know if you saw some of that in the media or not, Pam, but that reminded me of the ways in which adultism operates all over the world. The media was saying that if young people had had the vote, that the Brexit vote probably would not have passed.
A lot of that, of course, comes from John Holt and his view of childhood and rights that children should have. Adultism is really that belief that we should control children, because they need external control in order to develop properly.
That showed up in my own life. For example, I did breastfeed on demand, but once he got to a certain age and he was eating food, I suddenly decided that I had to tell him when and how to eat. Somehow I could not make that connection between, “Oh, breastfeed on demand. He should be able to eat on demand.” All of my socialization into, “I know what’s best for this small person, this child,” meant that I decided for him when and how he should eat. I didn’t believe he knew what his body needed, when it needed it. I didn’t believe he was capable of making decisions.
Yet, when I peeled back my adultism, I saw that he was self-regulating in so many different ways. Of course, as a baby, we see that when we really look closely. As a two year old, he suddenly didn’t lose that. He was still able to do it, but I decided he wasn’t capable of doing it. For me, that adultism showed up in controlling food, controlling access to media, controlling sleep, which you really cannot control, but somehow we believe that we can control it, all of those things for his own good, because he was not capable of making those decisions. Or, what he believed had no place in the conversation, because certainly parenting is a conversation. It’s a relationship.
PAM: Yep. I think that’s something that’s such a huge piece of the deschooling phase of the journey is how you gain the ability to see your child as a real person who had all those abilities. Like you said, you saw when they were young. You don’t realize how much of our own socialization has taken away that personhood.
TERESA: It has. Yeah.
PAM: For me, one filter that really helps is trying to get rid of the idea of seeing children as adults-in-training, as you mentioned.
PAM: Yeah, because that really makes it more obvious, the implications of that perspective, because you’re not seeing them as a child themselves. You’re seeing them as what they’re going to be in the future. You’re not concentrating on what and who they are today.
I was wondering if you had a tip or two about how we can start to move away from that perspective of children as “adults-in-training.”
TERESA: Yeah. I think so much of my own journey, and when I talk with other parents about their journeys and try to support people in the direction they’re trying to go in, around letting go of control, I end up working with a lot of parents who are similar to me. Very controlling. And under that control is fear. Fear that they’re not going to grow up properly. Fear of the future. Fear of who they’re going to be, which is fed by all the dominant messaging in our society, in our cultures.
I think that one of the ways that I began to deconstruct that, like how do I dismantle these beliefs and ways of thinking? It’s really this frame of reference or a worldview that children have to be trained up as adults. In some ways, Pam, this may sound abstract, but I began to see it as this window through which I was seeing the world and that I had the capacity to look out a different window. If I think about my house, there’s different views.
We may say, “Well, this is the only view.” Well, it’s really not. You go to the west side of your house, it looks different than the north side of your house when you look out the window. If we merely see it as, “Oh, that’s one way to look at the world. What’s a different way?” That’s one way to look at the child. What’s a different way? Often, all the things I was afraid of, like when they were younger, they would fight. Siblings fight. Maybe that’s not true. That’s a frame of reference that siblings fight and they have trouble. That’s a frame of reference. Even my saying that, is a frame. That’s the beginning of taking it apart. “Oh, siblings fight. Boys fight.” Really? Okay, so let’s step back from that, and say, “Well, do boys really all fight? Do siblings always fight? Is it my projection of what I think they are supposed to be doing that creates that view?”
When I would say those sort of declarative statements in my head or out loud, “You always do this.” Then, I began to say, “Does that always happen? Is that always the way it is?” Part of my way of moving away from adults-in-training was to begin to first just say, “I can choose a different way of looking at this. I have the power, which is what I’ve given up. I’m going to accept everything that I’ve been told. That I have the power to look differently. What else might be going on?” I often wrote those questions on post-it notes around my house. What else might be going on? What does the child really need? What do they really need? What do I really need? What could be different about this? What am I not seeing?
Those questions just stopped me and made me question what I thought was true. I just read and read and read all the time. I started writing, because that was my goal, that deschooling. Each of us may have different accountability. I think of it as accountability measures. How was I going to keep learning and growing? I need to write and make sense of it. I began by posting questions around my house. Sometimes, I would pick up a mantra and I would use that for a few weeks. So, when the boys were fighting and I would say, “Oh, they always do this.” I would say, “This is my issue. This is my issue, not theirs.”
Whatever happened to be below the surface of my fear, “They’re always going to fight. They’re not going to love each other.” All of those things. I would begin to say, “Is that true? How do I know that? Why do I believe that?” Those may seem not as tangible, and you can help me direct it in a more tangible way if we need to, but those were the questions I began to ask myself to see them differently.
One of the reasons I wrote my book was that I began to make the connections then between the other messages that I would hear. If I were looking at media, of course it influences all of us, I’d read an article about the damaging effects of violent video games. I’d say, “Hmm. Well, I wonder what other studies show, because studies can show the opposite things.” I just began to be really critical about the things I read and heard and even the things that were popping up in my own mind that were the result of all of my socialization.
PAM: For me, some of the biggest clues, like you mentioned, were if I heard myself saying a phrase or a sentence that had the words “always” or “never”. That was always a nice trigger, because I quickly came to see that those were just generalizations. That meant I really hadn’t dug in enough to see what was actually happening.
It’s hard to go beyond more general questions, because it really depends on the person, what they’ve grown up with, what assumptions they have come to carry with them. And it’s also about the unique children that they have.
There’s a book I read a while ago. It’s called The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. It really resonated with me, because every time there was something that was really bothering me, that was more of a clue that that was something that I should be digging into, that that’s where I was going to get the biggest bang for my buck, because that was something that was really getting in my face. So, it wasn’t about trying to smooth it over, get over it, ignore it, and move on. It was more, “Oh, darn. This is someplace I really need to start looking at more closely.”
TERESA: Yes, yes. That is so true. I think that, in some ways, we’re used to, from our own schooled perspective and even the way we’re trained to think the world works, is there’s a step by step. If I do A, B, and C, that’s what we learn in school, then it’s going to get me this result. Then, we become parents, and we know that’s absolutely not true, because each child is different. And then, our own issues are different. I think you’re right. I often write about that as the children are the mirror. That’s all they are to me. Show up. Oh, wait. I’m triggered. Oh, I got some work. I got to go back and do some work.
PAM: Yeah. It’s the same idea. That’s another school thing. We’ve learned to be so afraid of being wrong and being judged, so that when something comes up, when there’s an obstacle, when the children are that mirror that are showing us something that we’re uncomfortable with, we really just want to escape it. We just want to try and move through it as fast as possible and not pick at it, but that’s where you’re going to learn more.
TERESA: It is. That’s so critical, so critical.
In your book, you made a great distinction between power and control. You emphasized that letting go of control doesn’t mean we abdicate our responsibility to care for the children in our lives. I love the way you made a point of that. I was hoping you could speak a bit about how all those ideas weave together.
TERESA: Yeah. I think, because my own struggle was around control, I really began to look at, what does control mean for me? What does it look like in our culture, in our society? And what I began to unravel in both the bigger picture and in my own life is that we try to control and our society sets control of others in place, because there’s fear. If we don’t control children, then the fear is they will run wild. If we don’t force them to learn the rules right away, then they won’t follow the rules. If we let them eat whatever they want, they’re only going to eat the things that are bad for them.
When I began, then, talking to myself about control and I began talking with others about control after I had been in my own journey for a bit, people automatically go to, letting go of control means that you’re uninvolved, that you are then neglectful. That means you’re not a responsible parent. All the messages we receive about being a responsible parent means we control their food. We control their media access. We control their learning and how and when they learn. That’s what a good parent is. We make sure they do their homework. They go to school. They do all the things that they’re told to do and that we’re told to do.
In fact, being responsible for the care of a child doesn’t require control. It doesn’t require control. It requires being in connection and being a partner and being a facilitator. Of course, Pam, I’m sure you hear this too as you talk with parents who are maybe at the beginning. We’re all at the beginning of our journey on certain parts. We’re all beginning in our own pieces. I know there’s one in particular, especially with young children, well, “If the child is going to run across the street, do you ever stop them?” Of course, you physically control children who are running across the street and a car is coming. That goes without saying. But that’s the extreme.
The ways in which we control children are so normalized we don’t see it. Yet, what we do, and I know I’m ranging far from maybe all of what we started with, but what we do as a result is that it’s in some ways both harder and easier to just maintain control. It’s easier, because we then don’t ever question the need to control and we don’t have to face our own histories and our own experiences and what we believe. It’s harder in that the control mechanism that we put in place as parents damages the relationship and pushes children to rebel or shut down or have experiences that are really harmful to them.
And so, we think that’s the easier path and it’s only easy in that we can avoid some things. Yet, below the surface is all that harm. When I think about what it means to be responsible as a human being, what I feel like responsibility is in my relationships with children is really about knowing who they are and supporting that and creating the environments for all of us, really the whole family, but for them in particular, because I have more power from a societal perspective, in which they can find who they really are. They can find their unique gifts. They can fail. They can explore. They can do all the things that we all do as human beings. That’s more responsible of me than just accepting that control is the way that I have to do that.
PAM: I know. That is such a great point. We were talking about people newer to unschooling, because that kind of relationship with another person of support and connection is quite rare, so I think they don’t know. They hear, “Don’t control.” They don’t know what to replace that with, so that’s why it’s like, “Well, then do you let them run out on the road so that they learn when they get hit by a car?” No. That’s not the point. There is so much more that you do in relationship with them other than a control-based relationship. I think that’s why we spend a lot of time chatting with newer people about how they can connect with their children, how they can support them, how they can just be with them, just be.
In that being with them, that’s where you start to see that they are actually capable human beings in their own right. They’re not adults in training. They think. They make choices. How does a toddler learn how to walk? They keep picking themselves up. They keep trying. They see what obstacles are in the way. They just keep going and keep going.
Your child, no matter their age, will use that same process, that learning process. That’s a human learning process. When you’re not controlling them and trying to fit them into, “Oh, here’s what our school learning process,” which is really more of a teaching process than it is a learning process. It’s focused on being able to teach that certain set of curriculum to a large number of kids over a certain number of years. That’s focused on the teaching, not on the learning side, so when you take away that teaching or that control piece, there is a whole bunch of learning and connection and support and everything that can replace it. That’s beautiful.
TERESA: Yes, yes. Absolutely.
Question number six: as people come to unschooling, the other big question, if they’re not running in the streets is, as we’ve talked about already, screen time. I like your phrase, “media access.” As we’ve talked about, that’s probably one of the main, dominant cultural stories. It’s all about how dangerous that is. It’s addictive. It’s violent. It sucks their creativity. They’ll have no imagination left. They just zone out and it’s mind numbing. I know that was a big part of your story and your transition, so I was wondering if you could share a bit more about that.
TERESA: Oh, yes. It’s funny. When Martel was very young, I decided, “Well, we’re going to let him watch PBS Kids.” That’s what he has to watch, because of course, it’s educational and it’s non-violent. So, I’m going to give you free access at any time to PBS Kids. If you’re going to go on the internet, you get to go on the PBS Kids website and play those games, because they’re all educational. That’s where I started.
Then, as he got older, we would branch out. Oh, what was safe. “Oh, let me watch this movie and make sure it’s safe. Okay. You can watch this. It’s safe now, but let me fast forward past the parts that I think are going to be too scary for you.” This was my process, to do all of those things, to determine what was within his comfort zone.
I’ll tell you, after the video incident where I got to watch myself being recorded interacting with him and I decided, “That’s it. Things have to change.” I remember Martel, of course, he was fond of Elmo, because he could watch Sesame Street. But he would watch this one PBS show called Caillou. Do you know Caillou?
TERESA: Okay, so everytime Caillou would come on, there would be a point in almost every episode where Martel would say, “Shut it off.” So, I’d shut off the TV. Well, I never thought about that. When I was still in this dominant mode of, “Everything on PBS Kids is fine, because it’s not my version of violence,” what I realized, I started doing exactly what you talked about, really watching TV with him. This is the thing about control. When I controlled his access to everything, food, media, whatever it was, I was uninvolved, because I had deemed everything he had access to to be safe, so there was no partnership. He would watch stuff, but I would not watch with him.
If I think about that control/responsibility dynamic that we talked about earlier, I had abdicated my responsibility, because I had controlled the environment. So, what I did was, when I started to just dive in and say, “I’m not controlling anything,” I started watching with him. I observed him, exactly what you just said. I started really paying attention to who is he, not my version of who he is, but who is he really.
And what I noticed in that show, Caillou, is that Caillou always “gets in trouble” at some point in the show, which I had never paid attention to. Then, when he starts to get in trouble, a parent then chides him or somehow you know the parent or the teacher is stepping in to correct Caillou. Every point when that started to happen when he was watching that show, he wanted me to shut it off, because he couldn’t watch that sort of emotional violence being imparted on the child.
It was fascinating to me that his self-regulation was occurring and the violence that I thought was violence, because of course I was perpetuating that violence on him, the emotional violence of control, he already saw it. That blew my mind. Blew my mind, Pam. And I was like, “Wow! What did I refuse to see before that I can now see?”
My conceptions about what I thought was safe were so different. They met this narrative, this societal expectation, but what he needed was for children to be emotionally and, of course, physically free and safe. And so, the violence he saw was not the violence I saw. If I could point to one thing that so expanded my view of media access, that was it.
PAM: Yeah. I love, love, love that piece where you think you’re being a great parent by controlling their access, but what it does is you end up relying on those rules so much, you just leave them on their own to do everything. “You stay within these rules, you’re safe, and I’m a good parent.”
And then, if inside our comfort zone, our child gets upset or whatever, conventionally, they’re shamed for that. It’s like, “Why? Don’t worry about that. That’s okay. You shouldn’t be scared about that.” They get it on both sides, don’t they?
TERESA: Oh, it’s so true. It’s so very true. I just started watching so many things with him. We’d watch Teen Titans. At one point, oh my gosh, we were on this marathon Family Guy. If any of you’ve watched Family Guy, for a social justice person, it was so challenging for me to watch Family Guy, because they are offensive and derogatory towards every group, but it was so fascinating, because I saw the shows he would watch. They were when youth were empowered. He loved Teen Titans, because the teens save the world, every time, every show. They do something to save the world.
Then, as he got older and we were exploring Family Guy, he would ask me questions. I’d be sitting there uncomfortable thinking, “He’s learning all these stereotypes. He’s learning all these things. Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.” You know, he didn’t. He didn’t pick those things up. Does he internalize stereotypes? We all do. Of course, there was a degree to which that happened, but we could critically talk about it. “Oh, what did you think of that? What are you seeing?” Not in a way for me to manipulate him to believe what I believe, but as a way to understand his experience with that media and that show or that video game. To just be in it with him changed how I saw his world and opened it up.
And then, it paved the way for me to do it with Greyson. I talk a lot about Martel, because Martel was the first. He helped me through it.
PAM: I know. That’s the same for me with Joseph. When you’re spending that time with them, when the control is gone, it’s like, “Oh, okay. Now I’m going to be with them, because I’m going to help them, support them where their comfort zones are and everything.” It is incredible how much you learn about them. I remember his reactions and comments in conversations we had from Pokemon. Then, later on, The Simpsons and that kind of stuff. The conversations are just incredible. It’s yet another brick, building that whole foundation where you know this is an intelligent being. They’re bringing stuff in. They’re processing it. They’re thinking about it. You’re conversing with them about it and you see the learning right in front of you.
TERESA: Yeah. It’s amazing.
PAM: I know. When people are always asking, “Well, how do you know they’re learning?” Because we’re talking with them everyday. You can see them processing. You can see the new words, the new ideas. You can just see all that stuff connecting inside their brain. It’s so cool.
You identify a number of tools that parents can use as they shift from controlling parenting to supportive parenting. There are three I thought I’d pick out that I’d love for you to touch on. They are: accepting our feelings, mindfulness, and awareness. I was hoping you could describe what those are and a little bit about how we can shift away from the impulse to control in those areas.
TERESA: Great. I think I’ll start with the feelings, accepting our feelings. I think as I really dug in to try to figure out why my first reaction was to control, I really had to look and understand that, in my own childhood, and frankly for most of us, we’re seeing generations now of unschooled adults who are now having children or who grew up in that way, but the vast majority of us grew up within controlling systems and family structures and relationships. That’s just the way the world has been. One of the things that I realized, when I was in the need to control, underneath it was really a fear and a feeling of not being safe. When things are in control, we feel safe. “Oh, it’s all under control. We’re good. All right. I don’t have to worry about anything.” How many times have I said that to myself? Still say it to myself. “Okay. Everything is under control. I can go do this thing.”
When I then began to say, “Well, why is it control equals safety?” Then, I began to understand that we learn lots of messages, and I learned them, too, in different dynamics in my family that when the adults around me were out of control, like they were yelling and upset, I did not feel safe. Right?
PAM: Yep, yep.
TERESA: When things were volatile or people got mad about the dishes or whatever it was, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go hide, because that’s easier. It’s safer.” We also get these messages growing up about our emotions. You mentioned this earlier. The emotion that wasn’t allowed in my family, this is where it’s unique to each person, your own family experience. The emotion that wasn’t allowed in my family was anger. I couldn’t express anger. Even though the adults around me expressed a whole lot of anger in not very healthy ways, of course, I couldn’t express that same anger, and sadness. Neutral and slightly happy were good. That was the range of acceptable emotion. Not too happy, because then that’s uncomfortable for my parents. It could be in this one range.
What I learned, then, was to push down feelings of sadness and feelings of anger. Because the adults around me, when they expressed anger, it wasn’t safe, it was a volatile situation, what I learned then, is anger results in harm. My own anger became my enemy. When anger would well up in me, I would push it down. Then, if it burst out, at some point, it’s going to burst out, the more you try to control it, it’s going to come out, then my feelings of guilt would come up. I would beat myself up. I would tell myself what a horrible parent or person I was. I punished myself. As much as I was punished as a child, I learned to punish myself.
Accepting my feelings, and for each of us, it’ll be different, what those feelings are, accepting those feelings as part of the human experience and saying, “I feel angry. I’m not a bad person because I feel a feeling. I’m not a bad person because I feel sad, because I want to cry. It is the full range of human experience.” What I learned was, I think you said this about discomfort, about when something is triggering you or making you uncomfortable, that’s the sign for you to go in. I had to learn that accepting anger and moving toward my anger, saying, “I can go and be angry and feel that, and I’m safe and other people will be safe. It’s okay. I can explore where that anger comes from. I can understand anger and anger can be a friend. Anger can be something that tells me something about myself.”
Accepting those feelings that had been punished when I was a child was such an important part of my own process. For each of us, it’s going to be different what those feelings are, but we deny all of those that we learned were bad in our families or in our schools or whatever it was.
PAM: It’s such a huge piece of our own growing self-awareness. Nothing triggers us to start developing that as coming to unschooling, right?
TERESA: Yes, yes. I think, then, the mindfulness piece, all of these things interconnect, because I had to be willing to be present with myself. As you said earlier and as I’ve said, when those uncomfortable feelings hit us, when the discomfort is there, the ability to sit with that and be present with it is so difficult. That mindfulness, that in the moment now, where am I at and what’s going on for me, but then also mindfulness and presence with the child. I’m just going to sit right now and even though I feel a hundred things are pulling on me, I’m going to watch this thing, this video that he wants me to watch, and just be there.
PAM: That’s such a huge piece, right. For me, anyway, that’s something that I learned through experience, because people would say, “Make that a top priority.” “Okay. I’ll try.” But after a few times, it’s like, “Wow. What I learned in that half hour beats every other choice I could have had.” That mindfulness to be with them and that mindfulness with myself to take a beat when some emotion or some feeling was welling up, those were huge tools for me.
TERESA: Yeah, yeah. Even that mindfulness of where my feelings show up of feeling out of control, unsafe, or angry, it always shows up in my stomach. The place it shows up is I start to feel a little funky in my stomach. Sometimes it shows up as hunger, but it’s not hunger. It’s anger. Sometimes it shows up as nausea, because, oh my gosh. Something’s really making me so uncomfortable. I’m starting to feel a little bit nauseous. I started paying attention to those early signals. “What’s going on? Oh, wait. Something’s happening in my stomach. All right. Give me a moment, guys. I just got to have a moment.” Ask for that time in for me. “I need a moment. This is really intense.” Sometimes it would be just to close my eyes in the midst of what was going around me for just a moment and say, “I’m feeling something.” Even if I couldn’t name exactly what the feeling was, just say, “Oh, I’m aware.” My mindfulness allows me to tap into this. Close my eyes. It’s in my stomach. I’m feeling something. Then, move on. What’s the next thing that comes up?
PAM: I know. Sometimes, the physical reaction shows up first.
TERESA: It does. The mindfulness piece is both with ourselves and then also with the child. I know that when I’m in that angry mode and what I want to do is lash out, if I get down and I really just observe the child, look in their eyes. It’s so easy to dehumanize. None of us want to think we dehumanize our children. It’s easy if all we see are the externals, the messy house, the toys poured out on the floor, the mess, whatever, the spill, whatever it is. We look at that rather than the child.
And that moment of mindfulness, to just say, “Look. Look at his eyes. Look at him. Notice his nose. Notice the hair. Notice the things you really, really love.” If I could take that moment in those intense times, that two to six years old, and even now I do it, at nine and fourteen. Breathe and, “Oh my gosh. Look at him.” It’s that moment I need to at least hold back from the lash out. Then, even if there’s a lash out, there’s ways to come back from it. We can talk about that.
Then, the last thing is the awareness piece. For me, the awareness had to do with multiple levels of awareness. Awareness that I was trained to be this way. All of my early training in childhood, the systems, the school systems, my family system. All of those things trained me, trained my brain, our neural pathways that are activated and reactivated over and over. Those things I was trained to do, so that awareness that I’m trained to be in this place and I can unlearn it and to know that that’s what operates and that gets reinforced, even now in the media, the messages I might get from family, all of those things reinforce that control dynamic.
Then, what are my particular triggers? My own personal awareness. Food was a trigger for a long, long, long time. Sometimes still comes up for me. There are other things that are triggers for me. My awareness of, “This is a soft spot for me. I’m sensitive about this thing.” Knowing that oh, this might come up. Okay. How do I take care of myself? How do I recognize that that’s a place of healing? That that’s a place I need to go deeper in? That awareness of my own dynamics, internal dynamics, and even the dynamics I may have set up in my relationship with my child. Because we get into patterns with them.
Even as we’re undoing what we did before, those patterns come back into play. We can even acknowledge that, “Oh, we’re stuck in this pattern.” Sometimes I would even say, if we were in the car and there’s a lot that happens in cars, if people have cars and they travel by car, there’s a lot that happens. I would say, “I’ve got to pull over and just step out. This is not working. I need to step out for a minute and change that energy pattern or change that pattern of interaction.” Or, I can say, “You know what? I’m getting intense. I’m going to step away.”
Those things, that awareness at systems and naming my history level, how I’m trained in those way, and then what are my own particular triggers. Then, the awareness of the child. Each of them are so different. The things that I could say to one, I can’t say to the other. The things that hurt one much, much more are very different from the things that might hurt the other one. The ways in which Martel needs me to reconnect after I’ve maybe lashed out or lost it or gotten upset or intense about something are so different from the ways Greyson needs me to reconnect and apologize. That awareness of, what do they need from me? And did I even hurt them? Maybe I didn’t, and it’s just me.
PAM: Exactly. Sometimes so much is caught up in our own history. As you said, it’s totally individual with each child. And our children, as they get older, they get to know us, too. They’re aware of our triggers or our personality, all those pieces. I think I’ve mentioned before on an episode that my kids know I need a minute to absorb quick changes in plans and stuff like that. I have to process through that. I can’t just really go, “Hey, cool.” They are happy to give me that beat. “Hey, mom. I’m thinking about this. Can you think about it and I’ll come back in five minutes?” Or, whatever. And that’s all learned empathy and relationship skills, because of the way we have treated and supported and respected them too.
TERESA: Yeah, yeah.
PAM: I know!
TERESA: It’s a beautiful thing!
PAM: There’s a short quote from the book that I wanted to share. You write, “By the simple but often challenging act of redefining our relationships with children, we can begin the process of creating profound social change.” I was hoping you could talk a bit about the social change aspect.
TERESA: Yeah. Much of my work prior to becoming a parent, and what I still do now, is around working with college students around understand the dynamics of racism and sexism, just oppression in general, heterosexism, homophobia. I remember in so much of the work that I did, by the time students are 18 to 21, when we had them most typically that age, it was so hard. It was hard work to do, to have people realize what the dynamics were.
When I started to do my own work as a parent, what I realized was that, even though I was out in the world advocating for equity and justice and respectful treatment of others no matter what group they came from and an understanding of that, I didn’t see the ways in which my treatment of the children in my life, which was about power and control and domination. I mean power over, not power with, but power over. Domination trained them to believe that human beings have the right to control and dominate other human beings, that fundamentally all I was doing was recreating that system of belief and interaction and behavior, and even brain development, because children learn in relationships. Brains develop in relationships. Dominance and power over and controlling others then becomes the norm, not only from a societal perspective, but internally and even in the ways our brains process those relationships.
So, I realized that, by deciding that children don’t have to be controlled, don’t have to have power used over them, don’t need to be dominated, by changing to this way of interacting that’s respectful, that acknowledges their full humanity, that treats them as if they are full human beings, no matter what age they are, no matter who they are, that we set the foundation for that broader change, that the generations of children that we now interact with and build relationships based on this equitable model then begins to ripple outward and creates this social change at a broader level. That’s my fundamental belief after all the work I did in universities and do now, but then my own journey as a parent and recognizing that the treatment of children sets the foundation for all other forms of discrimination and domination.
PAM: It really does, because that’s the first big power/controlling relationship that they have in their life. That’s how the learn it. That’s really interesting. I love that aspect to your work. Let’s see. We’re getting there. Question number nine.
What has been one of the more challenging aspects for you on your unschooling journey so far?
TERESA: I think I talked a lot about that in some of the other questions and this may answer our last question, too, about what’s most valuable. The most challenging and most valuable part of it was recognizing that I needed to change. The goal wasn’t to change the children in my life so that I would be more comfortable. It was to use the discomfort that they generated in me to do my own work. What has been and continues to be most valuable for me personally has been the ways in which that healed me from the experiences I had in my own childhood.
This unschooling journey has been so much more about my journey, but I don’t want to diminish, of course, the impact on the child and the world that we create, but it’s in that belief that we all can be whole. We return to wholeness as adults and we create a space for them to remain whole to the greatest extent possible. We’re all going to experience some pain and some trauma. It’s not about, “You have a happy life that you never experience any of those things.” That’s not what I create for the children in my life, because I don’t control their environment. I don’t control the relationships they have with others, the ways in which someone you love might hurt you in those other relationships they have. But, it’s a journey of healing for me and parents back to wholeness. It’s a journey of creating as much of a foundation of wholeness from which they then operate from, of knowing themselves and knowing that they’re enough.
They’re going to question it, because I see that now in Martel even. He’ll question, “Am I good enough? How am I going to make it in the world?” He asked me once recently, “Mom, how do you know I’m going to be okay without formal schooling?” It entered into this whole conversation about all the things that I see in him, about the resilience that he shows, the ways in which he learns, the ways he perseveres. All of the things that I see in his day to day life that maybe he didn’t see in himself when he hears from others, “How are you going to make it? You’re not even going to get a high school degree.” All that stuff.
That has been the most challenging part, is my own work, facing my fears, facing what I hid away. And it’s also been the most valuable for me, personally. The relationships that I feel like I have, the ways in which I’ve learned to be humble and reconnect and own and be accountable for my own behaviors, but also come from a place of deep love for myself. Then, that love translates to them. That’s the journey I’m on, and I’m still on it. I’m nowhere near the end of all of that learning journey.
PAM: Isn’t that great, that you’ve come to realize that it’s about being human. It’s not something that you just do for a certain number of years. It’s life. So often, at the end of my blog posts, when I was writing, I would get to the point at the bottom, it would always be like, “Unschooling is life.”
TERESA: It is.
PAM: I loved your point about your own healing being one of the most valuable outcomes, because we need to do that to create that environment for our children to be able to do that actively and be supportive, we really need to find our own place of comfort, don’t we?
TERESA: Yeah, yeah. We can be to ourselves the parents and the caregivers we might not have had and the teachers we didn’t have. We can be that now for ourselves.
PAM: Exactly. I know. As you’re watching your child and helping them through situations, your own situations are going to be going through in the back of your mind and everything. It helps you process those moments in childhood plus the one with your own child in front of you. We’re going to turn this right back to the beginning when you were talking about how we’re always starting certain parts of our journey. You may have been unschooling for ten years, but you’ve never unschooled a 16-year-old, so there’s going to be situations coming up where it’s like, “Oh, gee. I haven’t really thought of this before, because it’s never come up.” You’re going to be doing that whole healing work, that whole analysis. You’re going to hit that obstacle. You’re going to be processing your own experiences and the one with your child in front of you.
TERESA: Oh, yes. Yes, yes. It’s such a glorious life. In some ways, it is the life I wanted. I didn’t even know how to get it. I didn’t know what it meant. But taking each step, one step at a time everyday creates this life that I didn’t know I could have. I knew that it was this feeling of, “Gosh. This is what I want and need.” Then, in this unschooling journey, I got the life I needed and I wanted. I didn’t even know it was possible.
PAM: That’s it. Didn’t know it was possible until I just discovered it. It’s beautiful. Well, I want to thank you so, so much for taking the time to chat with me, Teresa. I had a great, great time.
TERESA: I did, too, Pam. It’s so wonderful to talk and it’s been wonderful to connect in person a couple times and just to be a part of this conversation. I so appreciate the opportunity.
PAM: Oh, thank you, thank you very much. I’m so glad to have you here today. Before we go, can you share where the best place is for people to connect with you online?
PAM: Absolutely. ParentingForSocialChange.com all spelled out. I’m Parenting for Social Change on Facebook as well. People can connect with me on Facebook. Teresa Graham Brett, so yeah.
PAM: Awesome. I will share those links as well in the show notes.
TERESA: All right.
PAM: Thanks very much. Have a great day, everyone.