PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Cindy Gaddis. Hi Cindy!
PAM: Hi! Cindy is an unschooling mom to seven kids and she’s the author of the book The Right Side of Normal. I have bumped into her online a few times over the years and I’m really happy to have her on the podcast this week to talk about paradigm shifts.
To get us started, Cindy, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you came to unschooling?
CINDY: Sure. My husband and I have been married 31 years. We started off as high school sweethearts in Michigan. We were both good at school, both into sports year-round. That was kind of our thing. When we would talk about our future family when we were dating, we kind of knew we were going to get married, or that’s what we assumed, we would talk about what our future would look like. And always it had school and sports involved in it because that’s what we loved. When we graduated from high school, my husband went off and served a church mission for our church in Chile, in South America.
While he was gone, I went to business school. When he got back, we got married. We were 20 years old at the time and I had my secretary degree. They had secretaries in the day, I don’t think they exist anymore! (laughter) I put him through college the next six years, which included three different universities. We had three children during that time, two more after we graduated from university, and adopted two more, five years after that. During that time, we were what we called Corporate Gypsies where we moved around ever one to three years as he moved up the corporate ladder.
Currently, our seven children are ages 15, 17, 21, 23, 25, 27, and 29, six boys and one girl. And my daughter is the only married child, so I have a son-in-law as well. So, every two years with a skip in there. (laughter)
How we came to unschooling…my oldest child set the tone there. He is a natural unschooling child. He was always pursuing learning, always had a project going, had very specific, and to me, unusual interests for someone so young. He loved dinosaurs, sharks, whales, snakes, that kind of thing, which is pretty typical of a little boy. But then he liked things like ancient Egypt and going to museums. When I was in school, that was like the most boring subject, and I didn’t even understand them, and if we had a field trip to a museum I thought it was going to be so boring! And here’s this five-year-old dragging me to natural history museums!
So I’m thinking, ok, this child is interesting! So anyway, this first child of mine, he had only gone to preschool 2 days a week for about three months and that was his only formal schooling before I went to pre-register him for kindergarten, like we all do, or are all supposed to. So I went in kind of dutifully, as I’m supposed to do, kind of felt a little weird about it to some level, but I went in thinking that I’m going to get to see him doing his thing, as I always do, but those in charge told me that I didn’t get to go with him. I had to go back where the other parents were and do the paperwork. Right there, I was like, “What?! This is not what I normally do!” And they were just kind of looking at me like, “Uh oh! One of those parents! This is why we do school, to cut those apron strings from those kinds of parents.” I felt a little patronized in that moment but I went ahead and was dutiful and went back to the paperwork area and let them take my child.
So I started filling out the paperwork and there were questions on there that were not what I was expecting to fill out for going to school. Like, “Tell me about his birth story.” And to me, this was my first act of defiance as I wrote, “N/A”. I’m not telling you the birth story, why are you asking me this? And then it asked me the ages and names of his siblings and for some reason I had this kind of weird feeling that they may be taking my child from me right now but they’re not having my others! (laughter) So I’m going to put, “N/A” on that. And there were other certain questions where I found myself putting a lot of “N/A”, “N/A”, “Not Applicable,” even though it was, I was kind of being, “No! I’m not giving you this information! Why are you asking me this?”
At one point, I just stopped filling out the paperwork. I went to where he was, he had passed with flying colours, I smiled and nodded and left. I had this really strong feeling of not feeling good about it. And of course, all the parents were telling me, “That’s normal! Everyone feels that way! But you’ll get used to it and it will be fine.” But instead, I decided I was not going to push it aside. I was going to sit in that feeling and figure out why I was feeling that way.
So a few days later, the word, “homeschool” dropped in my head. I don’t know where it came from. I really didn’t have any personal interactions with people who homeschooled. There was one family I knew of during college years that people all thought something weird was going on there and we did later find out there was some abuse going on. So, I knew that was not the inspiration for me wanting to homeschool. But I thought, “Well, let’s see what this homeschooling is!” I asked around at church and found a lady who homeschooled and told her I was wanting to know about it and she said, “Well, what kind of homeschooling do you want to do?” I went, “Huh? There are types of homeschooling?” I’m just thinking, “school at home,” I didn’t know there were types.
So she gave me a book that had little blurbs of the different types. And she said, “Listen, I think you’ll recognize what you’re looking for in these blurbs.” And sure enough, there was this thing called, “unschooling” in there and I thought, “Yeah! We’ve been doing that until now, it’s worked really well, so yeah, I want to do this thing called, ‘unschooling’.” And she said, “Well great, that’s what I do! And I’ll be able to help you a lot easier!”
So the first thing she did was give me a bunch of resources, mainly, back issues of Growing Without Schooling, which was still active at the time. I read and read and read, nonstop, for days and days. And that became the beginning of our unschooling journey!
PAM: I remember those times, reading and reading and reading! You can’t get enough!
CINDY: Yes! And I loved Growing Without Schooling and it’s nice that those resources are out there online. The reason it was nice for me was because it was real parents doing it, sharing their different stories and I think that gave me glimpses. Because that’s what people always want to know at first, right, “What does homeschooling look like?” or “Tell me a typical unschooling day.” And you’re like, “Ah!” (laughter) It’s kind of hard to do that! So this almost gave that to me a little bit.
PAM: Well that’s awesome!
Often we talk about deschooling as being a time to recover from the time that is spent in school and shift away from seeing learning through the conventional school lens. That’s all very true, that’s a big part of it. But it doesn’t really seem to do justice to all the cultural paradigm shifts that are wrapped up in there, does it? So I’d love to dive deeper with you into some of those shifts today. First up, lets talk about Helicopter Parenting. Parents have good intentions but they can find themselves controlling every aspect of their children’s days. So how does that perspective shift as we move to unschooling?
CINDY: Well let me tell you, I would have been a classic helicopter parent if not for being outnumbered. (laughter) I might have done that purposely, I don’t know. I am thankful for it. I feel that having control and direction came naturally to me, as I now know I’m kind of a really strong left-brain learner. You may hear me talk about left-brain/right-brain ideas from time-to-time because that’s something I end up researching later when my kids were older to figure out what was different about how they learned compared to others in society who seem to struggle with these kinds of learners. I discovered there’s this creative, right-brained kid that doesn’t fit in school, which were all of my children.
PAM: That was my oldest son too. That’s how I first found homeschooling and unschooling.
CINDY: Yeah, because they don’t fit in school and they’re labeled. My kids didn’t have that because I’d never had that paradigm, I’d never put them in school. So anyway, I’m very strongly left-brained, which is very logical and organized, typically. Then also the way I was raised, my parents were kind of not parents. They kind of let us do our own thing, which had a lot of good things about it that helped me embrace unschooling more, since I was used to learning on my own, but also things that made me struggle. When you have nobody directing you and nobody supporting you, you feel a loss of control.
Sometimes what you do is you control in your life to make up for that loss of control. There’s an adage I always say, “The birth of my fourth child saved the education of my first.” Because at the time, I was pregnant with number four when my first was five. My fourth child was due in September and of course, my first was supposed to start unschooling. So even though my pre-registration happened in April, I start researching heavily in June. I’m thinking, “Ok! We’ve always done this thing called unschooling, I’ve always let him lead the way, he’s never been to school except for that short stint.”
But for some reason, when it was supposed to be (time for) school, and even though I understood the lifestyle, and even though I’d done it, I felt like I lost my mind because he turned five. I lost my mind. I think everyone does that. You’re going along, and that’s what we always say to people: well what were you doing before five years old? You probably were doing a lot of unschooling things but then we think things have to change and control has to come in. And I did that. As much as I researched it and knew what I wanted, and knew what I had been doing, at the beginning of August I decided to use my organizational skills and map out this great curriculum of my own so I’d have a head start before this baby was born and get this rhythm going with him. Of course I’d make it more interesting than what they did at school. I even had timers going and everything. I had different subjects, just like school, I did school!
Well, he was having none of it, it lasted two weeks, and he was not budging any further with my little plan. He probably did think I lost my mind. I was going to have this baby. I let it go. I didn’t know what plan B was. So I let the baby come. The baby came mid-September. And of course, as we know, when you have newborn babies, that takes a lot of your time. Not only did I have a five-year-old and this newborn baby, I had two children in between there to take care of!
So I just watched him at work. I’m grateful that I had that first year that required me to sit back because I totally have the ability to be a controlling, helicopter, hovering person. But I didn’t have the ability to. There were so many lessons he taught me that first year as I watched. One of them that depicts this thought that we think we have to control for them to learn is what I call the Snake Lesson.
In that time, I was still doing different things. I did a couple unit studies with him during that first year. Not heavy duty, because I just did a little bit, but in March, he wanted to learn about snakes. So I looked around and I couldn’t find a unit study about snakes. So I thought well, I’ve done a couple unit studies, I could do one by myself, I can do this! It took a while, because again, I had four children! We went to the library, we gathered all the snake books that they had, brought them home. Again, it took me another two weeks before I could find the time to create this unit study. But of course in the meantime, he’s looking at these books. He’s coming to me and asking me questions about what he sees in these book, and I answer him. We go about this.
So I finally take a weekend, I get this whole unit study done, it’s going to be five days, one or two hours a day, he was excited. So I tell him Monday is this unit study. He’s there, bells on! He’s ready! I start my lesson, and his face looks funny, and I ask him what’s wrong and he says, “I already know that.” So I say, “Ok, ok, we can keep going.” We go on to the next thing. He looks again, “I already know that.” Ok, hold on. This is what I was going to teach you, here’s my lesson plan, what don’t you know? He saw a couple of craft project that looked interesting so he wanted to do those. And then I noticed that he knew everything that no one ever wanted to know about cobras and boas but didn’t know anything about rattlesnakes and vipers. So I said, “Well how about we do the rattlesnakes and vipers?” “No thank you.” I said, “No, you asked for snakes, you don’t know about rattlesnakes and vipers, I think we need to do the vipers.” And then an idea came to my head. Something dropped in my head. I love my little inspirations! I thought, “Hold on, instead of getting all mad that he’s going to learn these lessons, why don’t you teach him one fact.” Why is a pit viper called a pit viper? So I explained to him why a pit viper was called a pit viper. An hour later I asked him. And he couldn’t remember. So I taught him again. And I do this over a week’s time, a month’s time. He cannot remember why a pit viper is called a pit viper. But he can tell me all I never wanted to know about cobras and boas, about where they live, what type of species there are, are they born live, what do they eat…all these things to a high level but could not tell me why a pit viper was called a pit viper.
So I thought to myself, “Ok, this is my lesson.” I could sit here and do all these fantastic lessons, but if he doesn’t want to learn, then I’m wasting my time. So I happened to be telling this story when he was 14, and some people I was telling the story to asked, “So why is a pit viper called a pit viper?” I said, “I don’t know! You expect me to remember? I’m just the teacher!” (laughter) So I go to my son, and I said, “Do you happen to remember this story, this time when we learned about snakes?” And he said, “No.” So I quick tell him the reader’s digest version. I asked him if he knew why a pit viper was called a pit viper? He said, “Mom, I think pit viper is a classification of snake, not an actual snake.” (laughter)
He was right! I went and looked it up, it is a classification of snake! I was sitting there thinking it was a snake. So I thought, “There you go. The learner still out-paces the teacher.” (laughter) So, needless to say, I was thankful for the physical limitations that I had with the new baby and that my oldest son’s personality that let things happen in order to learn those lessons. Versus stressing myself out trying to meet some kind of criteria about what success looked like and what learning looked like. So I ended up taking my need to control and my perfectionism that comes with my personality and I steered it towards myself and trying to be the best unschooling parent that I could be and not put it on my kid.
PAM: Wow, that snake story is brilliant! It is such a brilliant example of when people first come to unschooling and we say, try and take six months, take a year, take it off and just watch your kids in action. Because it’s in those moments, like you saw him, taking those books and learning all that he wanted to before you even got a chance to gather it into a lesson and then seeing the difference between him remembering the stuff he was interested in and not remembering the stuff that you thought he should be learning. It’s just so brilliant!
CINDY: It is, it is! He was such a great teacher. (laughter) He was absolutely the teacher.
PAM: As Anne Ohman would say too, being a student of your child is a way to get into that mind space. Like you said, you had that fourth child that kind of forced you into that mind space. We try our best to say try and relax and watch for a while, be a student of them, however you can try and get yourself shifted into that mindset is going to be so helpful isn’t it? Because that’s when you’re open to learning and actually seeing what’s going on and learning from them. Because they’re brilliant!
The next shift that I wanted to talk about is around socialization. It is a question, of course, that we’re often asked by others when they first learn that our kids don’t go to school. And we easily point out to them how there are lots of opportunities for children to engage with other children, with other people, outside of school. But that question is so much bigger than that, isn’t it?
CINDY: It is, it definitely is. And it’s all tied up, to me, in what our culture deems “success.” I have a story that highlights that, again. Like I said, my son was such a good teacher!
Interestingly, before homeschooling even entered my mind, the socialization question was already taken off the table from this particular experience, which was when he went to that preschool for that three months. I was pregnant with that fourth child and I get really sick when I’m pregnant. So I was feeling guilty and thought my oldest was getting bored, though he was four, almost five, he’d never been to an organized learning environment. So I thought it would ease my guilt to give him something to do.
So naturally at the time my perfectionism thought that I had to find the best school, because that’s success! I’ve got to have him in a successful environment! But I did, for whatever reason, feel adamant about it being a play-based centre. I don’t know if that was a thing then or I just had an instinct but I did want it to be play-based. So there was a university in town that sponsored this progressive school. They were very proud of their school and he was pretty excited to go. I put him in, in January, so that was half-way through their preschool year. It was just a Tuesday-Thursday school. The teacher met with us, asked us what he liked, and she said she was going to try and incorporate some of his interests. He was into meat-eating plants at the time. So she thought she would try to do that.
Well, as I would show up to bring him to the preschool, I was often late, because of my sickness, and I was always a late person anyway! (laughter) So every time we came in, my son would go to his little cubby, put his things in his little cubby, and then he would stand there, waiting for the teacher to acknowledge him. Every single time. He would not move until she acknowledged him. I don’t know if she was realizing he was doing this. I was realizing he was doing this! I remember even thinking at that moment, “Wow. Does she know the power she has on him, already?” As soon as she would say, “Hey! How are you doing?” he would go in as happy as could be.
So anyway, about a month or so went by and we had a meeting with the teacher to see how things were going. She asked me, “So what preschool have you been to?” I said, “None.” She was momentarily confused because she was sure she had put in her mind that we had just moved there and he was transferring from some preschool in Michigan and that’s why he was coming in mid-year. She went on to explain why she had asked. She said most of the children in the preschool had come from their daycare centre. They had a daycare side of things that the kids would go up and they had a progressive way to do their daycare as well. They were very proud of training up these children in their environment.
She said that my son came in, not knowing anyone, and instantly made lots of friends, he became very sought-after by the children for all the things he liked to do and the projects he would create. She also said he was the most advanced problem solver. Her most advanced child before him would be the type who would come get her if there had been a problem to solve whereas he solved most of his problems on his own when things came up with other children. So basically she said he was her most advanced socialized child in the group. She then realized she had to congratulate me on an apparently great home environment. She had thought she was going to get to say, “Where’s this preschool, we need to go investigate it!” Or what great socialization they do, but it was just my simple home.
I remember again, it registered in my mind, homeschooling wasn’t in my head yet, but I was thinking, wow, everyone thinks you have to go and send your children to school and that’s where you get socialized, etc., and yet here my child was the best in that class, in a progressive school. So to me, not only did the answer, “What about socialization?” get answered before I even started homeschooling, to me it also shone a light on the idea that preplanned success and laid out paths are not necessarily what you think they are. So whether it’s private schools that we all think are the better choices or progressive schools or going to college, those things that we find that is supposed to be the evidence of success is not necessarily what gets you there.
That’s kind of what happened to my husband. We didn’t grow up with a lot of money, neither one of us, and to me, that’s what public schools were made for. It was opportunities for the poor, right? So, he did what school tells us to do. We go to school, get good grades, go to college, get good grades, come out, get the high-paying job, buy the white picket fence home, et voila! You’re a success! And, it is success by society’s standards. But, are you happy? He’s not. He did everything right, he was a great student, he got this great job, he’s making lots of money, but he’s so unhappy. And it’s one of the reasons that my husband did jump on board with unschooling. Because he did want his children to find work that they love and not get caught in this lie, is what he called it, “The Big Lie” of “Do this and you’ll be set.”
So the cool thing that we discovered when my children got to be adults is that not only did they find their own way in life, some doing college, most not, is that they’re helping me understand what true freedom looks like. To me, freedom from the bondage that is, keeping up with the Joneses, wracking up debt, living above our means, acquiring things of status whether that is houses, jobs, and such. I happened, in the last year, to put together a workshop that I call “Exploring Freedom” that I give at some homeschooling conferences. It’s been an opportunity to really explore some of these cultural ideas of success that paints our path when we unschool our children.
Because if you’re thinking that college is the best path for instance, and so many say that: but what about college? I want to unschool but what about college? Then that stress will come out into your unschooling and your relationship with your children if they don’t steer in that direction. That creates worry. Because in your mind, that is still success. Ok, can I go off this beaten path but I still want them to have success which society has decided is college. So, it is influencing you whether you think it is or not. Or if you think having a high paying job is important to you or a status job whether it’s doctor, lawyer, engineer, that kind of thing, then again, that’s going to colour your view of your child’s focus. Oh no, my child’s not go-getting and naturally going after the process I think gets him to this high-paying job or this college career. It impacts your relationship and the learning life they have.
PAM: Yeah, I think it really does interfere, doesn’t it? Because even if we don’t speak it specifically or frame it specifically that way, so much of our comments and just general conversation comes from that perspective. Our kids are paying attention to us, they’re at a level which they understand the motivation behind the words. They can really feel those kinds of motivations.
Plus, those are the messages that they’re getting all around them as well, right? They’re in conversations that they have with people in general, they’re in movies and TV. Those messages are just totally wrapped up in the whole socialization in the conventional culture, right?
CINDY: Right! And then when you have your friends and family who are still in the conventional setting and they’re putting their worries out. If you have those worries that you haven’t worked through yourself, that’s going to re-trigger in you, and that’s going to go down to your child. Because it’s just a pecking order, going down, that we bring our fears right down through them.
PAM: Yup! Our fears, even if we say, “Oh, I’m not going to say that,” if we haven’t worked through them ourselves and, like you said, it’s going to keep coming up and up. It’s not that you can sit down for half an hour and think about it, decide not to do it, and then be good. They do come out in our general demeanour, motivating our little comments here and there. Yeah, you can really transmit those fears across to your children even if you don’t mean to.
CINDY: College is a big one, but you can start even with the smaller ones. Reading is a common one. People will say, “Oh but my child wants to learn to read.” But then they’re struggling or whatever. You know, I have had seven children, two genetic pools, and I have not had a child stress about wanting to learn to read. I’m thinking, I can’t be that good, in the sense that not once in the seven children did they have that desire. It’s because I was very, very careful to watch my view on it. And it can be subtle things like, “One day you’re going to get to learn to read.” Or, “Reading is so fun!” And, “Would you like to go to the library and pick out more books?” It’s subtle things that you’re trying to just say that you’re encouraging them to like it but you’re actually sending these subtle messages.
You’re feeling the idea of reading is really important to you so they start saying and they start translating that into, “Oh I should want to learn to read. She needs me to learn to read.” And then when they say, “I want to learn to read” then now you’re justified, “Oh see, but she wants to now!” (laughter) But you contributed to their desire to need to say that.
PAM: And then on the flip side as well, it can also make them more resistant too, right? If they know you’re extra invested in them learning to read or doing a sport or whatever it is that we have been conventionally socialized to expect children to do, right? You can end up pushing them away and making the process even longer.
Let’s move on to the next question.
Another shift on the deschooling road that I wanted to talk about revolves around the conventional tendency to keep kids busy. You had mentioned this a little bit before so I’d like to dig into it. We’re often scheduling their days full of extra-curricular activities and this seems to be wrapped up in the idea of being a well-rounded person. Especially to look good on college applications, right? Or the over-achiever mentality as your definition of success. So I can do this, this, this, and this. So how does this perspective shift as we move to unschooling?
CINDY: Well I really, really believe this is such a huge challenge for those coming to unschooling. At least for the people I am around, this is huge. If you peel back the layers, you’ll find some kind of social or cultural pressure and these ideas of being college-bound, busy, and an over-achiever is at the root of it. Because that defines success in our world.
We always say as parents though, “What do you want for your child?” “I just want them to be happy.” But I sometimes think we don’t put our money where our mouth is. Because what we really, I think, want, is for them to be college-educated, rich, and happy! But seriously, people with, especially the rich, sometimes if you really look at that segment of people, are they really happy? They’re successful, but a lot of times they have difficult relationships, they’re seeking after things that money cannot buy. So I’m not saying money isn’t nice to have, because we have it, it is nice not to have to worry about money!
But my children have shown me that a simple lifestyle, continuing to pursue what they love, and happy, do go together. So, I thought, how did we get there? How did my kids get to this happy place and this simple lifestyle that has really given them a lot of freedom? This is one of the outcomes I was not expecting to see when I was doing this whole unschooling thing. I was thinking about the relationships and the gifts and interests that they would pursue. And that they would have a career that they loved. But I was not expecting this idea of freedom. This way that they’re living outside of the constructs of what our society has deemed “successful” or “the status.” It’s pretty cool, that’s why I’m talking about it a lot, because I want to explore this.
I thought, what are some of the elements of the unschooling lifestyle that got them there. I feel like, of course it started with jumping off the merry go round. To me that is this “busyness” factor and this “being scheduled” factor that you see totally going on right now.
People do this with small children. They have them in dance class, T-ball, art class, preschool, gym time, field trips, park days, co-ops, planned play dates. And they’re not even five yet! They’re just putting them in all these things. Busy, busy, busy! They share their schedule as some kind of badge of courage. “Look at us, we are SO busy!” And I’m like, “What?!” Where did childhood go? Time and space to just be, play, explore, create, wonder, feel, discover. It’s so important to the well-being of a person, which is so closely connected to happiness. So, I think our society is valuing one thing but we all know that that’s not good. I think we kind of know that’s not good but we get sucked up into it.
So I’ll admit, I’m a little bit grateful to have started unschooling 25 years ago when homeschooling, let alone unschooling, was still small in numbers. There was no internet, no co-ops, often barely any organizations. If we wanted something we had to create it. And if we created something we might meet monthly. We might have a field trip once a month. But I didn’t have a lot of choices, so I could more easily relax into allowing this space and time to exist for my children.
It’s fantastic that homeschooling and unschooling have grown, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great! No one ever expected the numbers to be this big. But, with the myriad of choices, comes the struggle to remember what is important. They are choices, not “have to’s.” It’s great that there’s all these things out there to choose from, but you could use all those choices as a way to find just a few good things that fit you versus thinking you have to do everything. That’s one of the first things I tell any new person coming up to me is, “Listen, you have a lot of choices. You do not have to do them all!” Then I start going into why play is so important.
There’s a stage for busyness, there’s a stage for being more active, usually that’s the teen years that naturally starts going in that direction. But in early childhood, time, being outside, playing, they’re all super important. That’s what I bring up to anyone who comes up to me with a four and five-year-old.
The other part of this over-scheduled-ness is our reliance on expert-driven culture. We rely on “the experts.” We say, “What do the studies say?” It’s so funny, we have to find the study to validate our instinct that play is good! (laughter) It’s crazy but people lean on these studies to make them feel better because again, they’re trying to follow this formula for success that has been created by our society. And that is being very busy and this time and space and play, we need to keep doing all these important things like these academics earlier, but nothing supports that. None of the studies support it.
PAM: It really does boil down to learning to trust ourselves. We’re back to new parents, trying to suggest that they spend some quiet time, that they watch their kids, that they just watch life unfold for a while.
I know I have suggested over the years specifically not doing formal kinds of activities because you still get stuck in the idea that those are needed. Maybe they might be enjoyed, but right now you’re doing so many big paradigm shifts to realize that they’re not a requirement. They’re not a required step on your success ladder, or however you want to talk about it.
But it’s in that quietness where we start to learn from them, where we start to trust ourselves because what we’re seeing play out is working. I loved that, when you talked about their well-being because the big difference that I have seen with unschooling kids is how well they understand themselves. You really need that quiet time to do that. You need to have time to process what your choices are and how they played out. To have the time to learn from your choices and to learn about how they worked for you, you need that time to process it. You can’t just be doing the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
CINDY: Right, and just being filled with things that are filled for you, that is how we are teaching our children to need to be entertained. They don’t know how to initiate their own learning. They don’t know how to have their own interests, and their own knowledge that they are capable of doing things on their own. We’re robbing them of their own self-reliance by having all of these things in their schedule that tells them, “If you do all of these things then you will get where we want you to go.” Really, that’s really what it is. We’re trying to create a formula, what we want the product of this child to be. And we’re not respecting that they have, as you say, their own process, and their own journey to go on to find who they are and what their gifts are and what they want to do with their world. And that does, it absolutely takes time, it takes space to be with yourself. It takes opportunity to just play around with the things around you and what gets you excited, what doesn’t, what works for you, what doesn’t. Instead of having someone tell you that.
PAM: And to see how that changes over time, right? I think that’s another huge piece. As they gain experience, they see how their choices morph and change over time as they get to know themselves better as their interests change. That’s one thing I know my daughter has talked about how she really enjoys photography but she knows that she would have found something else too if that didn’t catch her attention. So I think they get a bigger picture view of things as well when they have the time to process and consider what is going on. That is so cool.
The shift to unschooling also encompasses big shifts in how we look at family relationships. I know for me, one of the big ones, that really helped, was digging into the idea of fairness. Did you find that a valuable shift as well?
CINDY: You know, it did, but I feel it was preceded by something that helped that naturally flow, that’s the idea of individuality. You brought that up when you thought about the idea of fairness too. Every person, if given the space to be themselves, has their own interests, strengths and gifts. To me, that’s the heart of unschooling. It doesn’t matter how many children you have, this is still true.
This idea of individuality was another conversion point for my husband. There were five boys in his family and his father was all about sports. So all the boys played sports. His father was also all about certain sports, like football and baseball in particular. So, that’s what many of the boys did, including my husband. In later high school, my husband discovered that he was naturally good at wrestling. He decided to try out for the team and he made it. But his father wasn’t fully on board. It’s not that he was against it, he just wasn’t all-in like he was for football and baseball. What’s funny to me is that wresting wasn’t even interfering with football and baseball, it was a winter sport. But he still, just lacked that enthusiasm. So my husband dropped out for the lack of support. He didn’t really understand, I mean, he kind of understood why he had done it, but it didn’t really become clear until later. And he regrets that he didn’t have the self-confidence to do it anyway because he felt like he kind of missed his sport-calling.
So, to me, that’s one example of how a parent can undermine individuality. And I see it all the time, when a parent loves something, or values something and they steer their child toward it. They’re not fighting it, so why not let them do it? Or, they seem to like it when they’re there, that type of thing. So we justify it. But if we sat back, and let them show us what they love, and we help support that in them, I found—I have seven children—they were all so different from one another.
I thought, boys like dinosaurs, right? I had all these dinosaur books I got for my first son. Six boys, not another one liked dinosaurs. I had all these resources that I’d get for one, and they never got repeated by anyone else. Because as such an individualist, that they truly got to be who they were. Sometimes people will say, “Well, how do you find out what your child likes? How do you find out what makes them unique?” What do they like to play with? When they go to the library, where do they go? What kind of books do they pick out? When you go to the park, how do they play? What kind of television do they like? Their games? What do they do when they’re alone? What do they do when they’re with people? To me, all of these feed into who they are and you’re seeing and then you feed more of what that is.
So my oldest son, he liked to draw at a young age. He gravitated to the non-fiction section of the library. He pulled out picture books about history, cultures—he didn’t ever want kid books, he wanted the real books. He always played creating scenarios that he set up, acting out stories with his little figures. He loved video games and stories behind them. And that really does lead to what he ended up loving to do which is Japanese history. He always liked the real things in cultures and art and drawing which is what he was doing at a young age.
My daughter, she liked stuffed animals, Littlest Pet Shop, she was always telling stories with video that she’d make about herself and what was going on in the world around her. She’d video her brothers and herself doing things. And later, she became a novelist and the way she told stories, it makes sense to me how she became this novelist.
Another son was big into building. Train tracks, Lincoln Logs, Lego, 3D puzzles, mazes, math manipulatives, anything that he could discover and build and put together and he became a computer programmer, which to me, is right along that same line.
So you see these things that seem like toys or playing or, none of these really were “school subjects,” but they really do all translate into what they became. So, what’s that have to do with fairness? Well, because they’re individuals, they have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. So what is fair then? Fair can’t be equal because they’re all different. So it has to be about getting your needs met. So my adage was, fair’s not equal, it’s getting your needs met. So, whether it’s in education, in play, they were getting their needs met. I didn’t have to have them all, it was so rare for me to bring them all together and say, “We’re all going to do a science experiment together!” I just didn’t do that. It was like, you’re an individual, you’re exploring over here in this thing, so I’m going to you and meet that need. Now you are having trouble, melting down? I need to help you meet that need, you’re needing my support, so I’m going to come over here. Fairness to me became about meeting each person’s need.
PAM: Yeah, that’s where I ended up too. When you spend time with them, they’re not just like “your kids” anymore. They’re all individual, real people and you start to see, as you said, all their strengths and weaknesses, all their varying interests, the things that are important to them, the things that are harder for them. I ended up writing a talk myself and called it, “A Family of Individuals.” Because I found that our family relationships went most smoothly when I realized that each of us were individuals and we supported it that way, instead of looking at “equal.” That was a huge shift for me, so I loved that.
I wanted to ask you too about what your unschooling days looked like with a larger family, you mentioned a bit there. Because I know there’s the idea that the more children that you have, the more you need to have control over them so that your day will go more smoothly. So I was wondering what your experience had been?
CINDY: My experiences with this, I thought of two different things. I thought about the emotional side and the physical side. So starting with the emotional side of control, especially with a large family, you often think when you see a large family there’s probably a religion involved. A lot of times it’s true. It just happened to be so with me, not always so, I actually wanted a large family before I converted to my religion. But that said, it seems like people feel like they have to control everyone’s behaviour, because that’s really what it is, the behaviours have to be in control. There’s too many children so I have to control them but on the other hand, if I don’t control them there’s going to be chaos. Especially with a large family. To me, there isn’t that big pendulum swing. It doesn’t have to be one, all the way to the other side. There’s this middle part where the key is emotional intelligence. We all have hunger, we all have thirst, we all have need for sleep, and we learn how to manage and balance those things in order to satisfy the needs we have there.
Well, we all also have emotions that are really the foundation of the behaviors people are trying to control and when I felt like, especially with six boys, boys in particular really need support on how to deal with their emotions. I would help them in various ways by helping them understand and identify their emotions.
I modeled emotional intelligence by helping them to learn various options and managing and balancing those emotions. I think when you look at the adult male population, there’s a lot of lack of emotional intelligence and I think it comes from this whole manly thing. I know there are articles out there saying we are “wussifying” our boys. What has happened to being a boy?
But I’ve raised two very different genetic sets of boys. My birth boys are much more cerebral, they were born that way. You might call them kinder, gentler types, but that’s how they were born. My two younger boys that we adopted are very active and very body-driven boys, and some might call them more manly. But again, they were born that way. It didn’t matter the kind of boy I was talking about, they had a similar process of learning to manage and balance their emotions.
Some came to it more quickly than others, but they all had to develop various skills. It’s these reactions to emotional triggers that cause many behaviors. I wanted to give good information to them, support them through the learning curve by sitting in difficult feelings with them, brainstorming better solutions for next time, aiding them in any way that was useful so that they could learn to deal with their strong feelings. It was a process. It doesn’t always look pretty.
I had a few friends who were from other faiths and they were all about “you must obey me.” And their children, especially between five and ten they looked pretty good, they were all obedient. Mine, looked not so great because I valued the process of learning their own bodies. These other people were very uncomfortable with the fact that their children were out of control so they controlled them with fear or obedience.
I always found that people who did that usually had more trouble in the teen years, they didn’t have that trust in relationships that comes with collaborating and connecting with them and building that trust with them in this emotional work that we are doing with creating emotional intelligence. If you go in there and you’re not judging them, we all have them, we all have emotions, we all have feelings that come out so not to judge that but to empathize with them and say ‘hey, this is a journey, we are all on it, it’s not easy, let me stand beside you, let me help you through it’ and that’s a vey bonding experience.
PAM: Yeah, that’s such a huge difference, too, and I think what it really takes, when you look back upon it, is time. The time to be with them, the time to help them process, the time just to even get to the place where you can empathize with them. There is the quickness of “do this or else!” demanding the obedience. It really makes things challenging when they are older, right? When they have more ability to talk back or to leave.
CINDY: Well, they finally have their voice.
PAM: Their own control.
CINDY: Yeah, their own control and say, “Wait a minute, I want to feel this way and I don’t want you to tell me I can’t feel this way when I do.” It’s a huge place to build trust to, like you said, empathize with them, go along this human experience with them and I feel like that’s a big shift I have and unschooling does it. Actually my religion is the same way because we believe that we’re on this path to learn and grow, that’s why we came to Earth, that’s what our belief system is. We’re on this path to learn and grow in an imperfect place and I get to do this with my children, that’s the journey, that’s the whole reason we’re here is to learn and grow from these ways of feeling. If I’m just squashing them, just saying “don’t do that, don’t feel that,” then I’ve lost an opportunity.
PAM: You know what? As you were talking what came to me was the shift at the root of that is the shift to seeing them as real people, as human beings, not as something to form, right? Treating them like another person and respecting them as another person.
CINDY: Yeah, it’s a human condition. They are young humans trying to figure it out. We are older humans. Look at the adult population. A lot of us are still messes because we didn’t have that support. We were just thrown into this and told to figure it out and we don’t figure it out well. It’s not that I’m saying I’ve figured it out well, but I’m willing to figure it out with you, that you can have a place that you can put your ideas off of and know that you’re normal and you’ll get through this and we can problem solve together and trust that we get it.
There’s not a judgement here, this is normal, I feel for you and let’s figure this out. That’s a huge shift. These are people that I hope always invite me on their path in that I feel privileged to be asked to walk along their path with them, that they trust me as a mentor that can help them when they need someone to turn to. To me, that’s the emotional side of control within a large family.
Then talking about the physical part of a large family where there’s lots more messes, lots more bodies, lots more noise, lots more projects…lots more everything. Going back to, I think, again, a little bit of personal genetic preference stuff, I happen to be a lived-in kind of person. People have clean genes or not clean genes; I don’t have the clean genes. Some people have the clean genes and then you get added on to with your experiences. I’m a lived-in person so that helped. We almost have to assume people with larger families have that idea because I can’t imagine being a super clean person and then trying to navigate that world with a lot of children. But I don’t get stressed over messes and projects going on all around me. There is a balance to it still, it goes back to individuality.
I notice if my children are more clean oriented or messy oriented so I meet them where they’re at: if they’re messy oriented I might help them be a little better over here but still respect where they are. If they’re clean oriented, I meet them there. I know who’s project-based and who’s not, I know what the purpose of each project oriented child is, how we can work together to create space for them to have their projects that are important to them.
I hear people, especially, there’s a lot of clean people in my life! I can go to people’s houses and drop in and it’s clean and that’s crazy in my mind. I feel like if I’m raising children, a lot of children, my house reflects that there are children there. Their toys are there, their things are there and I respect that they need a space to create. I have all these creative kids and that’s really important to them. I would challenge people that are clean oriented that that is not more important than allowing space for this creation to exist because that is the expression of who they are. Creative people must create. If they cannot create, they are half dead inside. If we are squashing their need to be creative because we are so worried about the mess creation has, then we are not respecting their needs. If that means here’s this big formal dining room, I don’t need a formal dining room, I’ve got the little nook over here, the breakfast nook. I can convert this dining room into a space if I need to.
We did tend to be house poor for quite some time because I have so many introverted children who are very creative and they need their space to create. We got a big enough house so that I could have space for them and value that, and if that meant I sacrificed the fancy cars or fancy clothes or whatever, I didn’t care about that as much as I cared about giving this space to them.
So, that’s one aspect, to me, because I said I see a lot of clean houses and I just don’t know if that would be conducive to creative children. Anyway, another example would be food, that’s talked about a lot in homeschooling circles. I’m personally not a person who likes to cook! I did cook a lot of dinners, mainly dinner time, but as soon as my children were old enough to do their own food and make their own breakfast and make their own lunches, they were doing it. So probably by about five they were doing their own breakfast, by about seven they were doing their own lunches.
I have one funny story that epitomizes this: my oldest son had a friend over, spent the night, he was probably about eight or nine years old. They woke up and went downstairs to get breakfast. My son was getting his breakfast and his friend was sitting at the counter waiting and watching him. My son noticed him sitting there and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m waiting for your mother to come down and make me breakfast.” I’m realizing at this point that my son is not a very good host as he is making his own breakfast and leaving his friend there. But he said, “You’ll be waiting a long time, you have to make your own breakfast in this house.” His friend cried out and said, “But I don’t know how to make breakfast!” My son was quite shocked. My friend doesn’t know how to make breakfast, mom! He was just shocked. I said well, some people have those mothers that are very good and actually help them make breakfast everyday. But he directed his friend on how to make breakfast. I thought it was interesting that he showed him how versus did it for him. He said, “This is how you make breakfast.” He couldn’t believe he didn’t know how to get cereal because that’s pretty much what we had.
But everyone is different. It does work for me. I released the control of food very early on. It works. My kids are very self sufficient. They eat when they’re hungry. We talk about the different foods and it has just worked. So, that’s another example of releasing the control or what we think what should happen. Or maybe like this mother who she felt like being a good mother is to “wake up and make breakfast for my son every morning.” He was a school child, to get him off to school well, that’s what a good mother does. And pack his lunch. That’s our expectations in our society. Now on the flip side, this kid had no idea how to make breakfast. So there is good and hard on both sets of things, but this works for us.
PAM: That’s why we’re having a whole episode on paradigm shifts because as you come to unschooling you revisit so many of the expectations or the things we’ve learned growing up on what makes a good parent, a good mother, what success means to us. It’s a lot of work coming to unschooling, isn’t it! It’s not just another set of rules about how children learn. There is so much to the journey, isn’t there?
CINDY: There is! I feel like I’m this natural seeker. I believe unschooling encourages people to be seekers. Once you head down this path, it also necessitates a person to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I was just pondering that the other day. I really feel like being uncomfortable is necessary to become an unschooler because it really is about challenging these paradigm shifts. But with all this uncomfortableness, if you’re willing to go into that uncomfortableness and figure why are you so uncomfortable, then that is where the enlightenment comes from!
I feel like, “Oh, this is so awesome!” When it’s all done, first you’re uncomfortable, then you’re asking why am I uncomfortable, where does this come from and is it true? And when you find out the answer, the real answer, the truthful answer, it’s like, ‘Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!’ It creates more freedom for yourself, the freedom from the bondage of our society’s expectations is HUGE! HUGE! I’m watching my kids live this! There’s so much self knowledge.
I feel like I wake up everyday and wonder what am I going to discover today. And I expect to be uncomfortable, I expect it, because I cannot learn if I have not become uncomfortable first. That’s where learning happens, in the discomfort. I just feel like that’s part of the journey of unschooling is the willingness to do that.
PAM: That is such a great point! I hadn’t thought of it that way but it’s true. Being willing to sit in that uncomfortableness for a while and really find out what’s causing it, asking yourself. I used to say I just ask myself, “why, why, why” over and over again until I think I could get to the root and figure it out.
Before we go, we have been at this a while, that’s great!
I was just wondering if there are any other tips that you’d like to share for larger families who are starting to move to unschooling that we haven’t touched on yet. Is there another one or two you’d like to share?
CINDY: This goes along with unschooling that everything is learning: social, emotional, academics. When you feel like you’re just trying to make it work for the day, people are unhappy with each other or whatever, that’s still learning. It doesn’t matter if there was no math or I didn’t read aloud or whatever you think it’s supposed to be. In those moments, even in the chaos moments, there’s learning happening. To me, you want to embrace every moment as meaningful and relevant. Have realistic expectations.
I’ll give you an example: running errands. When you have a whole bunch of children, even if you have a small amount of children, if you’re thinking I’m going to get four things done, and of course you’ve melted them down because four things is too many, or people are just not cooperating then all you’re doing is being angry. You’re just being frustrated that it’s not happening the way you want. But if you can say I’m expecting things to go wrong. If you expect things to go wrong and things not to be perfectly done, then you can enjoy the moment. You can enjoy that first and second errand and be in the moment for those things that will happen that are actually also learning. But the moment you’re just trying to get through it, or get onto the next thing, you’ve missed the moments that are there.
Modeling your own passions, even if you have a lot of children, you can find your own space. Again, don’t always be looking throughout the day to be annoyed by everyone because they’re getting in your way with what you want to do. Embrace what’s there, be in the moment, find your spots that realistically you can do your things.
Probably the last thing would be keep dating your spouse. Go out with them weekly because you have to keep connecting together when you have a large family, a lot of dividing and conquering when you have a large family. You want to come together and prioritize your relationship with your spouse so that they see that and they know that you need refilling and that that relationship is still important, too.
PAM: That’s awesome! Those are great points, Cindy. I wanted to thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with me today. That was awesome! I think we hit some really cool things! Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
PAM: Thank you so much!
CINDY: You’re welcome.
PAM: Talk to you later. Bye!