PAM: Hi Everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Sheila Baranoski. Hi, Sheila.
SHEILA: Hi, I’m so happy to be here.
PAM: Yay, I’m so happy you’re here. Just to let people know, Sheila is an unschooling mom of three, grandmother of two and the author of Dear Grandma: Your Grandkids Are Unschoolers. This week, Sheila and I are very excited to talk to the grandparents, aren’t we?
To get us started, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you discovered unschooling?
SHEILA: Well, I discovered homeschooling before I discovered unschooling. When my daughter was around two years old—that was back in the dark ages before our family had the internet—I came across a book about homeschooling. It was a traditional, school-at-home, conservative type homeschooling book, but still, it introduced me to the idea that I didn’t have to send my child to school. From that book, we decided to homeschool. Then, when she was kindergarten age, and maybe even a little before, I started doing unit studies with her.
So, for example, I did an animal unit study and we went to the zoo and a farm and we read books about animals and got a pet fish and practiced writing her name on cards for her friends and it was a more gentle homeschooling approach. It was still me deciding what she needed to learn and making lesson plans about how to do that. Then we finally got internet in our home and I got online and started reading about different kinds of homeschooling and was fascinated with this idea of unschooling.
I found one of Sandra Dodd’s yahoo groups on unschooling. I don’t even think those yahoo groups are active anymore [PAM: Sandra’s Always Learning group is still active] but I got on there and I asked so many questions. I kind-of gave those people and that group a hard time. I wasn’t trying to give anyone a hard time on purpose, I was just struggling so much with the paradigm shift that is required for unschooling. It was so hard to wrap my head around all the differences with the way I had been taught and raised about parenting and learning. So, I am forever grateful to all those wiser and older moms who didn’t water down what unschooling is and who patiently and consistently answered all my questions because eventually I did become a radical unschooler.
I gave things up slowly. First, I gave up those unit studies, but not math. I couldn’t give up math. I thought you had to teach that. And then I gave up math before food freedom. I just progressed slowly, gave up a little bit at a time. I wish I would have written down a date when I was completely and totally unschooling but I didn’t so I have to estimate that I think my daughter was probably around nine or ten until we were completely, totally unschooling.
PAM: That’s cool. It’s such a journey. Isn’t it? All those little pieces, as they eventually make sense.
PAM: Yeah, I love that about it. I found homeschooling first but then the internet, even back then, I found the unschooling.com message boards, then right into the yahoo groups at the time. I too, am forever grateful for Sandra Dodd, Joyce Fetteroll, and Anne Ohman and those guys who were around even back then, answering our questions.
I love the word you used: consistently. Because, what we think at the time when we are first learning is a different situation, “but not this … except for this, right?” But consistently, they would keep coming back, and explaining, no, you can still look at it through that lens, though this unschooling paradigm.
I was hoping you can share what perspective you have that can help grandparents learn more about their grandkids’ unschooling lifestyle?
SHEILA: Well, I’m both an unschooling parent and a grandparent. My youngest is 17, so I’m still officially an unschooling parent. I also have grandsons—Trip and Storm are five and three years old—and I’m very involved in their lives. I absolutely love being a grandma. And I get the differences between being a mom and being grandma. It’s different. I also remember very well, like we were just talking about, what it was like to struggle with that paradigm shift that is necessary to accept unschooling.
PAM: Yeah, I love that. I love seeing on your Facebook pictures of Trip and Storm and what they’re up to. It’s so fun to see them out and exploring the world, and realising that there is another generation now that’s coming, so that’s very cool.
Since we would love to be speaking to the grandparents, and hopefully, this podcast episode will be shared with lots of grandparents, I was hoping that you could give them an idea of what unschooling is and isn’t.
SHEILA: Unschoolers live their lives as if such a thing as school doesn’t exist. The prefix, “un” means “no,” so unschooling means “no school.” We don’t do tests, curriculum, homework, lesson plans, set school hours—none of that.
The reason we don’t do any of that, is because humans are by nature, learning animals. We are intrinsically wired to learn, so what we do as unschooling parents, and what we can do as unschooling grandparents as well, is to really pay attention and study our children so that we know what resources and opportunities would really help them shine. Then we work to create an atmosphere that’s perfect for that individual child. Not what we think a child of that age or gender should like, or should be doing, but what that individual child likes or wants to do.
It could be purchasing a game the child would like, it could be saying, “Oh my goodness, he would really like this new park that opened one town over. I’m going to invite him to come with me and I’ll pack a picnic lunch and we’ll spend a day at the park.” Maybe we’d invite him and have a lovely day with him. And maybe he’d say, “No, I’d rather stay home and play video games.” And that’s ok too. Maybe then we could take him a snack that we think he would like and stop by and give it to him and maybe sit and watch him play his game for a bit. Whatever it takes that helps him to shine, we can give that to him.
PAM: When you mention that humans are learning animals, I think that’s one of the really big shifts because at first when you think of not going to school, you think they’re not going to learn. But it’s that shift to seeing that so much learning is still happening just in their day-to-day actions. You don’t need to have a classroom environment for that learning to happen. In fact, it happens so much more openly when the child is pursuing things that they’re interested in.
SHEILA: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s very obvious when we start providing what they need to help them learn, what they’re interested in, and we just see that learning happens all the time.
PAM: It’s so fun to just watch them! To take that step back, especially as a grandparent, you have a great opportunity to just watch what’s happening. If you open up your mind and aren’t looking for learning that looks like what happens in a classroom, but just look for learning that looks like them finding out something new or understanding how something works that they didn’t get before, you can see it all the time, can’t you?
SHEILA: Yes, absolutely.
Speaking of learning, in your book, you wrote, “How children learn to read without schooling is as hard to explain as how children learn to walk without lessons.” I loved that analogy! But, thank goodness, you try to explain anyway because learning to read is something that grandparents understandably worry about. So, I was hoping you can share a bit about how your son Matt learned to read without lessons.
SHEILA: Well, Matt spent his childhood just playing, and I don’t want to say “just” playing because it’s SO valuable. But he spent his childhood playing and in our home, as is the case with most homes nowadays, there are words and letters all over the place. There are books and colouring books and games, newspapers, sale papers, computers, smart phones. Outside the house there are street signs, billboards, and words are everywhere. So, he started picking up some of those words from his everyday life.
I remember getting a lot of mom notes. He used to write the word “MOM” with a heart next to them and give them to me all the time. Yeah, that is a really sweet memory. One day he realised that the word mom upside down was different and he asked me about that and I told him it was “WOW.” So, I started getting “MOM [heart] WOW”—they were so sweet. I still have a lot of those notes.
They played a lot of video games. So, words like, save and continue, became very familiar to him. A lot of the games he played had stories or dialogue that required reading so I would sit beside him and read his video games to him. If he didn’t know how to do something in his games I would look it up online and then I would read to him from the video game guide walkthroughs. We also had video game guidebooks and I would read them to him. He did get frustrated when he was around nine or ten and said, “Mom, I want to read and I want to read now.” He wanted me to do something about this. So, I got a book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and I said, “Well, we could do these lessons,” and he said, “Ok.” But that lasted not long at all. He absolutely hated them so we didn’t do them.
Eventually, it got to the point where I was walking into a room and I would see him with his video game guidebooks, just looking at them. For pretty long periods of time, without turning a page, and I didn’t know, I still don’t know, exactly what was happening in his mind when he was looking at those, how much he was actually reading, what his mind was processing or figuring out exactly. I don’t know. I’m still curious to know but he probably doesn’t even remember anymore. But I bet they were pretty instrumental in him figuring out some big reading concepts.
Then one day I took his brother, Luke, to a Chinese restaurant. Matt had just turned 11 at the time and he hadn’t wanted to go the restaurant so I brought him home a fortune cookie. He opened it up, pulled out the piece of paper and read, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” And then he went about his business as if nothing amazing had just happened but of course I was freaking out in my mind, like, “Oh my god, my child has just read a whole sentence!”
I knew it would happen, I did trust fully in the process of unschooling, and naturally learning to read but it was pretty awesome when he actually read that first sentence.
Then the momentum built from there, he read a knock knock joke, he started just reading everything and today he is 19 and you would never know that he wasn’t reading until he was 11. Our society seems to have the idea from school that if a child isn’t ready to read by six or so that there is a problem and he will always be stupid for the rest of his life. That’s just not true for unschoolers. His brother, Luke, followed a similar path to reading as well.
PAM: I think that the point about age and school is so important because at age five or six, school really does need the students to be reading to be able to follow along with their curriculum because the ability to read will affect their learning in all their courses because everything is worksheets, reading books and textbooks, or so that they can do tests. The entire process is built on them needing to read but when you step outside the process, reading itself is not an important skill per se. Being able to read doesn’t give you any advantage outside of the classroom because as you were saying, you were sitting there playing and reading for Matt when he was playing his games or I’m sure any time you guys were out and about and he wondered what something said.
I had the same experience with mine. My kids went to school until I discovered homeschooling, so my eldest was nine and he was reading by the time he came out of school but my younger two were not. Lissy, she was seven, and they called it reading, but in her mind it wasn’t reading because it was just those beginning reading books and stuff like that, just the stuff that they needed for the classroom. It wasn’t sitting down and reading any book.
I had very similar processes to you and so many unschooling parents that we’ve heard the stories of. You are with them, in a literate society, there are words everywhere, we help them out and they figure it out. I remember the excitement for me. Yours what when he read the fortune cookie. Mine was Lissy was having a conversation with her brother and she said, “I can read, you know!” She had never called herself a reader even though I could see her reading things, so it was really fun to hear her say that. I thought, “Ok now we have turned a corner because she realises that she is reading now.” It’s so interesting to watch them, isn’t it?
SHEILA: It sure is.
Another concern grandparents can have is how their grandkids will be able to make friends if they aren’t in school. Again, that’s understandable because that is how so many of us originally met our friends when we were kids, but it’s one that’s pretty easily addressed, isn’t it?
SHEILA: Oh, absolutely. I think some people have this idea of these poor kids whose mom won’t let them out of the house to play with other kids because she wants to shelter them from the evils of the world or something. There might be some extreme, conservative or religious, school-at-home homeschoolers like that. Although, actually, I know a lot of conservative, religious homeschoolers whose kids also have very active social lives but unschooling parents recognise that we have the whole world to play in, not just our homes.
So, when we are observing our children and they tell us, either through their words or their energy and behaviour that they need to stay home, we keep them home, and when they need to get out and explore the world, we get them out and explore the world. That world is a big place with so many opportunities. It’s filled with interesting people and friendships, people to help, there are stores, museums, art, projects to participate in, and we could be out of the house with friends doing interesting things every single day when that’s what our kids want.
PAM: The other interesting thing I’ve found too is that outside of school the range of friendship is so much wider. Age isn’t really a particular factor. I know Lissy would volunteer and help out at the thrift store and the animal shelter and she would be friends with adults and retired people and other teens. When you are connecting through things that you are interested in doing, rather than because you all happen to be in the same place, and then in school you all happen to be the same age practically. Friendship just takes on a whole new view, a whole new space.
SHEILA: Well sure, I’m 45 but I don’t only talk to other people in their 40s. I’ll talk to people who are 60, 70, 20, 30, children, you know, whatever! I think school did that to us: thinking that we need to hang with kids, especially when we are under 20, that we only need to hang out with people who are our own age or else it doesn’t count as socialising.
PAM: It’s another way of looking at learning too because when you are participating in something because you are interested, whether it’s an organised activity or whether you are all showing up at the science centre or the thrift store, you learn so much from people who have more experience but you also get the opportunity to help out other people who are less experienced. In a classroom, everybody is at the same kind-of level, which is the point of the classroom. Where as out in the world, you have such an ability to do different things depending on who it is you are connecting with. You have a much bigger variety of people that you come into contact with. There’s what I was trying to say.
SHEILA: Absolutely! And that is so important to learning to be able to hang with people who are at different levels whether you are at a higher level at that particular skill or a lower level, you still benefit tremendously from that experience.
PAM: Even helping other people out, still helps us understand things better. That’s one of the things I love about sharing and writing and talking about unschooling is because it makes me think more about something that I’m passionate about. I still make connections and learn more through just about any conversation I have.
Another thing that grandparents may notice is that their unschooling family may get upset or defensive if they are having conversations with their grandkids where they are asking questions—“Do you know about this?”—math questions, or geography questions. I was hoping you could shine a bit of light on this and explain why and how this kind of quizzing conflicts with the principles of unschooling and the environment that the parents are trying to create for their children?
SHEILA: I’ve often heard this quote in homeschooling circles that “education isn’t the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a flame.” I see what they are getting at there. Learning shouldn’t be just about dumping facts into our kids’ heads and hoping that some of those facts stick. I don’t think we need to light the flame either. That flame was lit before they were even born. Our job is to protect that flame and not let it get blown out.
School and school-type quizzing can really be a threat to that flame. It can really put a dampener on that because it starts to train kids to think that learning is connected to external motivations. They learn for the purpose of being rewarded with a good grade or people being proud of them or a shiny gold star on their paper or to avoid being shamed and being made to feel stupid or maybe being grounded for a bad report card.
Different kids will react to the external motivations differently depending on their personalities: for some school rewards will make them think they’re stupid. Some might actually develop the attitude that they’re better than others because they’ve figured out how to manipulate the system and they’re good at the school game. But it really messes with their ability and desire to learn—if it’s not on the test, why bother learning it?
We want our kids to learn because they are internally motivated to learn and the reward for learning is their own satisfaction. But when we test our kids, it’s almost always because we are worried that maybe they don’t know enough. Kids pick up on that doubt we have about them. Depending on their personality they might try really hard to please us with their answers. They might feel that we think they’re stupid and not good enough when they don’t know the answers.
An unschooled kid without much school damage might just be annoyed. We don’t want to damage our relationship with them by constantly annoying them with quizzing. We can just sit back and say, “They’re learning,” and trust that. They are just on a different schedule than school kids.
PAM: I love that. Yeah. The idea of protecting their love of learning. That flame. That motivation. That natural desire to learn new things around in their environment. That other piece about the judgment and shame that can come easily—if it’s a random, quizzy question, it will be received as something that’s expected of them. “Oh geez. They expect that I should know this answer.” So, if they don’t know, they can feel judged and they can feel shameful. And as you said, that’s damaging to the relationship. It’s not really about the fact whether or not they know. You actually can be damaging that relationship by trying to put your external framework of expectations on top of it.
SHEILA: I think kids want their grandma and grandpa to love them and just to think they are wonderful. And they are wonderful. But if we are constantly quizzing them and they are constantly feeling judged, they might have some doubt about how much they’re worth.
PAM: And the idea isn’t, “don’t ask questions.” If you’d like to ask questions and start a conversation with them, how great to ask about things that they are interested in, things that they want to share.
SHEILA: Oh, yes, absolutely! Ask questions because you really want to know about something that they are into that you might not know.
PAM: That makes a real, authentic, respectful relationship because you are asking questions you don’t know the answer to. Instead of asking a question you know the answer to and they know you are expecting them to know the answer. There is a subtle but super important difference between the motivation of the question.
SHEILA: Yes, and I think when you really get the concept of unschooling and trusting the learning process, then that will just come naturally, when you don’t have all that doubt in there.
PAM: Yep. It’s something, to kind-of try on for a while but when you see the connection [with the grandchild] that builds over it, it becomes more natural, doesn’t it?
SHEILA: It sure does.
Sometimes grandparents see unschooled kids behaving in ways that they, as the parent, would have punished. Unschooling parents are apt to take a different approach to the situation. I was hoping you can talk about what the unschooling parents are doing and why they are doing it, because they aren’t ignoring the issue, are they?
SHEILA: Absolutely not. Unschooling parents are so involved with their kids. This isn’t just, “I don’t care what my kids do, I can’t be bothered so I’m going to ignore them and sit on the couch drinking beer all day.”
I think some people hear, “Unschoolers have no rules” and that’s exactly what they picture. We’re very involved actually; very hands on, very invested in our kids lives. Just as we don’t want them to associate learning with external motivation, we don’t want them to blindly obey us in order to avoid external punishments, or even external rewards. We want them, throughout their childhood, to develop their own internal moral compass on which they base their behaviour.
We don’t want them to do what they do because they might get punished or rewarded. We want them to do what they do because of their own internal motivations so we don’t punish, we certainly don’t spank, we don’t do time-outs or take away their toys, but we don’t reward for good behaviour either. There aren’t sticker charts on our walls or allowances that are dependent on their behaviour because that is external motivation too. So instead of punishing and rewarding, we mentor. We work on setting a good example.
I was talking to someone whose child was talking to her in a disrespectful way. She was concerned about this. When she really looked at the way she had been talking to her child though she realised, “Oh my goodness. He’s mimicking me. I get frustrated and snap at him all the time and so when he snaps at me I think, ‘He’s being disrespectful to me.’ But where is he getting that from?”
So, she worked on herself and her own way of communicating with him and eventually the problem stopped.
We also talk to our kids all the time. Naturally, not in a lecturing kind of way, but we talk about the interactions character have with each other on TV. We talk about issues they might be having with their friends. There’s lots and lots of talking and analysing and observing that goes on in unschooling homes. That doesn’t mean we let our kids beat up other kids, or destroy other people’s property. Not punishing doesn’t mean our kids run wild at all.
PAM: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. There is going to be a point where we step in, but we are stepping in to help them, not to punish them. I loved your point about how our focus is more on helping them developing their own internal, moral compass. Helping them develop a self-awareness between the situation and what is going on around them and how they are feeling and how that impacts on their behaviour and there’s just a huge big-picture of things rather than, “do this,” or “don’t to this;” reward, punish.
That’s another great point: there’s not punishment but there’s also not reward because we are not trying to externally control their behaviour. We are trying to help them understand themselves. Develop a self-awareness so they can make these behavioural choices, and even make choices ahead of time so they don’t find themselves in situations that are overwhelming to them. Right?
PAM: You also had a great point in the book about the mentoring and you were talking about all the conversations we have. Now, in the heat of the moment, maybe when we are visiting their grandparents, that is probably not a good time to have the conversation, right? Because everything is charged, people don’t have an open mindset to think about what’s going on in the moment. So often, the processing and the conversations we have with them happen after the fact when things have calmed down, when we are home, when we are in our safe space, when we are feeling comfortable for a conversation.
So even if the grandparents may not see that happening, we just want to let them know that it is. The learning is happening in a safer situation where all those conversations are going on so that we can help the child figure out these things. You can certainly ask your unschooling child/parent about it, if you are interested to learn more and curious about it, but just know that if it seems like things aren’t being punished or things are being ignored in the moment, that’s just at that time, right? There’s so much more that going to go on.
SHEILA: That’s right. It’s not like we sit our kids down and give them a good talking to about what they just did and ask them to think about it. That is sort-of punishing, right? What we do instead is the conversations are ongoing. Probably we have touched on this topic before because we constantly talk to our kids and it’s just going to come up naturally. The conversations aren’t like we have these lesson plans and we say, “Ok, we are going to sit down and we are going to discuss this topic at this time.” It just happens naturally, like the same way we would talk to our spouses or our good friends. It happens naturally with our children that way too.
PAM: Exactly. It might be hard to imagine but the conversations really do come up when you are living with people. Opportunities arise. Hardly ever have they been long, sit-down conversations, but definitely things are mentioned in passing and then sometimes a conversation grows and sometimes it doesn’t in that moment, but people are sharing observations and tips and tricks.
I found myself, if there was something my kids were having a challenge with, in general, I could help by pointing out little things in their day-to-day lives that are related. So, you are helping them make these connections so that they are understanding themselves better and understanding the expectations and the people involved in various situations.
And we would even talk about before we’d go places but that’s not with an expectation they need to be perfect. I mean, I’m not perfect when I go out in situations now. Sometimes I get in over my head or I’m uncomfortable and I’m ok with that and I’m self-aware and I can leave.
When we were visiting grandparents, if my child needed to leave soon, I would leave with them. So, if you find your children may be leaving abruptly from a visit or things are going awry that way, understand that they are trying to do their best. They are trying to help their child figure things out because if they leave then their child is getting that experience and saying, “Ok, did that help? Did I feel better afterwards? What else could I have done?” It’s the start of so many different conversations in the future.
SHEILA: Yes. I think it’s really helpful to the relationship with everybody too if the grandparent don’t freak out when the kids doing whatever it is that is bothering them, that they don’t say, “What are you going to do about this? How are we going to do this? What’s wrong with him?”
If you just kind-of chill out a little bit and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable because the child is being uncomfortable, they might just be able to have a better chance of getting through that and then just moving on.
PAM: Rather than ramping it up.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome.
Can you share some things that grandparents can do to foster a good relationship with their unschooling family, and their grandkids in particular?
SHEILA: Well, the best thing is relationship. That has always been my focus as a parent and now it’s my focus as a grandparent: just creating that great relationship with them. Of course, while developing a relationship with them, you want to spend a lot of time with them. So maybe offer to take them to a movie or take them out to eat somewhere they love. Ask them what they want to do. Invest time in them and in your relationship with them.
We, as grandparents, can be a safe place and so nurturing and enriching for our grandkids. Not that their parents aren’t safe places too, but grandparents can really hold a special place in their grandkids hearts.
I don’t think we want to forget about our grandkids parents either. Just because they are all grown up and doing things on their own doesn’t mean they still don’t need us and can’t benefit from our help and support.
I remember what it was like to have young kids and it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes you feel like you are being pulled in a million different directions. You are overwhelmed, and if a young parent has the support of their parents, then they can become better parents for our grandkids.
PAM: I loved the point of just focussing on the relationships, so with your grown children and with your grandkids, if the focus is on a strong, connecting, and connected relationships, then when you are making the choices of things to do, that will build that up.
So, basically, you are looking at things from their perspective and saying, “What can I do that can help?” Maybe they are older. What would they like to do, that they would enjoy and have fun with, because I want to have fun with them? It’s such a great approach.
A place from which to connect with them and to figure out ways to choose things that will benefit your relationship, because that’s the point. As a grandparent, you are wanting a strong and fun relationship with your grandkids and continuing that with your adult children too. Right?
SHEILA: Absolutely. And I don’t want any grandparents to think because unschooling parents don’t want them to be lecturing and punishing their grandkids means that they’re not going to have the opportunity to be a great influence on their grandkids. I mean, when you have developed that relationship with them, there might be times when they will come to you for advice or say, “I’m having this problem.”
Maybe they would have gone to their parents or maybe for whatever reason they choose to come to you too. We’ve been on this earth longer than they have and we might have dealt with a similar situation and have some really good advice for them that they might only take after we have really developed that relationship.
PAM: It’s like developing a level of trust with them, right? They trust that you have their best interests at heart and you’ve shown that, you’ve built that through your relationship, through helping them do things that they want to do and enjoying your time with them. That will build up a trust so that when they have questions and they are looking for input, that you are a trusted source for that input.
SHEILA: Yes, you are a trusted source that really believes in them and thinks that they are just wonderful so they just feel so safe with you. That’s what you’re going for.
PAM: Yeah, I love that idea. As parents too, we can facilitate those relationships and connections between the grandparents and kids because we know the kinds of things our parents are interested in as well so we can have tips.
As a grandparent, you can ask your adult children for a little bit more information about the grandkids, such as, “What do you think they would like to do?” and get that kind of information so that you have more options for connecting with the grandkids and doing things that they will enjoy. And when the grandkids are enjoying it, you’re enjoying it too, right?
PAM: Yes. I love this quote from your book: “If their best day imaginable is hanging out at the pool, take them to the pool.” Instead of your picture in your mind of what you envisioned the perfect grandchild as. Maybe they don’t want to go to the Science Centre, but you want to take them to these “educational places.” No, because that’s got an external motivation on it, or an expectation on it. Find out the kinds of thing they actually like.
SHEILA: Yes, absolutely and the kind of thing they like might be the Science Centre, and that’s perfectly fine, but it might the swimming pool too, and that is just as ok.
PAM: Yeah, it’s just finding out what they would like rather than putting your expectations onto it.
The other piece I loved in the book is that you mention that these are all ideas. You had a whole bunch of ideas. They are not a checklist. They are not something the grandparents should say, “Ok, we did this, and this and this.” Maybe the child just loves to stay home and you go hang out there and maybe you do some baking with them, Legos, whatever it is, it’s all ok, isn’t it?
SHEILA: It sure is.
Our last question. You also write fiction, which is super cool. Your protagonist is a 12-year-old unschooling boy. I’d love to hear a little bit about how that came about.
SHEILA: Well, when I was new to unschooling and I was on those unschooling message boards, somebody told me that it’s important to not only help our children pursue their interests but to set an example for them by pursuing ours as well. I was like, “Oh my goodness. Oh no. I don’t know what my interests are.” I had gone to school and had been a really good student. I was an obedient daughter. We went to church and I was a model church member. I did everything the way everybody wanted me to do. I chose how to spend my time based on ‘How can I please other people?’ Never: “What would I like to do for myself?”
I realised, “My goodness, I have some unschooling of myself to do here.” So, one day I went to the library with my kids and while they were happy doing their thing in the kids section, I walked over to the adult section and I just started picking some books out that, for no other reason than they seemed fun. I knew that that’s what I would have done with my own kids: to let them browse and see what was fun. So, I let myself do it. It was the first time I really let myself just pick something out for me.
I started reading for myself and I started journaling and then that journaling started turning into stories. And for a while, I was reading a lot of middle grade fiction, especially to my son, Luke. We would spend hours, every night sometimes, with the Warrior Cats and Harry Potter and all those really good books that kids that age love.
My stories started being middle-grade fiction-like because that’s what I had also been spending a lot of time reading. Pretty soon, Cellular Spirits was born. I got a lot of ideas for Cellular Spirits from my kids. They played a game in the yard that had something to do with shadows—there were shadow ghosts in the yard and you couldn’t step on certain shadows certain ways. It was this big, elaborate thing that they had on in the yard. Shadow ghosts came from that play idea that they had.
We went to a camp one time where there were ghost stories being told, so the ghost idea got born. We started with Cellular Spirits. Luke actually named Black Mist, who was the leader of the shadow ghosts in that book.
SHEILA: The first book has the 12-year-old as the main character. The book isn’t really all about unschooling, it just happens to have an unschooling character in it. That same character isn’t the main character in the second book. The second book is actually featuring one of the ghosts that had been in the first book. She’s a 16-year-old girl, though he’s also very active. Unschooling is very strong in the background in those books. There aren’t a lot of books out there with unschooling main characters so I thought this would be just be fun to do.
PAM: Yeah, it’s so cool. It’s just matter-of-fact background—it’s not preachy or specifically trying to bring that to the foreground. It’s just a natural, background situation for somebody. Just a little more…I was going to say “mainstream,” but not really.
SHEILA: Mainstream though could read it because there are all these quirky, interesting facts about all kinds of characters, and one of the interesting facts about this character is he happens to not go to school and uses this term unschooling.
PAM: Yes, that’s perfect. I know that would have been cool when my daughter was growing up. Nobody in our geographical town area knew about homeschooling, let alone unschooling. So, it’s just a way for people to just know it exists. It’s like, hey, this is part of the story.
I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today Sheila. It was so much fun!
SHEILA: It was such an honour, thank you so much for having me.
PAM: No problem! Thank you so much and we love grandparents, right?
SHEILA: I love grandparents. I think they have so much to contribute to families. I love being a grandparent! It’s great.
PAM: That is so awesome. Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
SHEILA: I have a website where I blog at www.sheilabaranoski.com.
PAM: Perfect. I will put that link into the show notes as well.
Thank you very much and have a great day!
SHEILA: You too, Pam. Bye.
[NOTE: Sheila also hosts an Unschooling Book Club on Facebook, where they discuss one unschooling book at a time, and Sheila posts discussion questions twice a week.]