PAM: Welcome to another Q&A episode! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and I’m so happy to be joined again by Anne Ohman and Anna Brown. Hi guys.
ANNE & ANNA: Hello!
PAM: Hello hello. Thanks again so much for joining me for another month, and would you like to get us started with the first question, Anne?
ANNE: I would love to!
Shelsy’s Question (from Florida, USA) [TIME: 3:04]
I’m new to unschooling (since December), but I’ve always homeschooled. My daughter is 7 and my son is 5. I’ve listened to hours of podcasts and read scores of web pages about unschooling, but I’m struggling. My son has always been an amazingly individual boy. He knows what he wants, will stop at nothing to get it, will accept no substitutions, etc. I admire his ability to know himself so deeply and to not back down from what he wants. However, he is also extremely physical. He has zero concept of personal space, he is constantly climbing on me, touching me in ways I don’t like, wanting to play roughhouse/tickling games, and hitting (or biting or scratching) when he doesn’t get his way. His primary target is his sister.
His individuality and aggression have led to tons of power struggles and conflicts over the last five years. I feel like I’m to blame because I’ve always been very physical with him when we play and my husband and I also have a difficult time controlling our tempers when our buttons invariably get pushed. I feel like he is both parroting our behaviors and vying for power. Being the youngest and most inflexible he has always tended to be forced into doing things because the rest of the family wants to do something else.
So instead of having a home filled with joy and connection, our home is filled with conflict, fighting, and yelling. I desperately want a reset button but I fear that in 5 and 7 years I’ve already done so much damage. I don’t see any forward progress and I feel full of doubt and guilt. Help!
ANNE: Well hello, Shelsy. I hear you, it sounds like there is a lot going on and a lot of layers to everything, and I really understand how it can feel so confusing and overwhelming. I have good news for you—you do have a reset button! And I’m actually so glad you wished for one because I am in love with this concept now and I am going to use it a lot.
With each new moment, we do have a reset button, but we need to remember that we can stop our current line of thought, words, and actions, and hit that reset button, and breathe, and then start all over again! A really important gift that this reset button gives to us is that it wipes away mistakes we made in the past, whether that mistake was 30 seconds ago or 5 years ago. When you do remember to stop and hit your reset button, remember that the first thing it does is allow you to forgive yourself, release your guilt, and start again with a clean slate. That is so important, that you don’t bring those feelings into this present moment. So, hit that reset button to do just that. This moment right now, right now, is your reset button, and it’s there to keep you living mindfully in each new moment. So now you get to decide how you are going to go forward after you hit that reset button.
I love that you spoke of how you admire your son for knowing himself so deeply. Now, I think you can take that admiration you have for him and carry that bit of shine over to where you are having challenges with him. You say he’s extremely physical and that’s causing problems. Perhaps use your fabulous reset button to erase anything else you’re holding on to, any other definitions of him that may be clouding you from seeing him and truly helping him. Ask what he might be in need of that will allow him to shine and to feel good about himself, because that is what matters here the most, and that is what I’ve always reached for with my kids. I still do with them being adults, to help them get to a place where they are feeling good about themselves no matter what. And part of that is making sure that they can see themselves shining in my eyes.
Having said that, and thinking about what he may need in his life, here are a few things I’m wondering about. I wonder if you’ve explored the possibility that he may have sensory processing issues, sensory integration issues. It might be worth it for you to look into that, because his behavior may be him trying to get some sensory sensations that they need, it may be sensory touch, big muscle use and everything. And it also might be a reaction to having sensory overload by having too much going on that he can’t handle, that he acts out physically because of that.
The book that was very helpful to me in this area was The Out-of-Sync Child. Back then there weren’t too many books, and just today I typed in “sensory books” into an Amazon search and so much came up, even books for kids. I think that is amazing that there is so much offered now and it’s a common topic of conversation to help our kids, to understand our kids and how they work, to help them.
And on the Shine with Unschooling list every month we put a post through that list sensory fulfilling activities for kids. That list was compiled by long-time Shine member Tracy Thornburg. Thank you, Tracy. And I have it on my website shinewithunschooling.com, so if you go there and read that list, you can get an idea of things that your son might need in order to feel whole and connected and grounded in his body, mind, and spirit.
Another thing to explore is his diet. Pay attention to when the aggressive behavior usually happens, if it’s before dinnertime, or if it’s when he’s hungry, or after he’s eaten something in particular. Make sure there’s good snacks around, make sure he’s having water throughout the day. If he’s been doing something for a long time, go sit by him, bring him a snack and water. And there also could be dietary sensitivities happening.
And most of all, how is your connection with him? Are you giving him all of yourself with one on one time, connecting with him over the things that he loves? Does he feel heard and seen, celebrated and validated? You said that he’s forced to do things because other family member want to do them. In my experience, there are ways in a family to make sure that everyone gets what they want and need without forcing anyone to do anything. If you make sure everything is a discussion and that everyone’s voices are heard, then there are so many ways for it to work out. There’s so many possibilities to explore with your whole family. You just have to really hear your children and let them know that, yes, you want to make sure that everyone’s needs and desires get met.
My family and I would have long, joyful, often silly conversations about possibilities, ways we could do things so that everyone is happy. And yes, sometimes there’s grumbling in there too, but I make sure my energy is one of making sure my kids are heard and that I am on their side to help them get what they want, each one of them. We all end up in a good place, and we usually throw out a dozen ridiculous possible ways of getting to a place where everyone has what they need, and so we weed through those and we usually most of the time come out with the right thing that feels good to everyone and follow those.
So, I suggest exploring that further and not just stopping with a YES or a NO with doing things. All of these things are suggestions for that next step for after you press your reset button. So, when you find yourself saying and doing the same things that you feel bad about afterward, just remember your reset button, and push it, and breathe, and decide where you want to go in the very next moment. And a good direction to follow is one that will allow your children to feel good about themselves.
Pam, what do you have to say?
PAM: I love both your focus on the reset button—that was AWESOME—and the sensory list, because that’s a great place to look for patterns. Shelsey, I love that you shared some of the wonderful things that you seen in your son, it’s great to keep those at the forefront, and I just wanted to say that five and seven definitely isn’t too late—it’s never, never too late to deepen our relationships with our children, with other adults, with anyone, to connect more deeply with them.
You mentioned that he’s parroting your behaviour, that’s a great observation—especially because it’s your behaviour that’s under your control, so that’s a place where you can really start to dig in and start thinking through things. You can work on ways to manage your own temper, and you can share little tidbits that you learn about yourself and the things that you’re figuring out with your children along the way so that they too see that this is a journey, especially your son. Not just “stop” and everyone’s expected to stop—it’s a process of learning our own triggers, understanding our reactions, figuring out how to take that breath and pause so that we can choose our actions and reactions, rather than them being automatic.
If that concept of a reset button helps that could be a place where you could use that to help yourself pause for a moment. And to talk a bit too about the fact that he’s feeling forced into doing things that the rest of the family wants to do, that’s something that you can stop doing and start incorporating his needs into your plan. Anne talked about that a bit, and I’ll post a link to a blog post that I wrote in which I talk about how we’d work through times when two of my kids wanted to do something and the other one wanted to stay home. And interestingly, when I went and looked it up, the post is called “Unschooling and the Power Paradigm,” because, as you noted, these struggles are so often rooted in power, so that might be able to help you have a new way of looking at things.
At home, you can be careful to be close by. I know that was important when my kids came home from school. And don’t let your daughter become a physical target: be close by to start to notice the patterns earlier, to try to head them off, and be there to step in if things bubble over. And when you are talking about the physicality, the sensory list is great, and also you can explain the ways you don’t like being touched and why, and point them out when they happen and stop them—just say “please don’t do that” matter-of-factly, not judgmentally.
You know that it will take time for him to absorb the messages and help him think of other ways to accomplish what it was that he was trying to accomplish when he got there, so maybe sensory is what he was looking for, some sort of sensory experience, or maybe it’s something else, so again, looking at the patterns, and working with him will help you guys dig into that.
Also, show him that you respect his needs as well. So, you don’t like to be touched in certain ways and he doesn’t like to do certain activities—those are all related and it comes down to building trust in the relationship, connection instead of power, so look out for those patterns, and start to see in the bigger picture how, in the relationship is what’s at the root of all these differences.
How about you Anna?
ANNA: We are all thinking along the same lines today, because my first thing was, “each day is a new day, each moment is a new moment.” But I love love love Anne’s reset button idea, and I’m thinking we need to make one of those, like they have for the Staples…
ANNE: I almost brought my “yes” button to use, Anna!
ANNA: Right, like the yes button! Because then, you know, anybody can see it and go, “Alright, reset.” It’s kind of that physical representation of that, so I love that, and of course we can do that in many ways, but I kept envisioning the button when we were saying that.
I was also going to mention the sensory diet, the sensory activities in the diet because I feel like if you can meet those sensory needs for him in a way that works for him and the family, I think you’re going to find that those behaviors that weren’t working fall away because those needs are being met.
For us with the diet pieces, we just looked for patterns like Pam talked about, and for us it tended to be artificial dyes or dairy that were involved in the aggressive behaviors that were more physical, and so sometimes it’s just helpful to go, “ok that might be an issue, and how do we feel about that,” and just opening up conversations about how our body feels when we eat certain things.
And then with Pam too, it was the same thing that I’ve written about.
Finding tools for yourself and for your husband, model stepping away when you feel upset, breathing, getting a glass of water, touching the earth, whatever thing kind of grounds you, and then apologizing, because I feel that that transparency can help your kids see that we all have moments, but what we choose to do next, that makes the difference in our relationship.
So, finding those little touchstones or tools that you can share in an open process helps them see that we all are working on this together, and I think that that just feels better, and you’ll see it just feels better to work in those directions together.
PAM: I like that piece about how important it is, the choice after, right?
PAM: Because we don’t always make the best choice in the moment but acknowledging that and trying again, reconnecting, half of it’s reconnection!
ANNE: The reset button gives you space to apologize and reconnect. We’re not in our right minds when we have those moments so the reset button brings us back to our full selves again. Our best selves.
Let’s make that reset button, baby!
PAM: Ourselves. Beautiful!
ANNA: I will be looking that up afterwards!
Tracy’s Question (from Homestead, Florida, USA) [TIME: 18:28]
Hello, Pam, Anne, and Anna.
Thank you so much for this podcast and the monthly Q&A. You are a source of inspiration and encouragement. I have so many questions I have been meaning to send but today I will start with one. I will give you a little intro first.
I have 2 amazing daughters. An 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. My oldest daughter has a huge heart. She loves people. Her gift is encouragement. She can walk into any room and know who exactly needs unconditional love and a big hug. The little one is the life of the party. Her sense of humor astonishes me on a daily basis and we laugh together a lot. I could give you a huge list of all my favorite qualities each poses but there wouldn’t be enough time for other questions.
We’ve been homeschooling for 3 years. I don’t feel confident enough to call myself a unschooler but we have never used curriculum and I have been in Deschooling mode for the whole 3 years. My goal being to move towards a radical Unschooling lifestyle. The most challenging part of homeschooling for me is to be an active witness to the social challenges my daughters face.
I don’t want to sound negative but this is the only way I can think of posing my question: Do you know that kid in the playground that all the other children avoid? We’ve all seen them. They go from click to click, looking to connect and is generally received with a face of disgust. The other children tend to turn their backs in hopes that the child will get the hint or they straight out run from them. That kid is my eldest daughter. She is so friendly and brave that she doesn’t give up and usually does find another child to play with.
I decided long ago that homeschooling park days with big groups was not good for us. We stick to more one on one play dates to give other children an opportunity to see how amazing she is without the “group mentality” interfering. When she was younger, she was more willing to let me help. When I saw that the other child wanted space I would call her over or kneel by her and say something to the point of, “Do you see her body? How it’s pulled away? She’s trying to tell you she wants space. Let’s go look for another friend that might want to play.” Also, I have no problem being the friend that plays with them at the park and I do it often. But, lately I find that she doesn’t want my help. She doesn’t want me to talk her through the social challenge & just gets angry with me and insists on staying around children that obviously do not want to play with her or even be close to her. I think she has started putting together that it’s not that the children want space but that they want space from HER. It breaks my heart and the whole experience is emotionally draining for me. On good days, I’m able to keep it together but on bad days, I tend to break down in ugly ways.
I do not demonize the other children because I strongly believe that all children deserve the respect and consideration that I want for my daughters. I have directly asked the child/children (in a kind way) if my daughter has done something to hurt them or bother them & they usually say no.
Yesterday, the situation reached a whole new level for me and I just don’t know what to do anymore. We attend a class at a beautiful garden. From the moment we walked in, she was being rejected left and right from children that she knows. Children that she has interacted with in the past. She was extremely confused. She tried to sit with 2 children and they both made it clear that they did not want to sit with her. I called her over to me and it took some time but she came and sat with me. Shortly after, my youngest daughter went to the same 2 children and they welcomed her with smiles and she sat with them. My youngest daughter sat with them and my heart sank. I called her over. She did not want to come. I went and carried her off. We were distracting the class so I picked up our things and walked off with both of them. I could feel the tears in my throat. I told my youngest daughter, “If your sister is not welcomed to sit there then you and I cannot sit there either.” We all were upset. The 3 of us went and explored the garden on our own and when we saw the group again, we tried to rejoin but it wasn’t much different.
The wound is still fresh and I feel completely emotionally run down but it is a reality of our life. I do not want to live a completely isolated life but I just don’t know what to do with all of this anymore. I would love your perspective and guidance. How do I help my eldest daughter and my youngest daughter? How should my interaction with other children be?
ANNA: OK. Oh my goodness. Tracy, I’m so sorry. It just, it sounds so hard and hurtful, and I can just feel your love and the deep hurt that you have from your question, and so I just wanted to give a little space for that.
I don’t think that kids mean to be cruel, but in some situations it can certainly play out that way and feel that way to people involved. It does sound like what you’ve already noticed, that the group situations really aren’t the best for your girls, especially your oldest. We found that to be the case for my oldest also, and I’m wondering if finding those one-on-one friends, and then maybe they could go into group activities together would be a strategy to help if there are group things she’s wanting to attend.
You know my oldest never really clicked with other kids, she did much better with adults, and that’s something we honored and kind of worked through along the way. But I do think it’s important to separate your feelings from her feelings, because sometimes we can project our feelings that may stem from our own school baggage or situations that really aren’t the same. And you want to give her the space for her own reactions, and you might find that they’re different than yours. She might not be bothered by things that are bothering you because yours is coming with years of baggage that maybe she doesn’t have. And as she feels more supported and she has you here with her and her sister and all of these other things that are so different from what you or I might have experienced in a school situation alone, you know, like in the cafeteria.
I’m not sure about the group dynamics where you are, but there might also be a way for conversation about inclusion and being kind for the whole group, you know helping to plan activities where the kids can get to know each other and can find common ground. And I guess I find myself really wondering what the other parents are doing. You know, when we were in group situations, I would encourage my daughters to talk to the person who was sitting alone, and we would talk about how hard it is for a new person coming into the group, and I’m just wondering what kind of modeling and conversations are happening with your group. We found these kinds of conversations much easier to facilitate in homeschooling groups than in school situations. So, maybe reaching out to your fellow parents for some thoughts and strategies.
I just wanted to say too, do care for yourself and your wounds around this, because I feel if that way, if you are giving yourself space and caring for yourself about it, you don’t have to hand those feelings over to your girls. Being there to support their experience separate from your experience, be the neutral observer instead of the interpreter which is kind of what you are doing now. I think you’ll learn more about what’s happening and how they are feeling about it that way, as opposed to kind of putting your narrative onto them.
But it’s certainly complicated, and it’s certainly so, so hard to see our children in a situation where they are hurt, and I have been there so I know that it is hard, and so I just wanted to say that.
But I am going to turn it over to Anne and see what thoughts she has.
ANNE: Why, thank you. Hi, Tracy. I have a had a friend talk to me last year about a situation that was very similar to what you are saying here—not exactly, of course, but I do want to share this story with you in case there is any chance you are able to glean some light and direction and hope from it.
So, as I said, my friend spoke of her daughter’s situation of not fitting in with the other girls, of being left behind and left out of things that the girls were planning and doing, and I validated how hard that is to witness, especially when it’s your own child, but even more difficult when we feel it was us as a child as well, as Anna was saying, and this was true in my friend’s case also. Later on that day I was observing this mom and how she is with her daughter. And I went up to her later and I said, “Do you see that you are your daughter’s best friend?” She did not. And I told her about all of the things that I had been a witness to between not only her and their daughter, but also her husband and their daughter.
Both of this child’s parents are this girl’s best friends! They were together doing the things that the daughter wanted to do. They were all participating and they were having a ball! They were laughing and playing and creating, and it’s very much what most unschooling families I know look like, which is a beautiful thing. We are our children’s best friend, and they are ours, some of their best friends.
That doesn’t mean that that eliminates the child’s desire for a friend who is a child, but if you are aware that you are or can be fulfilling that role as your child’s friend or best friend, then that will allow space for your daughter to flow into just the right circumstances with just the right people at just the right time. This happens when you continue to follow the things that she loves, that allow her to shine, and you jump into that space with her, like my friend does with her child and we’ve done with our children, if the child is receptive to us doing so, where the child is shining, just, you know, as a best friend would do. And you expand that space into other things that are tangents from this shining space. You laugh and you play and create together. Most importantly, you don’t put her in situations where you know she will end up feeling bad about herself.
After that first conversation with my friend, later on, I received a huge gift, and I was able to witness her daughter with the other girls, with all the other girls. I’m friends with all these little girls, and I love them, and I see each of their individual shines so clearly, and on this occasion I was at first with all the other girls, and they were giggling and doing silly things, and their energy just flowed so easily together, just little girl energy swirling around each other, and in and out of each word they spoke and each giggle they released and it was really beautiful, and then my friend’s daughter joined in, and the other girls were kind to her, and what happened was just, they just continued to live what they knew to live, with that easy flow of girlfriendness that they had been living with each other, the talking, the silliness, the giggling.
And that wasn’t what the new child coming in was all about. So that was an amazing thing that I could feel the difference in energy of my friend’s daughter and this amazing child compared to the energy of the other girls. It was clearly night and day. I could feel the depth and gravitas of this girl. And I could not wait until I saw her mom again because I needed to tell her that it’s not her daughter that is not fitting in, it’s just night and day!
And just like you said when you were talking about your daughter. “She loves people, she has a huge heart, her gift is encouragement, she can walk into a room and know exactly who needs unconditional love and a big hug.” That is a beautiful gift and a beautiful thing to see in her and that’s who she is. Not all eight-year-olds are like that, so it is a night and day kind of energy flow here.
So, you know, it’s the way things are and maybe it’s a challenge right now in their lives, and, referring back to my friend, maybe it’s so noticeable right now in their lives and feels like rejection right now, but it’s not really. It’s just the people they’ve come across so far perhaps hasn’t been a wide enough sampling to include someone who has energy like her daughter. As I was telling my friend this, and as I was saying this, she was crying and I was crying, mostly because, as Anna was saying, we realized it was us also in school.
You know, here we were made to feel like we were the oddballs because nobody really saw us and our completely different energy and how it did not fit in with the other little girl energy or whatever. So that felt really good to notice. And it’s exactly this person, this person who has these individual qualities, gloriously unique qualities, for whom I’ve been sharing my message for decades of making sure we create a world that allows our children to shine and be celebrated for being exactly who they are, that we notice their qualities and their beautiful uniqueness as you pointed out about your child.
So, from this place you might be able to see easier how you are and how you might be your daughter’s best friend, focusing on here shine, her perfect being-ness that’s so lovely and so necessary in our world. And seeing and celebrating that will take you both to the places where she knows she shines, where she’s comfortable in her own skin. In this world that you can create or that you’ve created that allows her to shine, surrounded by people who see and want to be around her, and from there—I really have found this to be true in our lives—all else kind of falls into place, because this was my oldest son’s case as well.
The right person who she connects with will be there when you create this world where she’s surrounded by her own shine and those people. And maybe that person will be an adult. As Anna said, with my oldest son, his best friends were always adults. Maybe that person is the librarian or a relative or the adult holding the workshop you attended on something she’s interested in. Or maybe that person is another unschooled child that you run into by following her shine and they connect because they are interested in the same thing and they have a similar energy level, and they will find each other because of that.
The thing is, that it won’t matter to your child, this is what I love, because you are having such a good time in your lives together, that anyone else who comes into it is kind of the cherry on the top of your unschooled life sundae. And because you created this world by surrounding her with people who see her shine, and that allows her to see and feel her own shine, and that’s all just so right and good, and once again, the once goal is to allow your child to feel good about herself.
PAM: I love that cherry on top of an unschooling sundae!
Just a couple things. We talk about children in general and it’s also important to realize that it’s about helping them find situations in which they shine individually. Maybe for your eldest daughter it’s one-on-one or small group kind of environments, and for your youngest it’s larger groups that she loves. They don’t need to do and enjoy the same activities, right? Because they may have different personalities.
So, it’s figuring this out for each of them individually, not expecting each one to enjoy what the other one enjoys. There’s nothing wrong with them being individuals and having different interests and different environments that they enjoy. So that’s something, just a quick thing to remember. I mean it sounds logical but sometimes when you’re there, you know, we are all going to the gardens, or we are all going to this place. It can seem like an either/or with both, you’re just kind of lumping your children together, but it’s great to separate them out and start playing with those different possibilities.
And to dig in to a bit, you guys both mentioned separating our feelings from our kid’s feelings—I have a blog post called, “When You and Your Child See Things Differently,” talking about you seeing the actions of the other kids , trying to pull your way and trying to explain that they are expressing their feelings though these actions and she’s not seeing it, so I thought I’d share some from the post:
In my experience, when there seems to be a stalemate of sorts, what’s often missing is the parent’s genuine understanding of the situation from their child’s point-of-view. Sometimes as parents we forget that what we are sharing is our perspective, our interpretation of the situation, not cold, hard facts. And as different people, it’s unreasonable to expect that they will always see things exactly the same way we do. What your child is telling you is their reality. The challenge is that if we are insistent, if we try to push our reality to replace theirs, we can also be pushing away the chance for a deeper understanding of and connection with them. We risk damaging the trust in our relationship.
When I find myself in this predicament, I try to step back and do the work to understand my child’s point-of-view. It helps me see them more deeply, beyond “they just don’t understand.” If I assume they just don’t understand, my path forward is likely to just keep explaining my point-of-view over and over. They’ll get it eventually, right? If you find yourself repeating the same explanations, trying to convince them, that’s a big clue that whatever you’re saying isn’t making sense, it’s not connecting to how they see things. It’s time to change things up.
How? For me, instead of continuing to explain my reality, I try to live their reality for a while. And I explore my discomfort with the situation: I ask myself questions, like “what is it that’s making me feel uncomfortable?” and “why is that?”
…As an aside, that’ll be where we start to see how it relates to experiences maybe we had ourselves as children, when we find ourselves in those situations…
when we find ourselves in those situations, following up each answer with more questions as I dig deeper, doing the work to understand my reactions and move past my defensiveness and filters. This helps me to more clearly see my child’s world through their eyes. If they aren’t bothered by things, I try on what it feels like to not be bothered. And vice versa. I’m a detailed yet detached observer for now. What is it that my child anticipates or sees in the goings-on? How are they reacting, or not reacting? Why? Why not? Where does that lead them?
As you continue to observe, keep the communication between you both open and safe. You have made your concerns known—after all, that’s when you realized your differing viewpoints—so your child is aware of them. If a parent makes too big a deal about something (too big as judged by the child), there’s a good chance that if a challenge does arise, the child might choose not to talk to the parent about it because the “I told you so”, whether or not literally spoken out loud, would be too heavy in the air.
Understanding your child’s world more deeply can help you develop trust in them and their actions. And from there you are in a more knowledgeable place from which to help them process and move through what they see. If it’s not something in their world, and when you point it out they see no big need to incorporate your feedback into their day-to-day actions, then maybe they really don’t yet need to react to it. If they can’t see it yet, it’s because it’s not on their radar. You can help them understand their world more deeply by seeing what they see and being open and available when they notice new things and begin to incorporate them into their expanding worldview. Just because they don’t see something now, doesn’t mean they never will.
And that point where you had mentioned in your note, Tracy, that she was just starting to maybe notice that these reactions were happening more often when she was around, rather than in general. And I know it’s so hard to see and, you know, big hugs for those situations, but being there with her, and letting her take that lead, to let her process, instead of than jumping in and trying to avoid those situations, you are helping her process what it means to her, what she can take from that, what she might want to try next time, that’s all part of a deeper connection and relationship with her, instead of trying to be so protective that they don’t get to figure these things out, assuming they want to.
If she wanted to be there in the first place, IF this is something she wanted to do, which it sounded like it was. Anyways, so yeah, just let your daughter take the lead and see where that goes for a while. You don’t need to jump in all the time. I swear, for me, when I manage to work through that, and just stay back a bit and give it a little bit more space, so often I was amazed at where my child and the other children involved ended up taking things, you know?
They are just brilliant examples sometimes of how to work things through, and if she wasn’t bothered, and if that meant that she—if it was Lissy in some situations, she was getting something out of it that was worth way more than the aggravations of the situation. So, it wasn’t my judgment to say “Eww, that’s a yucky environment, LEAVE.” When I’d mention it and see that it didn’t bother her at all, that was my clue that, “Oh, she’s getting something else out of it,” and look at it from that perspective and see.
Okay, that was long.
Bridget’s Question (from Cleveland, Ohio, USA) [TIME: 40:36]
I have 6 kids (ages 18-6) we have always homeschooled. My husband and I are both educators. I have been home with the children since the first was born. We did use, what I’ve called, a relaxed eclectic approach with the first 3. I mostly focused on math and phonics. The kids basically learned to read on their own. I need to diverge a little and say I was involved in a parenting webpage that was gentle discipline, positive parenting, attachment parenting. So, I believe our homeschooling evolved out of that philosophy. I’m in Ohio and have had the luxury of attending an unschooling convention every year (except 1) since it began at a water park in our state. I admit, I first went just for the discount offered to homeschool families! However, I did find through the years, speakers who were confirming the things I’m doing here at home. So, a couple of years ago, after a convention I told the kids we were done with “school” and we have (tried) to not look back.
Here’s my hang up 🙂
It’s the math thing. My kids are thriving pursuing their interests, and I’d write it all out for you. But other “unschoolers” I know personally and on Facebook groups, seem to push math. Specifically, Life of Fred. Like it’s different because a homeschooler wrote it. Or because it’s a reading/math curriculum combined. I bought much of the curriculum before we jumped ship. It doesn’t work for us.
I’ve been working my way through your podcasts. Can I really just skip math? If one of the kids chooses to do math we go with it?
I know the answer, but I have 3, almost 4 teens and I am having a “I’m messing them up for life” moment.
For the record, my husband, 34 years in the public schools, teaches AP and Honors US History and is a better unschooler than me!!! He doesn’t ever want our kids in the schools.
PAM: Hi Bridget! So, nice to hear from you and I love your question.
For me, there are two parts really, and as you said, you know the answer about the math thing.
The first part, those “I’m messing them up for life” moments, when I experienced those what helped me was to engage with my kids MORE. That fear of messing up was driving me into my own head and pushing me away from them—I was getting more and more caught up in those thoughts. But what I needed was to get closer, to really see them in action. Because when I was actively chatting with them and doing things with them—from playing games to going out places they wanted to go, to just watching movies, hanging out, chatting—I saw what great kids they were, how much they knew about themselves and the world, how much they were learning about their interests, and that would always remind me that when and if that thing I was worried about came up in their lives, they’d figure that out too.
They have their whole lives to be in the world and learn things, and seeing them in action would put that whole curriculum content and timetable thing to shame, I could just move past it when I was reminded, seeing unschooling in action, the depth of it, day to day.
The other part of the question is the math specifically, and as you know, the short answer: yes, you don’t need to push math, they’ll figure math-related things out as they need them. But my answer can only take you so far—it will help you even more if you understand the why behind it, so that you know it in your bones yourself, and can remind yourself whenever you need it.
For me, it started with shifting away from seeing math as it looks in curriculum to seeing what it looks like in real life. Because it really is there, all the time—in the games, and the art, and the patterns, and the analytical thinking that weaves through our unschooling days. I wrote about my own math shifts in a blog post, “Math is More Than Arithmetic,” which I’ll link to in the show notes.
When I was first coming to unschooling, there was also an essay that I found really interesting back then, and you can find it online on the Mathematical Association of America’s website, and it’s called “A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form”, so I’ll link to that. And Sue Patterson has also gathered a bunch of great math links on her Unschooling Mom2Mom website that can help you recognize real math in the world, I’ll put the link to that as well.
ANNA: I love that article, and it’s super, super long, but it’s worth reading. Because I love math, love love love, did well in school, blah blah blah all of that, but what I love most about our unschooling journey is watching the girls, their understanding of math, this kind of deep, organic understanding of numbers is so different from the way it’s taught in school and that article really speaks to that, how we are ruining math for everyone.
And a lot of times I think people who have a lot of fear about math are people who say, “I hate math, I did terrible. I can’t do math.” But what again I remind people is that math is everywhere, it really can’t be avoided, you’re using it every single day, all the time! Cooking, shopping, walking through the house, buying fabric, doing crafts, whatever, it’s there. And if you find a child or teen wants to dig deeper into kind of advanced math or some computational things it’s there and it’s easy!
And another great article, David Albert wrote about the Sudbury School experience in a matter of, it may have been eight weeks, I can’t remember, but it wasn’t long and so you know, because those kids were ready they had expressed an interest and they were just like “let’s see what this is all about!” and they just buzzed through it. There’s a lot out there about that which can kind of calm those fears.
But again, for me, what I’ve so enjoyed, being a person who loves math, is seeing how differently they looked at things, you know, I had long division, or I knew how to do things these appropriate ways, but the way they think about it in their head is so organic and they understand the numbers so much more, so I just thought that was very cool. So, yes, I just think math curriculum really gets in the way of math understanding and that “Mathematicians Lament” really talks to that. So, that is all!
ANNE: Yes to all that they said. And I love your question, “Can I really just skip math?” because unschooling is life, and unschoolers do not skip life! And so, as they were saying, life includes a lot of math, and we live fully, and aware, and inquisitive, and math is a part of that in all the ways that they spoke of.
I simply have two little examples about our life about my kids and math. When unschooled kids want to learn something that life hasn’t covered, then they will seek out when they are ready to learn it, and that is the example of my children.
My youngest son was a chef and had to learn to convert recipes at his restaurant, and his experience with that was from cooking with me from the time that he was two, and I would speak out loud about the measurements and everything. And yet, what he had to do at the restaurant were much more complex conversions than we ever did. So, here’s what he did—he learned it! And he learned it easily because it had real meaning in his real life. And the coolest thing that Anna said, and that I LOVE, is that he learned it in a way that I could not understand, and I loved that so much, because I could see that if I had tried to teach him the way that I was taught to do some of that math, it not only would have been completely inappropriate, but it would have shown a lack of respect for the way his brain works. And also, a distrust in his ability to get what he needs in his life, often with my assistance. And that’s why we don’t insert ourselves and the ways we have been taught things into our children’s lives for those very important reasons.
The second example is my oldest son. He wanted to attend art college, and first he had to pass the GED test. And for years, this was the reason why he didn’t go to art college, and when he got to a point in his life when he was read, he said, “Yes, I can do this”, and, as Anna said with Sudbury school, he happily and enthusiastically studied for a month. And this was a child who brought us to unschooling because he refused to be told to do any particular way of doing things EVER and if you read my essay “I Am What I Am” on my Shine with Unschooling website, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
And here he was, though, ready to study for the GED, and within a month he had all of the knowledge of all of high school basically, what he needed to pass the test, and because it was for something he deeply desired, it had meaning and value in his life. So, he passed the GED with high grades, that did not matter to him. The lowest of the grades that he got in the GED was the math portion, and that did not matter to him. He was just so happy that he got high enough grades to continue get accepted to the school.
And once he at college, he had to take a math course. And we talked about what to do about it, and he was able to take it online over the summer so the stress of being in the classroom was removed, and he was able to take his time and really learn what he wanted to learn from the class. And that was another thing, that when we are in school we just kind of memorize things to pass the test and forget about it afterwards, and as was true with the Sudbury school kids and everything, and with my child. He really wanted to learn stuff from it, imagine that, you know?! Imagine taking a school class and really wanting to learn.
It’s just so cool seeing it all through their fresh eyes, from my schooled eyes. Such a gift! Just like reading or anything else unschoolers choose to worry about, trust is crucial. Trust in our kids and their paths! Trust in their universe’s unfolding and presenting them with the exact right opportunities in the exact right time. You don’t have to single out math from that at all. It includes everything! Most of all, trust in their innate ability and desire to learn things when they want or need the information in their real lives.
PAM: I think that’s such a huge piece. Oh, can I jump in?
I think it’s those eighteen years, right? I think that can be something that’s so hard. Once you can get past and see that they can learn anything, anytime, they don’t need to know x, y and z—whatever those are for you—by the time they’re eighteen, right? When you look at learning as a lifetime thing, they really can learn it when the need or the interest comes up!
It’s just such a different way of looking at things, and it was a huge “ah ha” moment for me because I could see, like, when Jacob, when he had that need, boom, like the Sudbury Valley kids when they decided they were ready, boom! It has nothing to do with age. Breaking learning away from age is a huge thing, it’s so worth it.
ANNE: And how presumptuous, of schools to presume what a child will need in their lives. It’s all based on the whole, it’s based on “you may need this someday”—well, it means nothing to me right now, so I’m going to memorize it and forget it the minute I walk out of the test. When it is of value, that’s when it’s real learning. That’s why unschooling is real learning.
Yanic’s Question (from Quebec, Canada) [TIME: 55:05]
Hi! Unschooling seems like a dream to me, but my son his autistic and I feel like I will have to bend the unschooling “rules” so to speak because he needs structure. I won’t be able to just let it go all the time. He will need my help on many things but rarely asks for it so I will have to hover a bit in order to find that fine balance between entirely child-led and planned homeschooling. I hope this makes sense?
How would you handle it?
ANNE: Hi, Yanic. I heard your question and I’m going to first dive down into some of the other things that you wrote.
First, I’d like to start with what you may think unschooling is basically, because that’s a good place to start! I know you put the words “unschooling rules” in quotes, so I assume that means that you know there are no unschooling rules, which is great. And the reason why there are no unschooling rules, is because every child is gloriously unique, every family, every life, every path should be celebrated and followed because it is gloriously unique.
And yet, even though unschooling has no rules, there are some basic, I think I want to say, guidelines here, so when you say that your son needs structure and therefore you won’t just be able to just let it go all the time. Unschooling is not that! Unschooling is not just letting go of structure or anything else all the time, and that’s because unschooling is about seeing, honoring and living in the flow of a child’s life, of the child’s shine.
So, a guideline of unschooling would be to not just to let go of everything, whether your child needs it or not, a guideline would be to do the opposite, to be a student of your child, and to know what you and to know what your child needs in his life in order to feel good about himself, in order to shine—I’ve said that 5,000 times today!
And not only follow that, but live in your child’s light with him as a partner and a friend, as someone who’s genuinely interested in the things he’s interested in. And that brings me to the part where you say you’ll have to hover a bit in order to find that balance between entirely child-led versus planned homeschooling. Neither of those actually are guidelines for unschooling, and I know it seems like the second one is, but the way you have “entirely child-led” on one end of the spectrum, I just want to be clear that unschooling is not living the child alone to figure out life and live life on his own doing what he wants all the time.
Yes, unschooling is child-led, and that’s because we determine the direction from where our children lead. Again, I’ve said that numerous times in this podcast also, to follow the child’s shine. And yet that’s the key word: to follow. We are with the child and the child’s interests and the child’s questions and the child’s joy, and we follow because we are a partner in all of those things, sharing our genuine interest and curiosity right alongside of them in what they are interested in hearing about.
Sometimes we are holding the lantern for them as they dig, but more often than not, in my family anyways, I was the one doing a lot of exploring and investigating to find even more ways of bringing the things that my child loves into his life. So, when you are your child’s partner in joy and curiosity and exploration, much of the time, you’re just having conversations about the things that your child loves and doing it with them. There’s not like a big separation of needing to know when he needs help or not, because you’ve been a student of him, you’re there, you’re helping. you can feel when he needs help and when he is receptive to your offer of help, and he knows he can count on you for that because that is what you are doing all along.
You’re furnishing him with bits and pieces of things that he loves all along the way. You are genuinely interested in and enthusiastic about those very things that he loves, Life is more about a flow of ideas and conversations. You are offering things to him and you are also learning thing from him, and that is one of the most beautiful things about unschooling.
So, getting back around to your structure questions. If you feel he would like some structure in his days, then that is fantastic. It’s important that you honor your child and convey that you trust not only him, but that you trust in his trust of himself. You trust in his knowing himself and what he needs in order to feel good and whole and centered. My oldest son thrived on routines, not structure, so you might want to think about the difference between those two things. Structure is very firm, and routine goes along with the flow—you kind of do the same things at the same times each day, but still, you’re going with the flow.
My son was someone who needed a lot of space around transitions, transitioning from one thing to another thing. He needed information beforehand about what we might be doing and what it might look like, and then if he was reading, or playing a game or drawing, as the time grew closer when we could be leaving to go somewhere. I would help him with the transition by going into his world with him first. I would take a look at what he was doing first, and be genuinely interested in it, as I always am. Touching him during this time, just like touching his arm or something, was important too, because it helped him to connect with me, to transition from his all consuming, his brain loved to be consumed in what he was going, so this would help him to come out a little bit and slowly into what me being there. And yet, I was still there by him in his world.
And then after that I could shift to giving him information about what we had talked about: what we would be doing, and letting him know how much more time he had before we had to get ready. So that’s just one example of how to be a partner with your child and help him to feel good about himself in a way that isn’t so much structure; following their flow and what they need in each moment, because they are growing and changing and evolving, and the moment you think you have it figured out, it’s changing too, so it’s important to keep up with them and continue to be students with them and get on that awesome flow that they have.
And once again the whole goal is so that he can feel good about himself and then you know where to place your next step along the path and to help him along the way if and when he does want you to do that.
PAM: Very cool, very cool. Just to reiterate, it really, really helps to move past thinking of unschooling as having any “rules.” As you dig deeper into the principles of unschooling, or guidelines, you’ll realize that what it looks day-to-day like for individual people and even individual families can be very different—because being a student of your child, it’s based on the needs and wants of the child.
There really is nothing wrong with structure or routines, they can be enjoyed by a person, they can help them feel good about themselves without having them imposed on them from somebody else, right? The huge difference is that it’s down to choice as a child figures out how they’re more comfortable moving through their days—you’re helping them figure that out.
Maybe they’ll play with routines for a while, maybe they’ll find one that’s really comforting, and a few months later, they may want to change it up, it’s starting to feel restrictive. So that’s a whole fun area about learning about ourselves that we can help them with.
And yes, definitely, I think it will also help to not think of unschooling as “child-led,” because when you think about it that way it can lead us to being too hands-off as parents, not being involved. I think it’s more accurate to think of unschooling as a supportive partnership—I love the dance metaphor that Pam Sorooshian used in her blog post, “Unschooling is Not Child-Led Learning.”
She writes: “Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in synch with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other.”
That has been my experience too, and she uses the phrase “child-focused” instead of “child lead” because, yes, we are in relationship and in partnership with our children and we are helping them figure these things out. That’s why I like the word focused rather than led, because it’s not us sitting back and just waiting for them to ask us to get involved—it’s actively living with them. Unschooling is rooted in that connected and trusting relationship that we so often talk about here on the podcast.
I did a ten questions episode with Pam Sorooshian and we talked about math a little bit in there too, so that was in episode two and I’ll put a link there too in case you want to listen to that one. So, just help your son out as you think will help, and as he’s happy for your help, and you guys will be dancing together wonderfully. Don’t worry so much about rules, learn about the principles of unschooling so it can help you to feel like you have more ideas on ways in which to engage with him. But don’t feel constricted by it—use it as a jumping off for exploration in how to live with him day by day and help him figure these things out.
ANNA: Yeah, I mean really, again, so much of what you all have said.
I also have a child who also really likes, needs, craves this kind of routine and structure in her day—it was especially true when she was younger. But those structure and routines were really about her day and how it unfolded, what will happen, when. It came from her. I didn’t need to structure her learning with a curriculum. I didn’t need to structure her day, I just listened to what she needed. Answering questions, giving plenty of notice when things were happening. We had a calendar that she could see easily to know when events were coming up that might impact her.
And within that structure of her own creation, she explored the topics of and areas of interest with my help and facilitation. While I think it’s this common phrase that you’ll hear in circles labeled “special needs,” I think it tends to be more about parents imposing a structure than about kids creating their own structure or routines, and really, to me, that skill of creating that which calms and comforts, is a skill that I wanted my daughter to be able to develop; that I wanted be there with her to help her find ways to be comfortable.
So, I think if you can kind of partner in this dance with your son, you’ll find ways that he’s exploring within this framework that you create that feels comfortable to him, he’ll develop that structure that works for him, and the two of you will be working together, just like Pam said.
I think that’s really the paradigm shift in unschooling, I think that still maybe where you are just based on your question is that it’s this educational model, and it’s child-led, and it’s this, and I think that it’s kind of maybe, maybe set that aside for now, and dig into the relationship, and that partnership of moving through the days and finding the things that make you both feel comfortable and give you the opportunity to explore. And I think when you switch the focus to there, you’ll see how it just unfolds this very different way than a parent deciding about this structure that we are going to impose upon someone.
I would love to go back to your question, Yanik, and you say “unschooling seems like a dream to me, but my son is autistic.” Just a shift right there to “Yay! I can unschool my son, this is fantastic.” Because of what you can do, I mean, unschooling will save him, really. Not that he needs to be saved, but that shift in your thinking will open up everything. Everything. Not, “you can’t unschool because he’s autistic.” It’s “Thank God you can unschool!”
PAM: He’ll be so much more comfortable! Yeah!
ANNE: Yes, yes. You can follow him, as we’ve been saying. It’s the dance, it’s the flow, and it’s just a beautiful thing.
ANNA: And, as Anne has said a couple times today, it’s that unique path for each child. I mean, that is the beauty! There is no perfect unschooling child, there is no perfect way that an unschooled child is supposed to live or be or process the world! The whole point is we can have this individual path based on the child, how they interact with the world. And so, it’s the perfect solution in that way!
ANNE: I think you had a really good point, Anna, when you said that your focus was to help your daughter be comfortable, because, this is huge where schools and special programs and special needs programs and everything just have so much of trying to fix, and here in our lives we can celebrate and that is all that matters. So, you can do whatever needs to be done to once again, make sure your child feels good about himself and is comfortable, and knows how to feel comfortable. And knows how to be in touch with himself to know how he feels and everything. The learning happens along the way.
I think of my son now, and he’s, goodness, he’s 27—math has to be wrong right there. (laughs) But he knows. He’s had a life of me assisting him, to feel good about himself, to know what situations will put him over the edge, so we, as we’ve talked about in the past questions, we’ve created a world of people who see him shine so that he doesn’t feel bad about himself.
This is my guideline for unschooling, this LIFE for our children, so that once they are on their own like my kids, they carry these gifts with them, mostly knowledge about who they are, connecting with who they are and what they need, and that’s what they follow till this day still. And the learning happens along the way, that’s honestly just the cherry on the unschooling life sundae.
PAM: I know, it’s just amazing. That’s, for me, that’s one of the biggest things, is how much they understand themselves, how they can move forward, you know, they know they change with time, their interest change. And it’s seeing them knowing ways to figure out how they mesh with the world, finding situations in that they’ll fit, in which they will shine. Being able to look at situations and knowing, “You know, that’s not going to work for me,” and moving on, not feeling judged by that. It’s just so beautiful to see them in action with the world.
And, Anna, your point that there is no perfect unschooling child. There is no, “Oh, here’s this kind of child, and unschooling is going to perfect for them.” No, the unschooling starts with the child, with any child, with who he or she is, and it grows from there.
ANNE: Because unschooling is about that child, just that child.
PAM: Child-focused. I love that.
Ok, thanks so much to both so much for answering questions with me. I loved it, had a great time.
ANNE: Thank you so much.
PAM: Just a reminder, there are links in the show notes for things that we’ve mentioned. We mentioned a lot of things this month!
And as always if you would like to submit a question for the Q&A show, just go to livingjoyfully.ca/podcast and click on the link.