PAM: Hi Everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Sophie Christophy. Hi, Sophie.
SOPHIE: Hi Pam, how are you?
PAM: I’m wonderful thank you. I was lucky enough to meet Sophie during an episode of For the Love of Learning [NOTE: not yet released] that we both participated in and I also really enjoyed reading her blogs. She has two of them! I’m sure we will hear lots more about them as we dive into our conversation. To get us started,
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you guys came to unschooling?
SOPHIE: Yeah, sure thing. There’s me, Sophie, and I’ve got two children who are nearly 7 and nearly 4 years old. We also live with my husband who happens to be a secondary school teacher. We live in the UK.
PAM: How did you guys come to unschooling?
SOPHIE: I want to say it was a kind-of natural evolution from when we first had our babies. We fell into an attachment parenting-type dynamic without knowing that it was called attachment parenting. Just straight away, we felt as though our babies were little people. We were trying to partner with them from when they were born, I don’t know, intuitively, that was just how it was working. Every time we came to a social milestone for when they would then go into some sort of institutionalised environment for learning, like pre-school or school, it just was a bit of an issue because we were trying to fit one jigsaw piece into this jigsaw and whatever way we turned it, it just didn’t fit. I thought, ‘Oh ok, so this is not going to work, I guess we will just carry on doing what we are doing because there seems to be zero problems with it in terms of their actual learning and development.’ And so, I guess that’s how we came to be unschoolers.
Throughout that process, I’ve been massively deschooling myself because I was like a golden child of the established system. Up until then, my lens on mainstream education and school was very positive because that had been my personal experience of it. So, I’ve had to do a lot of work with rewiring my brain and stepping back and getting this much bigger picture of how the whole thing works in order to be able understand what we actually wanted to do. It’s been really interesting. For the children, it’s completely fine. It’s normal. You’re born ready. It’s the adults that have the problems so I’ve been working on my problems. I help other parents with that too.
PAM: Yeah. It was so interesting because I too did well at school and through university and it was an enjoyable experience for me, so to start questioning it when I saw that it didn’t mesh well for my kids, it was really eye opening. There is this whole new set of questions and things to ponder. I find that moving to unschooling was so much more about my deschooling and my work. Even though my kids went to school for a while because I didn’t know that they legally didn’t have to, they took to it so fast versus myself. I had a lot of questions to go through.
SOPHIE: I’m like a third-generation educationalist. My grandfather was a head teacher, my parents had both been teachers, and my husband is a teacher. My family is just full of the education system. I think because, in our society, if you are the type of person that wants to support the development of other people and you want to share your passions then you are naturally going to gravitate towards the word, “teacher.” In terms of how things are now, the option for that is within schools. I think a lot of people find themselves in that setting and then realise that they can’t do the job they want to do, even within the current setup.
I think the lucky thing that we have experienced is, because we have been able to look outside the existing constructs for an education and really observe our children as their development has unfolded, it opens up your mind to this idea: ‘Actually, school is one setting for this process and it’s not the only one and it’s not necessarily the one that is most efficient or supports people’s well being or the rest of it.’
I find it like a Rubik’s cube to figure out this whole thing, really.
PAM: Oh, I love that image. That’s true. I know a few teachers. In my husband’s family, his sister and now a niece—all sorts of education experience on that side. It is really interesting to watch their journey too, as they engage with the idea of what we’re doing. It’s very fascinating.
Last summer you started a personal project you have called an Unschooled Master of Arts. I’d love to hear the story behind that.
SOPHIE: Last year, I mean for about the last ten years I’ve been informally researching and exploring subjects around childhood, parenting culture, children’s rights, education, all of it: what happens after you’re born before you get called an adult, that kind of thing. I had been just on the hoof. I would spend a lot of my time devoted to exploring it but I didn’t really have a system or a structure; I wasn’t very organised in what I was doing. So, although I felt as though I was becoming much more knowledgeable about it and I was understanding things better, I felt as though it would help me to put that into some sort of structure which it made it way, way, way more tangible. And just to do it in a more organised way so I could see what I was working with a bit better rather than it just being scattered.
So, I thought, well, maybe I should do a post-graduate thing in it, if that exists. I went to have a look to see if it did exist because the subjects that we are talking about are emerging subjects. They’re not well established in academic circles. I wasn’t even sure if there was such a thing as a course on children’s rights in education or parenthood. Does that exist out there? I had a look and I did find a course in London at one of the universities and it was called something like, ‘Children’s Rights in Education’ and it looked really good. It was pretty close to what I wanted to be learning about.
I thought, ‘Oh, I know. This seems to have solved my problem. I’ll just sign up to this and I can access it on the train and it will be fine.’ Then I thought, ‘It’s £12,000 that we definitely don’t have!’ So, it was £12,000 worth of probably debt. Also, it’s train journeys that I really can’t afford to do. So that’s more problems that I was creating.
In a way, the course that was offered solved some of my problems but it just created a whole bunch of other problems. It was going to make me more stressed because I’d have to make sure I didn’t miss any classes. I would have deadlines that were beyond my control. I knew that would negatively impact on our family life, definitely on the children. The more stressed you are, the worse a parent you are, essentially, as far as I can tell. (laughter)
So, I thought, ‘I could do this, but it will just end up being massively ironic because it will actually diminish our family’s unschooling life. So, it doesn’t really make any sense.’ And then I was like, ‘Isn’t it a bit of a cop-out to become a passionate advocate of unschooling and to then be interested in going to school to do my learning seemed a bit ridiculous.’ So, I thought, ‘Why not unschool it? Just unschool it. Walk the walk.’
I really believe that you can unschool learning at any level, in any sphere, pretty much. I would potentially exclude some areas where there’s high life and death risk. But generally, if you’re looking to pursue your learning in a subject then I think that there isn’t anywhere that should be considered particularly out-of-bounds. So, even though it’s higher education and formal structured learning at that postgraduate level, I thought that it would be really smart to test the theory. Like: is it possible? Can I work to that standard without being in a university? Will it work?
And so, in a way it became this really great opportunity to test the theories I believed in, model self-directed higher education academic work to my children. I think that, as unschoolers, it helps our families out if we’re modelling what we think is cool. I just thought that it made sense to just go for it, and try.
So, last summer I started the blog and I wanted also to make it really accessible because one of the reasons I was doing it in this way was for financial reasons. I just wanted to create a space that could potentially inspire other people who also faced that barrier that they could also pursue their own higher learning: academic learning, without having to get thousands of pounds worth into debt, basically. So they could take ownership of it and do it themselves. I felt like the most useful way to do that was to be totally transparent in what I was doing, so I blog everything. I blog all my working notes as I go along. My whole process is just in the blog.
It’s worked out really well, so far. I’m really happy with it. The thing is, one of the main reasons I’m doing it, as I’ve mentioned, is because my time is really in demand and I’ve got commitments with my family that can’t really be compromised on. So, I knew I needed something that was going to be really flexible and could fit into the gaps. And the beauty of doing your own Masters program is that you can leave it and it can just sit there. Right now, it’s been hanging out for while because I’ve been really caught up in other stuff and it’s just waiting until I’ve got time to come back to it again. And that doesn’t matter. It makes zero difference. I’m not trying to finish it for any fixed point in the future. I’ll just carry on with it until I’m done with it. When I’ve reached that point where I feel like I’ve done enough.
The other brilliant thing about it is that, while the course that I discovered that was available at a university in London was really good, I would say probably two-thirds of it were covering things I really wanted to look at but there was definitely a third of the curriculum that I just knew wasn’t really relevant for what I need. The beauty of unschooling it was that you can create a really agile curriculum for yourself and you can just do what you need to do as it unfolds and explore where you need to explore and answer your own questions as you go along.
At the point when I started I didn’t have a finalised plan for what I was going to be studying. I didn’t have a book list that was conclusive. I said right at the start of writing it that that was going to be an evolving process. Just having that flexibility and agility means that I’m using my time to learn the things that I actually need and want to learn. I mean, it’s just exactly like we think of the benefits of unschooling at a different life stage perhaps or a different level of learning. You just see the same thing and by me doing it myself I’m really feeling that. I’m experiencing: what does it feel like to learn under your own self-direction? I have to say that without a doubt, it’s a far, far, far superior experience of learning than I did in a formal institution. Like, it doesn’t even compare. That has been such an enlightening experience because I always believed in the theory of unschooling and now experiencing the practice makes me feel even more passionate, even more convinced, that it’s just a brilliant way to go about life and to learn about stuff.
PAM: I love that whole project. I mean, it makes so much sense; I got goosebumps when you were talking about that.
SOPHIE: Me too.
PAM: Yeah, yeah, exactly! Right?
SOPHIE: It a profound experience to self-direct your own academic study at this level. It really is. It’s just a brilliant experience. It really is.
PAM: Oh, I can just imagine. You have total control and it’s just amazing to think of the flexibility to match it to your schedule, your choice to not take that extra course, like ‘English for Engineers,’ or whatever it is: that extra stuff that you aren’t particularly interested in. To be able to dive in and let it grow. That’s one of the things we see with our kids, when they are really diving into an interest—it takes you so many places that you never imagined it would go, so to have that flexibility to follow it and see how it meshes with what your next question is, it’s profound. I love that word: profound. It’s such a personal way of learning.
SOPHIE: I would say it’s also a really accelerated way to deschool because while you are going through it, it shines a light on schooled behaviours, school beliefs and school biases that I had been completely oblivious of, prior to doing it. You think that you are deschooling in one way, but by doing this, things like, I was sent a whole bunch of really brilliant documents by my Unschooled Masters tutor, who actually lives in Canada. He’s acting as a sounding board for me. He works in a university, but he is unschooling with his own children too so he was really into the project. But as soon as it landed in my inbox, immediately, I started to feel a panic feeling. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s expecting me to read everything. If I don’t read everything he’s going to think I’m ridiculous and this whole thing is pointless and meaningless.’ I just became really overwhelmed. I could see straight away that it was a schooled reaction. That was what I experienced at university or school. At university, I used to pick an essay to write because it had the shortest reading list because that means less work. Right?
I hadn’t even thought about that experience but then I started to think about it after my panic had subsided and I thought, ‘No, hang on a minute. He sent it to me so I have the opportunity to use it if I want. It’s still my project. I don’t have to do anything with it if I don’t want to.’
You see what I mean? So that whole thing, that whole power-over dynamic which is just inherent through the whole education system including university level, where you are performing to an external person. I felt that feeling again and I had to do a bit of rewiring and practice. Like, ‘No, it’s my thing. I’m accountable to myself. It’s ok.’
Then I emailed him afterwards, and said, “I have to tell you I felt so panicked when you sent that through to me. I’m so grateful because I know you are trying to help me but I just thought that you would have an expectation about what I did with it and if I didn’t meet that expectation then it would undermine me and it would diminish me in some way, in your eyes.”
And he emailed back and said, “I just sent you that much because I wanted you to have a choice. Maybe you will use three or four bits. Like, I really don’t care. Go for it. You are doing great.”
So, it was all these little things like that, as you go along though it, you feel like a fear that you’ve written something that’s rubbish. You start to worry about things and you realise it’s not true. It’s just the schooled mindset that you’ve internalised. I think that, again, has been an invaluable part for me. It’s helped me to back off my kids. It’s helped me to realise that I don’t need to do some of the things around their learning, or what the impact is of doing them. You know, on their experience of what they’re doing.
PAM: Yeah, we have learned to so willingly give up our power. You mentioned that as the power-over, to feel expectations from everyone around us, right? Because that’s what we have learned, that that relationship between most other people in our lives is all built around expectation. We grew up with expectations from our parents; we had expectations from our teachers. Every adult had a lot of expectations on top of us. I imagine I would have had the same reaction if that thing showed up on me.
I read your blog post as you were working through that and I thought it was really fascinating because I could imagine having exactly the same reaction at first, but then you have to do the work to move through it and place it in our own context. That’s so hard.
SOPHIE: It’s addressing that feeling that someone other than us knows what’s right or wrong and what’s good or bad. That someone else has this authority and this opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely respect and value the opinions of other people. It’s not about just denying that anyone has anything meaningful to say to you. It’s about taking ownership of your own art, your own stuff, and saying, ‘Well actually, for where I’m at right now, this is what I’m doing. This is what I can do. This is what’s the best that I’m doing right now. And that’s actually enough for right now.’ And it’s a process.
PAM: And plus, it’s noticing how we also think people have expectations of us that—you know, he really didn’t have that expectation on you that you would use that. So often if we take that next step rather than just taking in the burden that we think other people are trying to hand to us. They aren’t handing it as much as we think. Right? We jump to the worst so much.
You’re working your way through Module 1, which is The History of Childhood. I find the distinction that you had mentioned earlier between children and childhood really interesting. With unschooling, we’re quite focused on children’s lives and parenting, whereas the concept of childhood is tightly woven into societal systems. What are your thoughts around that distinction?
SOPHIE: Yeah, sure. Essentially, children or a child is like a state of being, it’s a season of life. Whereas childhood is the environment in which a child or children exist. The childhood bit is socially constructed. It’s shifted and changed over the centuries and depending on where you are in the world it can look completely different.
What I think is interesting is to imagine how those two things relate to each other, because essentially the nature of being a child hasn’t really changed very much, but how we experience childhood has the potential of changing. The problem that we have is that the construct of childhood has happened in the midst of different prejudices, biases and beliefs about what it means to be a child. That is very, very similar to how women have experienced their lives of over the past centuries and thousands of years. What it boils down to is that we live in this patriarchal structure, a power dynamic, and that can be seen on a national level through how government works, it can be seen through how institutions like schools are structured and it can also be seen on a level of how families are structured. Patriarchal systems are dependent on people holding certain beliefs about why they aren’t allowed power and why they should see someone else as more powerful than them.
You know, over the centuries there have been lots of different explanations through science, philosophy, religion, any discipline you want really, that have justified children being essentially at the mercy of the power of their father originally and now I would just say parents because there has been a bit of an agenda, and a shift where now mothers can also access that position of power that was once only held for fathers.
Those beliefs that have made that system work, and maintain and perpetuate, have totally warped not only our beliefs and ideas about the state of being a child but also how we’ve gone about constructing childhood around that. Yeah, it’s interesting.
The thing that I find really useful about distinguishing between being a child and the childhood is that once you understand that childhood is a construct you also can understand that it can be deconstructed and reconstructed. It’s only a fixed thing if we continue to participate in the construct and if we carry on holding the beliefs that inform that construct.
If we move our beliefs and challenge our biases about children, then we can reconstruct—and, essentially, I think that’s what unschooling families are doing. They are deconstructing a patriarchal construct of childhood and they are reconstructing within their own family units a much more consensual and balanced dynamic. They are not trying to perpetuate and maintain this power-over dynamic. They are seeing children and people, and that is extremely radical. That’s probably the most powerful political thing that an individual can do is to recognise the personhood of a child.
PAM: You know what I find fascinating? Just as an aside here. You were talking earlier how when you had your children and you were engaging with them in what you later learned would be called an attachment parenting style. I found the same thing. That’s where my instincts took me. I didn’t know the term at the time when my kids were younger.
Now, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I’d come across this concept of the theory of childhood and the construction of childhood, but a couple of years ago, starting last year, when I was working with Anne on bringing together a conference, I called it Childhood Redefined. It seems like my mind gets to places before I really understand, before I get the bigger picture. (laughter)
Do you know what I mean? Because it’s now that I’m realising what that means and it means so much more than I knew at the time.
SOPHIE: Yeah. I completely relate to that. That was a big part of the motivation behind me doing the Unschooled Masters. I could see what was happening. I could understand what was happening, but I didn’t understand how we came to this point. So, for me, history is just understanding what has happened before. Like, what happened leads into this, and into this. When you look at the history behind all of this, it’s absolutely fascinating. And we are talking about 4000 years’ worth of perpetuated habits and behaviours that are detrimental to everyone and to the planet.
It’s just interesting and I find it helps to understand because one of the things that I think can be a barrier to this progress is that people feel like what they are doing is right but because it’s so contrasting to the majority it starts to make them experience other negative things, like they feel anxious, depressed or stressed. They maybe feel angry because it’s so hard because none of our systems are setup to accommodate and support this new paradigm. To me, if you understand why we are at where we’re at, not only does it help you to empathise with people that are not on the same path as you and to let that go, just to accept it and be like: ‘Ok that’s cool, they’re where they’re at and I’m where I’m at probably for these reasons and just because what I’m doing isn’t what the majority are doing it doesn’t diminish in any way the meaningfulness of what I’m doing.’ I think that’s encouraging.
PAM: Oh, I love that point that it helps you better understand other people because once you start looking at the history of it you can see how those ideas have come around and yes, you can better understand and empathise how they’ve come to the choices they’ve made. Exactly, it doesn’t diminish our choices either.
That was one of the stages where it made it some much easier for me to just be out in the world and not feel so defensive when people ask me questions or were curious about what we did. All of a sudden, we were all living together and making our own personal choices. That’s so interesting.
I was curious, what is one of the most interesting connections between your studies and unschooling that you’ve come across so far?
You were talking about how you feel like you’re living the unschooling learning style by doing this, but I was wondering if there are any other connections that you could share?
SOPHIE: I guess probably the most useful thing is just being able to imagine what it looks like with the constructs that exist just being redefined. I mean it’s easy to get trapped in this battle where you feel like way to deal with the things that are there that you don’t think are serving people well is to kind-of-like go for them. Like, ‘We got to take down the schools!,’ or whatever it is. In that place, I’ve felt that feeling where you feel like, ‘Someone’s got to stop it!’
But, actually, through the Unschooling Masters and the content that I’ve been learning and just understanding things better and understanding how things have come to be, schooling has come to be because it suited some people and some people’s beliefs at a time and then it became socially normalised and then people started depending on it because other things shifted, like work patterns shifted. Lots of factors came together that meant that people became really dependent on it existing. But it’s only one way to solve those problems and so, I think that how I feel like I can release the systems that exist and just focus all my energy and attention on what comes next. Like, ‘What’s better than this? How do we go about constructing something, which is just such an easy preferable option to what has been existing so far?’ That’s just a really exciting place to be. That’s way more exciting than getting bogged down in the current way things are.
You’re coming up on one year now for your Unschooled Master of Arts; I was wondering what have you learned about the process up to this point, and about yourself? How well has it meshed with your unschooling lives?
SOPHIE: It’s been great. The flexibility has been the main thing. I think if I hadn’t been doing things in such a flexible way then I just wouldn’t have been able to do it. If I had gone to do it the traditional way by registering at university and paying up, right now I’d probably be totally traumatised. (laughter) My kids would be crying, my husband would not be able to cope, I’d personally be drinking loads of alcohol every day, it just wouldn’t be worth it.
The flexibility that it has given me where I can have it sitting there, it’s just waiting until I’m ready to come to it again and re engage with it again, it just means that it’s possible. Unschooling alone is enough and doing other things in addition to that, you have to make them work around you, there’s only so far you can bend, I think.
I’m just so encouraged that my experience of it has just been so effective. It’s so targeted. It’s so useful. It’s so meaningful. It’s like learning because you really want to and need to and that you can see that immediate usefulness of what you’ve learnt. That’s just given me loads of confidence and encouragement when it comes to the rest of my family and their experiences. Just being able to really lean into it and believe that we are on the right path, basically.
PAM: That’s awesome. I imagine that you find that it flows in with your family too, so sometimes you have lots of time or comparatively more time that you can dedicate to it and then as other things come up and it goes away, I imagine it helps you see how, even related to your children’s learning how some interests flow and they get focussed on for a while and then they go away for a while and then they come back. It’s just a nice microcosm of the way natural learning works, I imagine, yes?
PAM: Yeah. (laughter)
SOPHIE: And that’s so helpful because then you don’t get frustrated. You are not like: ‘Oh no, they are not doing this anymore. Oh no, maybe they should be doing this right now.’
It’s like, ‘Relax!’
Coming back to this, because I feel so passionate about it, I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It works. It draws on all my strengths. It’s doing what I need it to do. I think I said in my last post, if this takes me my whole life, that’s fine. I don’t mind because I want to be doing this. I will just put it down and pick it up enough times until I get where I want to go.
That’s my experience and so it makes me feel, like you said, observing how my children are taking their journey’s, I’m like, ‘Oh, cool. That’s your experience. That’s how your thing goes. That’s fine. Carry on.’
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. (laughter)
You wrote a post on your blog a while ago exploring some ideas about consent in education. In it, you talked about negative stereotypes of children that society holds and learning through mistakes. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts around that.
SOPHIE: There are lots of stereotypes. I mentioned earlier on about how we’re living within this, I think the tail end of this, patriarchal system of power where there’s power at the top and then there’s the underlings, basically. That there have been a lot of narratives over the time that have served to justify this paradigm continuing. There were just so many stereotypes about children that justify adults using their power over them and diminishing the idea that children should be given the opportunity to consent to their experiences and what goes on.
I think that’s not really very helpful because if, as a society, we live with our children in a way that deprives them of understanding the power of their own voice and knowing bodily autonomy, knowing intellectual autonomy, and believing in themselves, then there were massive consequences for us. Like as individuals and society and a whole, so it’s not that useful to carry on holding on these beliefs and biases about children that make it ok for adults to use their power over them however they want.
The thing with stereotypes is, is that it’s not necessarily the case that a stereotype isn’t true; it’s just not always true. It might be that you think, ‘Oh, children just mess stuff up so adults had better make sure they don’t do that,’ and then therefore justify why adults are hyper-controlling over things. You know, all people sometimes mess stuff up. I messed up my bedroom: it’s got laundry everywhere. Sometimes people do that.
So, we don’t need to idolise anyone or make them into these romanticised humans. Humans are messy and complex and they do stuff, like they try and meet their own needs and sometimes meeting their needs looks super messy and it causes them to do stuff that you don’t really understand. The point is, if you believe that’s just how children are, then it can lead you to not listen. We need to look at people as individuals and try to understand, ‘Why is this happening? Is there a reason underlying here that I could support the person in resolving which would then enable them to do things in a way that is more helpful to them?’
Prejudices and biases and stereotypes diminish our ability to be able to connect and to be able to treat individuals and to empathise and understand differences and things. Does that answer your question? Like, where do I start with that? (laughter)
PAM: I know! Right?
I loved your point. We talk about that so much with unschooling and the Q and A questions that we get. If you see your children as individuals and you know what? You don’t even need to use the word children. We are all individuals. We are all people and we all have our set of experiences and needs and strengths and weaknesses. Even the parents and the kids, and those all just come to the table when we are interacting with each other. We can just interact with each other as individual people and the beauty of that is once you drop the lens of stereotypes or—here we are back to expectations—the way you expect kids to be: those stereotypes. Once you get rid of those and see them, that is a huge step in realising how capable they are.
Carlo Ricci is a professor in alternative education here in Toronto and that’s his big take-away. He loves to talk about how capable children are and when we are stuck behind all those stereotypes and biases and expectations of children, we have minimised them. We don’t see how capable they are. Right?
SOPHIE: And the other problem is that historically our biases and beliefs around children have come from this place of where we were born sinners. Like, we are all bad, basically. Adults need to do something to make sure that children are good. That underlying belief, like, ‘Uh oh. If you just leave them to it they are going to be super bad so you must quickly do something to jump in to make sure they are good.’
Even just the basic idea that people are either bad or good or doing something is either bad or good. How judgement-loaded our beliefs are about children. Again, it just inhibits our ability to be able to see what’s actually happening and to think about it and be like, ‘Ok, I don’t need to panic that I have a bad child.’ Like, the worst thing a society can possibly ever have, ‘Oh, no, my child is bad because they are doing X.’
Everyone is different. Everyone is interacting with the world in their own way from their own perspective and is at a different stage and has had different experiences up until now. It comes back to how people go about meeting their needs and how easy it is to meet their needs, or how NOT easy. It’s so complex. Humans are complex beings. It’s not simple. If it was simple then that would be great and maybe that’s why people are so attached to this idea of right and wrong. It’s very black and white. It’s much more simple. Like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just punish you or I’ll just reward you.’ It makes things easier in a way to understand if you look at it like that.
But that’s not true, that’s not how it actually is. And so, I think, getting past these beliefs that really reduce humans and particularly children down to this idea of being good or bad and instead just see humans as humans. Like you said, this goes for parents too. It goes for everyone. We’ve all got light and shade. Under certain conditions, no matter your age, you may do things that are not in keeping with your own beliefs because of what’s going on around you or what’s happening. It probably starts, like with most of this stuff as parents and how we understand ourselves and understanding that we are not perfect beings and we all make mistakes and take risks and do things that we maybe don’t even agree with ourselves but for other reasons. Just accepting our own complexity is going to help us to understand that children are just as complex.
PAM: I love that idea because when you think about yourself clearly, when you can get rid of that judgement piece because, like you said, sometimes we make choices that aren’t as much in alignment with us but we know why we made that choice in that moment. There is some external force, when we talk about how we rationalise our choices or our decisions. You know, there was something going on unique to that situation that had us making choice X when normally we would make choice Y. To start to understand the bigger picture of ourselves really helps us.
Again, that was one of the things that helped us step past that parent-child power dynamic to realise that we are all individuals and sometimes I make a less than ideal choice in a moment and there’s nothing wrong when that happens to my child too. Being understanding and empathetic to that. That’s one thing that I find parents do is, if our child makes that choice X in a moment, all of a sudden, we are envisioning they’re going to make that choice X forever, right? That’s the whole idea of ‘They’re going to be a bad person growing up because they made this not-so-great decision or choice in that moment. They are going to be making that choice for ever and ever.’
People worry, ‘He gets so upset and frustrated and he throws his toy. I don’t want him to be adult throwing things around when he gets mad.’
Well, that is a huge leap to make!
SOPHIE: Totally, but you know what else I think? That there is a lot of resistance to adults being emotionally vulnerable. If we really connect into the world we live in and think about it, then it’s really troubling, I think. It helps maintain the status quo if adults don’t go there. If we don’t get sad about those things, if we don’t think about them, if we just ignore them or deny that, that’s reality. So, I think, in a way, it’s an unconscious thing that’s inherited is this idea that we have to train children out of their emotionalness. We have to diminish their ability to feel and connect with what’s going on around them. I really believe that if we do that, then things are really going to get worse.
What we need to be doing at this stage in the evolution of humanity is really supporting people safely in not diminishing that side of themselves. Maintaining an openness and an awareness to the world we live in and a desire for greater justice and a desire for us to be better caretakers of the planet we live on, and so on, because you see that in children straightaway, from such a young age, an awareness of that. They notice. Like, if they are given the space to do so, they are empathetic straight away, I think.
So partly, again this feeds into this whole idea of, ‘What is the construct of childhood?’ Why part of the construct of childhood we have inherited is a process of desensitisation and a justification for the world being the way it is. Like, it just has to be that way. And I don’t agree with that.
So, personally, I think that, as parents, if we can hold space for our children to communicate emotional reactions and to not be satisfied with the idea that that’s just the way it is because some adults that know loads of stuff determined that it’s the best we can do. And to question and things and that, in terms of social change and shifting things, is just incredibly powerful. I really think so.
PAM: Oh, I really think so too. I almost feel like that we’re protecting our children’s heart. When I think of their fire, their passions, their being-ness, so that it’s not diminished or controlled. Just what you were talking about: That this is just the way it is. Right?
I feel like we’re helping them show up whole as adults, you know what I mean?
Who they really were when they were born aligns so nicely with what you said because they are empathetic, they are understanding, they see so much and understand so much from a young age. They are capable. I see unschooling as being able to keep that whole as they grow.
Does that make sense?
SOPHIE: Totally. We’re born like that ourselves. It’s really interesting actually, there is a fascinating woman called Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She did a lot of work with people who knew they were about to die, children and adults. She said that it was always easier to work with the children because they hadn’t been corrupted yet. The adults were the ones that had masses of issues and baggage around dying because they had loads of regrets, their life had gone this way or that way, and their relationships were way more complex. I think that that explains a bit of what we are talking about here. We start off like we come into the world, ready. Like, ‘Hi I’m here! What shall I do?’ Ready to serve each other and to get our business on.
And then throughout our construct of childhood, the dominating one, diminishes that. It’s like a disorientation process. You get turned and turned and turned until you then get … then ‘Welcome to adulthood, where you can actually do stuff.’ And by the time you are there you have completely lost grip or belief in that original self. Like, ‘Where am I?’ And then the self-help industry helps you out by selling you loads of books and opportunities to get back to that place where you were in the first place. If we’d just NOT done the spinning—you know what I mean.
PAM: Stop spinning them! I love that image. (laughter)
SOPHIE: Stop the spinning. The thing is, if we enter relationships, say, we enter marriages, we have children, under the conditions of having been spun—and I think this happens so much—you’re not entering into those relationships really consensually; or at least you are not entering as your authentic self. So, what ARE you then? You know what I mean?
And a few years down the line I think people struggle. I think it’s hard to maintain being distanced from yourself. People want to be themselves. It’s a strong need. If you then discover that the self that you are just isn’t really compatible with the decisions that you’ve made, then you hit problems. You think, ‘Well, I don’t really fit here. This isn’t really the thing that works for me, the real me.’
So, personally, I feel like just imagining our children’s adult experiences, experiences when they are older, when they are making much higher risk choices like to get married, or to buy a property or they are taking this job or that job or where they are going to live. Help them out by not disorientating them. Just allow them to be themselves the whole way then hopefully, when they reach the point of making those decisions, they are going to be so much closer to what they actually want to do, deep down.
PAM: Yeah, that’s amazing. It’s such a great way to think about it. Trying to not disorientate them. That’s the nice thing that we’re doing, supporting them as they’re figuring out themselves too. Not only are we not disorienting them, we’re supporting them and helping them as they explore the world to figure out how they, authentically—although that’s an overused word now, it seems—but how they authentically engage with the world personally and where they are interested in contributing or being involved in. Right?
SOPHIE: Yeah. I think so.
I did have a last question here about the issue of childism and adultism because I know it’s very close to your heart having this conversation. I think it’s really all part of what we have been talking about. I was wondering if there was any other piece of that puzzle that you would like to share, maybe talk about the concept itself as it’s defined?
SOPHIE: There isn’t a universal term to describe this dynamic, so people use different terms. Childism is used by some, other people use adultism, but essentially a definition I’ve found is: The prejudice and discrimination and stereotyping that children experience on the basis of being identified as children.
It’s the equivalent for children that you would use racism to describe discrimination and prejudice and stereotyping based on race, or sexism based on gender identity. It’s just highlighting that it’s an area of inequality, and that is useful, I think.
It’s not widely accepted, at all. We are at a point where I think there’s a growing awareness of the fact that this prejudice and discrimination exists because, the thing is, historically it’s been normalised as being necessary. Like children are lesser people. Like it’s just natural to consider them as being less. That’s the narrative and the story that we’ve been given. Over lots and lots of years that we’ve talked about in this conversation earlier on.
You can think also historically the same is true for these other groups. Historically, science has told us that black people are less, physically and intellectually, and there has been scientific evidence offered to prove that. I don’t think anyone—or maybe some people but hopefully not—would still maintain that to be the case, but that has underpinned and perpetuated racism. The same thing is exactly true for women: this idea that women are lesser than men. There’s been plenty of “evidence,” in inverted commas, offered to prove that to be true.
We are in the same place with children. People will say that it is just natural for children to be diminished or that the prejudice is justified, but I don’t agree with that at all. For me, really, when it comes down to it, because of the way that people are treated as children, like our construct of childhood, and because of this power-over dynamic, that experience of living within the power-over dynamic and that being normalised, we kind-of internalise that ourselves.
So, you start to believe that it’s normal for some people to assert their power over others and that it can even be in other people’s best interest, for some people to overpower them. If you establish that in your brain, and in your unconscious bias the belief that some people are entitled to power over other people, then it affects your feeling of outrage when you see that happening to other groups, like groups other than yourself. Which I think is why people tend to become activated within their own groups in justice but don’t necessarily understand the importance in challenging injustice experiences of other groups, because you think maybe there is a reason for it, unconsciously.
So if we scrap this idea that it’s ok to wield power over another person and instead promote this idea that consent is meaningful and people should have a say in how they are treated and aren’t at the mercy of another group for a particular distinguishing factor, and if we as families live in a way that challenges childism because if that is one of the key roots, that underpins all of these other discriminations in our society, then basically you reduce the chance of that power-over dynamic being internalised and justified. So, the upshot is a society that doesn’t accept prejudice and doesn’t accept discrimination, which would be great.
That’s social justice. It’s quite an exciting formula: teach children some people have an entitlement over people and they will start thinking that’s ok as adults.
PAM: I was going to say, can you imagine? Just thinking about it, that power-over dynamic is the basis of so many issues. You can see it play out in our adult lives all over the place. We are helping our children learn a different way. It’s not like, ‘this is bad,’ but the whole consent and the ability to work consensually with the people around us and just figure things out, just on the small micro level, even within our families, how that will go out into the world.
I think I’ve mentioned before, with my kids as they became teenagers and were hanging out in a larger social circle, that ability that they had to just look at situations and help the people in their small social group find a consensual path forward for what they were looking to do. It was something that their friends appreciated and noticed because that was not something that their friends were able to do. It was, like, ‘Three people wanted to do X, two people wanted to do Y, so we did X.’ And the other people lost because they didn’t have enough people wanting to it. That was just totally accepted as the path forward. For my kids to maybe sometimes find a Z that everybody was happy to do, worked, or find and XY combination that they could do. This was something that their friends just found so different.
I remember I was in New York and we went to an event and my daughter’s friends were there, it was an art show, and everyone of them came up to me—we were just there, they had the music was on, we were just walking around, whatever, but throughout the night everyone of them came up to me and said how much they appreciated Lissy. It was totally unexpected to me but it was a point, like, just how she is in the world is very different than most, even of her peers, expect and they notice the difference.
That just had me thinking about it and when you were talking about it, that’s what jumped to mind. Our children growing up and learning a different social dynamic, and relationship dynamic, a different way of being with other people, makes such a big difference when they reach out further into the world, if that makes sense.
SOPHIE: Completely, because if we look at the neuroscience around this, which is fledgling, but it’s maybe useful to think about the fact, like, we are talking about how people wire their brains. How what we experience affects how our brains are wired. It’s not just what we think, it’s how our bodies work. How our bodies are working within this new paradigm. Like you are saying, with your daughter, she is coming into those spaces, as a new type of person. That sounds so dramatic but it is kind-of true, you know?
Actually, this always makes me think of environmental issues. My feeling is that the environmental movement hasn’t worked so far. I think what has happened is that this idea that, ‘Everything is going wrong and the planet, we have to save it.’ It has just caused more fear and when there is more fear, people become more authoritarian and they seek authoritarian leadership, right? So, it’s massively backfired, getting people scared about global warming and stuff.
However, if you take this group and instead, you base everything on the ideas of consent, and about human rights and children’s rights, and so on, you realise straightaway that violating and using the environment without consent is a no-no. Obviously the earth can’t speak, it can’t verbalise yes or no, but you can imagine if you have the skill of empathy, if you have experienced empathy and you are able to use your own empathy, then you can think, ‘Now would the ocean consent to be massively polluted?….Ahhh, probably not.’
And you can extend that, ‘Would the forest really want to be deforested?’ If it could say itself, no, it wouldn’t.
So, we have to find what you’re saying, ‘What’s the XY solution? What’s the other solution? What’s the consensual solution that doesn’t diminish the dignity of anyone involved? How do we find something that everyone can accept?’
The potential impact of that shift—we are talking about human evolution here, it is a shift. We are moving out of one paradigm, the power-over one, it was useful in the bronze age, it’s not useful to us anymore. It’s detrimental to us now. Everything has changed. It is not working for us any more. We have to release it. This process, maybe unbeknownst to loads of unschoolers, I don’t know, but this process is part of human evolution. It is what helps us get to that place where things are ok.
PAM: Well, now that I have goose bumps … (laughter) We could talk about this forever!
I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Sophie. It was such a lovely conversation. Thank you.
SOPHIE: Oh, I loved it too, Pam. Thank you so much for reaching out. It was great to connect with you again.
PAM: Oh, it was super lovely. Thank you.
Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online and if they want to follow your Unschooling Master of Arts blog?
SOPHIE: I’m on Twitter at schristophy, it’s a bit of an unusually spelt surname. Then my blogs are: sophiechristophy.wordpress.com and my Unschooled Masters can be found at unschooledmasters.wordpress.com I’m on Facebook too just at Sophie Christophy.
PAM: Awesome, I will put links to all that in the show notes. I would love to wish you a great day.
SOPHIE: Thank you, all the best.