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: Thanks again so much for joining me for another month, and would you like to get us started with the first question, Anne?
Kelly’s Question [TIME: 5:22]
We have been unschooling for just over 2 years; with one year of project-based homeschooling before that. My kids were 7 and 10 when they left school. There were no big issues, we wanted to give them the opportunity to learn with freedom and choice.
Unschooling has been great for our family and a huge source of personal growth for me as I deschool and lift the layers of my beliefs and assumptions. It has been so much more inner work than I ever fathomed it to be, but so, so worth it.
But friends, please do help me peel back the last layers that I am harboring around FOOD and activity.
We definitely controlled our kids’ food pre-unschooling, and ate organic, raised a lot of our own food, rationed treats and sweets, etc. As we lifted the controls on food, my son—my younger child—really dove into all the things we never allowed him before. Soda, candy, commercial brands of processed snacks, etc. It’s been 2 years and it really hasn’t let up.
I have been breathing, and ‘yes-ing’ and buying. I know I still hold tension inside (sometimes less so than others) but I bite my tongue and ask open questions like, do you feel like salty or sweet food? hot or cold? and other questions to help him tune into himself when he asks for food.
Sometimes I try and give a little more nutritional information, but he is very sensitive to anything that sounds like it might be a lecture and I do not want to make him feel bad, or lectured to, so I have kept this to a minimum as he doesn’t ask for the information and tells me he’s done listening after I offer some unsolicited info.
He loves to come to the grocery store with me and pick out his snacks—cupcakes, chocolate bars, juices, popsicles, other candy etc. He also picks out fruit he likes, meat, seafood! and other things.
Here’s the thing—he has gained a lot of weight in the last 2 years. He stays up very late, into the wee hours, gaming. I wake up to cartons of ice cream and multiple popsicle wrappers or candy bar wrappers on the coffee table. While I do think some could be attributed to pre-teen weight gain, I cannot ignore the hours of sitting and abundance of sweet food and desserts as contributors as well. I do not care about him getting a little chubby except the weight has made it more difficult for him to be physically active. He gets tired easily. He avoids doing certain activities, because it’s hard for him. He loves mountain biking—next to gaming, it’s his passion, with his dad. This summer he has chosen to go to a week-long camp at his favorite mountain. He’s excited and we are excited for him.
He is not in shape for it.
He does a couple of activities during the week at the Y, and a martial arts class. These 3-4 hours of activity do not balance out the hours of sitting and gaming the rest of the week, especially when he sleeps until 1-2pm. He gets winded going up the stairs, or doing a rousing play-sword fighting match with me.
As the younger brother with just one older sister who does not want to play with him, he doesn’t have a regular active playmate. We get together with friends, but it’s only a couple times a month. I do as much as he wants with him, but when he gets up at 2pm, he wants to get right to his games and it feels like our time together is short by the time I am ready for bed, around 10 or 11.
I want him to have a great time at camp. We have had casual conversations about getting ‘ready’ for camp. We live in snow country, so it is not nice out yet, but hopefully within a month or so, spring will be here. I am hoping with the better weather, we’ll get out more naturally—on our trampoline, building bike jumps in the yard…
I’d love your advice on how I can best support my son to 1- maybe consider how eating affects our bodies and our ability to engage in physical activities we enjoy and 2- that conditioning will help him to take on big taxing activities like biking for 5 days straight!
How can I do this without lecturing or scaring him off?
Thanks so much—I never miss the podcast! I listen every week.
ANNE: I appreciate you reaching out to help your son. One of the things I love so much about doing this podcast with Pam and Anna is people ask questions, but, from the other information they offer, we tend to be able to see beyond what they think their question is.
And that is the reason, I believe, that people get stuck in that area and feel like they can’t find their way out. They’re just looking at this one spot on their path. Well, Pam, Anna, and I are listening and can see what’s going on a little over here, or a little over there. What we try to do with our answers is hold off answering at that spot to see what’s going on in the bigger picture. What happens is, by illuminating these other things, the very thing that was the primary challenge may diminish greatly or no longer exists at all.
Anyway, I believe that what might be happening here, Kelly. What I’d like to do is illuminate other areas that you may not be seeing if you’re focused on your son’s weight. See if you can be stretching a bit more in these areas.
First, I’d like to shine my lantern right over here on your amazing son and how he shines. From what you’ve shared with us I can see so many ways in which he shines but I’m sure there are so many more. I want to make sure you are seeing his shine. Are you nurturing and encouraging ALL the ways he shines?
His love of sweets is one of the things he loves, and yet it’s just a small part of who he is. There’s so much more to him that needs love and attention and acceptance and celebration and even the love of sweets is included in that. It’s really important that he knows that you radically accept and celebrate who he is, as he is right now. And celebrating our children for exactly who they are right now is how they shine, and that includes celebrating the things they love.
Secondly, I would like to shine my lantern on another part you mentioned because this is also how he shines: his sensitivity. The world needs more souls like his. I like the way you said that he is sensitive to your lectures or anything. That part of him deserves to be honored and celebrated well. If you haven’t read the book The Highly Sensitive Child you might want to do so because that shows us how we can celebrate our sensitive children.
And the thing about him being sensitive is this: you can be sure he is picking up on everything you are feeling, not just when you’re standing in front of him giving him nutritional information but everything you’re feeling. A sensitive child feels the weight of the parent’s disapproval hugely. Not only do they feel it but they take it upon themselves and they own it themselves.
It’s possible that your son is already feeling bad about himself and he’s also taking on your feelings, too. So, while you’re saying yes to him and buying him sweets, he could very well feel you’re biting your tongue and gritting your teeth while saying yes. It’s coming across as judgement and disapproval. It sounds like you’re holding expectations for him because you want him to make choices that you approve of.
That’s another thing that a child is sensitive to and that is expectations. As the parent of a sensitive child, I feel like there is more inner work that we need to do to get in a genuine space of feeling good and feeling joy when you’re interacting with him or even just around your child because they are so negative to any sensitive feelings and we don’t want to hand them any more weight.
So how do you do that? You focus on his shine, of course. You go back to that first thing, how does your boy shine? And how does his being-ness light up your world? These things are your focus. There’s no better way to celebrate your child for being exactly who he is than to jump into that which he loves right with him. Nurturing, encouraging, validating the joy he’s receiving from these things he loves. And that’s even the sweets.
From the beginning, it could have been a validation that he hasn’t had them before and now he’s enjoying them. That’s where you’re gritting your teeth and saying the yes thing comes into play instead of radically validating something he’s enjoying.
My highly sensitive son is now 27 and he would own the weight of the world, especially when he was the age that your son is. And yes, he would own any negative weight that I handed to him myself. I actually remember the exact time I realized that I needed to get my energy in a place of genuine joy and happiness when I was around him.
My younger son has always been more of a happy, go with the flow kind of kid. So, when Sam would come to me I’d be excited to hear what he wanted to share with me, I realized I lit up when he came into the room. I realized that when Jacob would come to me, I would often be thinking, ‘Oh no, what’s the matter now?’ I was shocked when I realized that, but I was so glad because I knew I could do something about it from that moment on.
Right then I decided that every time my children came to me I would be or get in a place where my eyes would light up with gladness simply for seeing them. And I still hold onto that all these years later. In fact, Jacob worked for me at the library for a couple of years until recently. When he would walk in the door, when I was going home and he was coming to work, sometimes I would be so into my work that I would barely lift my head to greet him. One day, I remembered that I wanted to make sure that he knew I was happy to see him. So, from then on I made sure that when it was time for him to come to work at the library I would watch the clock and mindfully get in a place to get ready for him, to greet him and to appreciate him and his amazing shine when he brought that in the door.And what’s so beautiful is that our relationship and our interactions that followed after those initial moments with me lighting up when I saw him flowed all the more sweetly from my having done mindful preparation of shifting to see, honor and celebrate my son.
So, have you noticed I have been referring to the heaviness of the feelings that you’re holding onto about your son as weight and I talk about this in the Childhood Redefined Summit. I think this is a great tool for you, a good concept for you to visualize in order to move forward. If every time you had a feeling of disapproval or judgement, or anytime you wanted to convince your son to make a different choice, one that you approve of so that you could feel good, or even any time you notice his weight before you see his shine, you could actually visualize what you are doing is handing him more weight in the form of heaviness of your own feelings. And that most certainly can be a catalyst for you to do some shifting and inner work and get to a place of focusing on your son’s shine, as I showed you I did with my Jacob.
On the flip side of that—and you should be going as often as possible for those times when you successfully shift your mindset and your energy and be with your child in a place of pure celebration of who he is—envision that weight being removed from YOUR being-ness and floating right out the window. That is so awesome. Be glad that you chose to hand your son joy and love and you protected your son’s inner peace. You gave him a safe place to feel good about himself and to grow from that place. Then move forward with him in that energy.
Another tool is a book I’ve been talking about for years is a book we’ve mentioned a lot on this podcast: Kids, Carrots, and Candy: A practical, positive approach to raising children free of food and weight problems. That’s a good book for you to read, too.
Alright, I just want to move my lantern over here just a little bit because I want to talk about releasing parental control just so you can check in with your energy on this one as well. Radical unschooling to me and my family has honestly never been about releasing parental controls because I came into motherhood so fascinated by my children and the way their minds worked. I kind of came into motherhood as an empty vessel wanting to learn from my children and have them show me the way they see the world. And while yes, some automatic reactions come up from my childhood, around food and other things, I still always looked to my children and had so much faith and trust in them that I knew that with every choice they made they had a good point about why they were making that choice. I saw the world through their eyes and I saw their choices. I let them know they were expanding my world, changing my old thought patterns with their choices by following what felt good and right to them.
So, for us, there were never parental controls to release. There was always respect and conversations and wonder and questions and research and more conversations. Above all else, my lantern was always right there on my shining children. That was my focus. And for each step of our lives together it was my goal to make sure they felt good about themselves so I created a safe environment where they know for sure that they and their choices were validated, respected, honored, and celebrated. We kind of always trusted each other. To us, this is radical unschooling.
So, the thing about thinking unschooling is about releasing parental controls, is this: I feel there is no release at all unless the parent believes they have the power to release control. Because with that power there is a clear hierarchy that says, ‘I’m the parent and I say yes or no.’ In our family everything was a discussion, everything came from us as equals and talking all the time.
When there is a parent-child hierarchy you don’t have that. The thing that keeps that line between parent and child even more is when that alleged release of parental control comes with strings attached. When the parent says ‘Yeah, you can do whatever you want now,’ yet stands by with disapproval and expectations and coerciveness to get the child to do what the parent will approve of. Those things—disapproval, expectations, and coerciveness—should really not be a part of radical unschooling life and only for the reason that with those things a child cannot be truly free to explore the world or learn about themselves, what makes them feel good and what does not. They’re not truly free to wonder, learn and grow because with any judgement, disapproval or expectation a child’s safe place does not exist. The child’s choices are then in response to that judgement, disapproval and expectations, instead of his choices coming from that sacred perfect place of who he is.
You might have noticed all these things that I moved the lantern over to illuminate have this common thread of focus on the child’s shine and glorious being-ness. You might also have noticed that all those other things we looked at had a swirling common thread that they were nowhere near your original questions.
That’s because what you were focusing on, what you were asking about, was not really about how to accept, honor and celebrate your child for being exactly who he is. I really feel that’s all we need to illuminate right there. I was holding my lantern on places that would help you see past what is merely the child and instead allow you to see the depth of his light and his shine of his perfect being-ness.
Your questions will naturally fade away as you focus on that light which is your child’s shine. In fact, here are some other questions you can ask of yourself everyday: How can I connect with my son, today, in a place of sheer joy accepting, honoring, and celebrating all that he is and all that he loves? How can I best serve him and be his friend, his mother who loves him unconditionally for being exactly who he is? How can I create a sacred safe space for him to discover his own path and to become who he is meant to be? And what can I bring to his life today that will allow him to shine even brighter? Those are some good questions and I believe that’s where you need to be holding your lantern.
PAM: That was awesome. I really love your lantern idea. And I love that you are enjoying the podcast, Kelly. I loved your question and I really enjoyed digging into it and listening to what Anne has been saying.
I wanted to dig a bit into how you phrased your question: “How can I best support my son to: 1-consider how eating affects our ability to engage in physical activities we enjoy and 2- that conditioning will help him to take on big taxing activities like biking for 5 days straight!”
The challenge is that the question is at odds with itself: you’re asking how to support your son, which is a bottom up thing—support is about helping someone do what they want to do. But what you want him to do is listen to you when you tell him that his eating is affecting his physical fitness and he should get in shape for his bike trip.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too, as it were—you can do one or the other: try to make him listen to you and do what you say; or help him do what he wants to do.
Of course, it’s understandable to want to phrase it that way! We want them to listen to us, and we want them to do it on our timetable, but we also don’t want to judge/shame/coerce/demand. Something’s got to give.
When I found myself in that spot—when I noticed that I had put myself in that spot—in the end I’d decide that I wasn’t willing to insist they listen to me because that would be cause too much damage to our connection, trust, and relationship, and that whole piece that Anne mentioned us putting our layer on top of them so that for them to even have a chance at understanding themselves and making free choices, they would have to work through all that layer of expectation and judgement that I was putting on them.
So, first I’d do the work to release my need to be “right” and for them to listen to me right now. And what I’ve learned from having done this so many times is that it so often turns out that my way wasn’t the only way, and my timetable was just that, mine—the world didn’t end if these things took longer.
Maybe this bike trip will be the thing that sparks some revelations around this for him; or maybe he’ll go, be winded and challenged and tired, and not be embarrassed or worried about it. Maybe he won’t change a thing and he’ll go on the bike trip and have fun, maybe it won’t be an issue at all—don’t assume you know how his experience will go.
So, dropping that piece, what CAN you do? Well, you think his enjoyment of the bike trip might be dependent on his conditioning, and you’ve tried casual conversation, so now you can actively support the physical activities that he enjoys—that’s the support piece, the helping him do what he wants to do.
Don’t just do the physical stuff as much as he wants, waiting for him to ask, take the lead more on offering up the physical activities he likes—bring out the play-swords earlier in the day and ask him to play with you; invite him out on the trampoline with you and then go; pull out a bike or the bike ramps. You said those are the things he likes that are physical. He doesn’t have a lot of people to play with is age.
If you know there’s fruit and meat/protein things he likes, make sure they’re available and accessible for him at night so he has lots of choices.
And there’s no need to bring up again the things you’ve already told him about food and activity and conditioning—just do things to support him (upping the food options and physical opportunities that he likes) and be around for general conversations to flow where he can mention related things in conversation. When he’s interested in talking about those topics is when he’s ready to listen to any experience you have to share (as long as it doesn’t feel manipulative to him).
So, there are things you can do to support him in these areas, but they can’t be done with the expectation that he will specifically learn what you want him to learn, nor that he will do it on your timetable, in this case, before the bike trip because if you approach it that way, he will, as Anne explained, feel that energy as manipulation and resist it and feel it as judgement. That just puts that whole layer of weight on top of it all and that makes it so hard to move forward.
That’s when they get stuck in places. When we’re bringing that expectation energy, so often kids get stuck in places longer than they naturally would have because that’s extra weight for them to work through to move through the situation.
Anything to add, Anna?
ANNA: I feel like you both covered so much and I just want to sit there, so I’m going to say maybe two things.
Basically, reiterating what Pam says is what I’ve learned along the way is that I truly do not know what’s best for someone else. I have my ideas and best guess but, in the end, I really don’t know. Like you said, he may struggle at camp, he may not. My litmus test is my priority is always the relationship: are my actions helping or hurting the relationship, because he can sense your energy around this even when things go unspoken.
I want to just leave it there because I felt Anne covered so much on how to really look at him and see his shine and engage with him. Pam gave a few specifics as well so I want to just leave it there. It was so beautiful what was covered.
ANNE: Can I just add one thing! (laughs)
I just want to leave it with the words “radical acceptance.” It is so important to look past your preconceived definition of how he should be. Radical acceptance and celebration of who he is right now is really, really crucial.
ANNA: Thank you. Ok, I’m going to move on to question two, which is from Clare who is in the UK.
Clare’s Question (from Cambridgeshire, UK) [TIME: 31:05]
My question is a bit of a selfish one to be truthful! But here goes…… I am exhausted at the end of the day as two of my children (both boys) are very dependent on me to entertain them, one is 10yrs old and the other is 4yrs old. I have a 9-yr-old too but he happily amuses himself on his various devices. I feel I let them go on their gaming consoles all day so I can have some peace. I am just so tired if I don’t play with them they are constantly saying they are bored. How do I manage it all? Playing with them, cleaning and general housework I am just so tired. I am not sure what my question is really I’m just struggling to entertain my boys so they are not bored all the time. Crafts they are not interested in at all or reading it is constant action parks (I don’t sit down on the bench at the park but play with them) football, shooting games or imaginative play. They can’t seem to play without me! Its lovely but I’m so tired and find I am 100 miles an hour most days!
ANNA: I think I would reframe the bored concept because, to the parent, it can feel like something to be solved or it’s a criticism of the life they have or of you as a parent. I don’t think we have to look at it that way. I feel it’s an expression of where they are at that moment and from boredom can come a spark to try something new. That’s not to say to ignore them but to watch out for the trigger by it.
I loved reading about your engagement with them, it’s so beautiful. I think you will find your role as a playmate will ebb and flow through the years. It’s also important to care for yourself in those higher need times. For me, it was just to enjoy the ride of those times because it honestly goes so fast.
Practically, there were times when we made lists of things we liked to do or things we wanted to try when we were in this lull or in-between moment. No one knew what they wanted to do or where they wanted to go, so we’d check the list. We didn’t always do something from the list, but it got us thinking or a conversation started and usually it would send us off in a new direction.
I was always honest with my girls when I didn’t have it in me anymore. At that point, we would look for ways we could connect that would work for all of us. Sometimes we would just take space and then regroup. I feel like that type of honest communication and working together is a big part of relationship in living with other people. For them, hearing me communicate my needs helps them do the same, that’s part of being in a family.
Some important things to consider are like are you … I get a sense of martyrdom, but it’s like, I think if you talk about and mention this too this partnership, this talking, this communication, this back and forth that really is the best way to get everyone’s needs met.
I’ll leave it there, Anne?
ANNE: Well, I use the same language in my notes that you just used. I’m going to speak as if you just did not say everything I’m going to say!
But I start out saying our days are ebb and flow. With ebb and flow you follow your own rhythm, doing your own things. There comes a time when we would come together after doing our own things for a while. My boys would be off playing together or Jacob would be drawing and Sam would be of playing with swords while I did my thing. Then I would make the decision to go to them and be with them after a while and be genuinely interested in what they were doing. I’d ask if they wanted to do something with me, have a snack, or I could bring them lunch. I’d listen to their stories and games. We’d talk about exciting plans we have coming up or something interesting I discovered.
The whole day is full of possibilities when you allow everyone to feel their flow and I think that’s what Anna is saying about labeling them as being bored. It just might need a little stimulation for them to get in touch with their flow. Or they might be going through a growing phase where they’re growing out of what they used to do and now they’re done with it. Then that’s just time to take a new direction.
Sometimes the easiest way to take a new direction is to get in the car and take a road that you’ve never taken before. Possibilities come up in so many ways when you listen within and let things flow. Maybe not try to be there so much to try and fix things when there’s nothing, really, to be fixed. There’s so much more in between the spectrum of you leaving them alone to their gaming all day and you feel the need to entertain them all day.
Something else I want to share with you is it’s not selfish for you to take care of yourself. I hear that you’re tired, and the tired thing doesn’t really go away! My kids are 27 and 23 and I’m still really tired! But that’s from all the jobs I have from learning who I am and living with them. There’s a beautiful flow to it through all these years. We don’t need to make a choice of being with our kids or taking care of ourselves. We can honor their needs and desires while honoring ours. Just little ways you can find things that are fulfilling to you instead of exhausting.
I find that when I’m doing something that comes from totally within me, it rejuvenates me, it’s part of my enthusiasm. It makes me feel up and awake, light and free. If you can add pieces of that into your play time with your kids, that would be great.
Also, let them know when you are tired. They need to see living an authentic life with each other. Tell them you’re really tired so you’re going to sit and read this book or knit. Maybe they just want to be by you or something like that. You don’t have to break of the connection entirely but do what you can to encourage everybody to listen within themselves and going with their own flow, their own ebb and flow.
Maybe you can start having conversations about what you’re upcoming days can look like. Everybody can talk about what they want to do. You can explore possibilities and lay them all out. You can share what you would like to do, it’s not just about your boys. If they feel excitement in you, they might want to do it, too. Insert some really cool things in the conversation that they would look forward to. The conversation could be a blueprint for ebbing and flowing. See where it takes you. It’s never written in stone. It’s always just seeing where it takes you when you follow what’s inside of you and where it all flows. It’s all ideas and inspiration that come to you and you just follow where it takes you.
Pam, anything to add?
PAM: Hi, Clare! I read about how actively you’re playing games with your sons and, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s definitely something to take the time to look at.
I thought I would touch on a couple of things you mentioned that you might want to think about. You said, you let them go on their gaming consoles all day so you can have some peace. So, some questions you might ask yourself are: Are they happy with that time on their consoles? Can you shift your thinking around that choice from “I let them” to “they want to?”
If they are saying they’re bored while playing, is it because they are hitting challenges they can’t overcome? Could you support their game playing by helping them find walk-throughs or tips for getting unstuck in their game? This is less physical work, maybe it’d be a nice change of pace for you?
As for the physical play, try to brainstorm ways to help them get as much as they want while you not always being directly involved, like Anne and Anna were saying, bringing up your needs and wants as well. Might they want to play more formally? Maybe a kids’ football league? Sometimes I’d browse through the local recreation calendar and see what was up—they might find some new activities they’d like to try out. You might also ask around to see if there’s a teen you might be able to hire to come around and play physical games with them, maybe once a week for a few hours.
You might also want to dive a bit deeper into the idea of boredom. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s part of learning more about ourselves, when we don’t have something immediately on our plate, we need to think about what might interest us.
Maybe they’re looking for connection rather than a particular activity. I don’t think the opposite of boredom is busy-ness. Boredom isn’t a problem to solve so much as it’s a feeling we’re experiencing. So instead, maybe try just being with them, validating their feelings and connecting, rather than trying to fix it. As Anne was saying, it’s not something that you need to jump in and fix for them immediately.
Karen James wrote a neat bit about boredom and how she approaches it with her son, I’ll link to that in the show notes.
Jen’s Question (from Florida, US) [TIME: 42:33]
Hi Pam, Anne & Anna,
I’ve been listening to your podcast for about 6 months now. When my son was an infant, I took him to a parent & baby class—the parent education was very helpful & started me down the path of being respectful and responsive. But the child centered portion was so ridiculous—trying to “teach” infants—even to the point of stopping them from open ended exploration of the materials.
From there I realized he was in for many years of that… unless we unschool him of course! I have had (and still have) a lot of deschooling to do, but already there is so much more joy in our interactions & so much deeper communication between us. I couldn’t have imagined that a 20-month-old could communicate so many of his needs & wishes, and even understand and voluntarily respect my personal boundaries. Already it’s fascinating to see his interests develop and weave together and to grow myself as I stretch to find the excitement in things that totally don’t excite me but that he loves. (Like motorcycles—after spending months sort of unintentionally being dismissive toward this interest and sort of giving it as little attention as possible hoping it would go away, the first time I jumped in and actively pointed out a motorcycle he hadn’t noticed he gave me a smile like the brightest sun.)
I’m mostly writing because I know you get lots of questions about “screen time” and so I thought this might be of interest. I grew up with very tightly controlled screen access and thought during pregnancy that we would literally do NO screens until 2 years as recommended by the AAP. Well we ended up introducing videos in the car because it was the only thing that would keep him happy when someone couldn’t sit next to him in the back. And then we used the phone to show him photos of himself & long distance relatives. And then we used YouTube to show him videos related to other interests (real life trains, animal sounds etc) and pretty soon, he was actively asking to watch videos. For months I would try everything to distract him from watching a video and end up giving in when he would cry because I wasn’t letting him. I didn’t like that battle for control, so after many episodes of this podcast, I took a deep breath and decided to give it a few months of letting him watch as much as he wanted and trying to suspend my fears. I started offering more options to watch, things he wouldn’t know exist to ask for, and he started selecting videos based on what thumbnail looked interesting to him.
When my fears crept back in I would return to sportscasting, and guessing aloud what it might be that he liked about a certain video. Through this process his vocabulary has grown so he can now ask me to search for videos on an ever broader range of interests. Now I can see how excited he gets when he finds a video he likes and he points and calls out the exciting things he sees. And then when we are out or in other play, I see his excitement and pride in himself when he can name or recognize something he learned from watching a video. There is so much joy in our interactions and in all the relationships in our family. This is my very long winded way of saying thank you thank you thank you for all your work and for helping me see my little boy blossoming!
And lastly, a request. I would love if you could have an episode sometime talking about applying unschooling to very young kids. Since he isn’t able to have a full conversation yet or verbalize complex ideas & feelings, finding ways to meet both our needs or to creatively let him explore without letting him be unsafe (like running out into the street for example) as well as support him when he has strong feelings that he doesn’t know how to express feels pretty one sided. As in, it’s mostly me talking & he can’t really help find the solutions, though he does sometimes give a yes or no about whether something I suggest works for him. I try to approach everything with patience, creativity, and to start with naming what I see before trying to solve anything, but I would really love some more ideas & perspectives from more experienced unschoolers about what it looks like to apply these principles with very young children.
PAM: Thanks so much for taking sharing a snapshot of your journey so far, Jen, it was really fun and interesting to read and share!
In my experience, when I eventually heard the term “attachment parenting” I realized it was the closest parenting style description I’d come across that aligned with my style, though I didn’t discover homeschooling or unschooling until my eldest was nine. I wrote a blog post a few years about how attachment parenting flows into unschooling you may find interesting, I’ll put that in the show notes.
I think it’s a personal thing—sometimes it helps to think about our time with our young children as parenting, as mothering without any additional pressure; for others, it helps to start seeing things through the lens of unschooling if that’s the education lifestyle you’re planning on when your child reaches school-age, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by mainstream messages to get them “learning academics” early. That control piece comes earlier and earlier. Yes, when they are young we are actively their extra set of hands to help them do things and to keep them safe, while nurturing our connection with them and watching them for clues about their needs and intentions—their more direct communication skills will grow over time.
If you’d like to connect with others in similar circumstances, unschoolingmom2mom has an early childhood Facebook group, I’ll put the link in the show notes.
I do think if you just focus on meeting his needs, in the ways that work for him, that connection and secure attachment development is the most important thing—as he gets older it’s from that strong foundation that he’ll become more interested in exploring the world. And that connection will help him feel safe to express his feelings and desires as he becomes more able. It sounds like you’ve got a great focus and a great relationship developing with him.
ANNA: I’m just laughing because as you’ll see as I think through this question you’ll see how we really are in separate states and countries even as we create these answers but they are so similar! I just love that!
To me, the principles are really the same. I’m coming back to, “Who do I want to be in this interaction?” and I want to choose someone who is kind and connected. With little ones, distractions can be a tool. I laughed about this because my friend Pat and I call it the “toddler rule” and we use it for people of all ages. Basically, it’s having something to move towards instead of saying we don’t like this or you can’t do this.
I think that’s helpful, the idea of moving towards something, when you get in a conflict. But, as you’ve noticed, very young people are very capable of communicating their needs. They are so very excited when we hear them and understand what they’re communicating. So, I think staying in the moment, staying connected and communicating in all of its forms is really what’s happening at that age.
You know, with the road as an example, just moving our kids from the road, we would just talk about what’s going on, what we’re hearing and what we were watching and what was going on. Talking about where we could stand where we could walk and what I was observing. And that gave them more information than just the “Stop!” that you would hear people do. It would help them to read the situations for themselves.
I feel like it made them safer because I wouldn’t always be there to help them read the situation. When they were little they would be calling out things like “Car! Side of the road!” It’s because we would talk about listening for the cars and when the cars are coming we’d go to the side. Very early on they started that.
That’s what I love about those relationships when they’re young: giving information versus just this top down, I’m deciding for you. And there were certainly times when I had to say stop, but it was followed by connecting and making observations and sharing observations. It was so rare for such a strong directive to be coming from me that they would stop in their tracks and try to figure out what was going on. That was part of the trust that we develop.
I just think that HALT is very important this age. That’s hungry, angry, lonely, tired. We found that when things were tough it was usually hungry or tired for us.
It’s just a good quick reminder to see if we’re having any of those issues. What about a snack? Have we gotten enough sleep or is it time for a nap? It’s a powerful tool. Bags filled with fun toys made appointments easier. Those were things we used when they were younger to help connect and move through those moments.
Really, what I love about your question, is that you’re doing it. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The connections that you’re making now will just keep growing. The tools that you are developing together will be there. And as you grow older you’ll be connected unschooling will naturally blossom from that foundation. I think it’s really cool and I loved reading your story. Thank you so much for sending it in.
ANNE: Hi Jen! I just had the biggest smile on my face while reading your words and imagining the two of you. I’m going to come to Florida now and hang out with the two of you! I love your energy and thank you for the gift of your so-called question but also your story that you shared with us.
You’re doing pretty well following your instinct and his joy. I world suggest you go listen to the story from my new friend Jen in Florida who talked about her son and his videos. Look what you learned? Just following the child’s joy opens paths to possibilities that we could very well shut down with our preconceived definitions and judgements. When you leave it open, look what a child can do? That’s just the thing, let the child take you into wonderful places.
The thing about crossing the road, everybody uses that for a big fear. My kids never want to be hurt so they don’t do things that are dangerous for then. Secondly, when they were little we had a fun secret handshake that we would do when they were crossing the street. It was a fun game where they would grab my hand. It was our special thing that we did whenever we crossed the street so they would seek that out. Again, it got to the point when my boys were older and we were in New York City and they were grabbing me by the back of my shirt because I was walking out into traffic!
Life is like that. It’s one of those things. It’s wonderful. I think you’re awesome and I thank you for sharing your stories and your family with us.
OK, we are onto question four.
Stacey’s Question (from Idaho, US) [TIME: 54:23]
Dear unschooling mamas,
I love this podcast, Pam. My favorite part is the Q&A with you, Anna and Anne. You all inspire me to be the kind of mama that I know I can be.
You are all so positive and filled with joy.
Sometimes I am not. Somedays I am grumpy, tuned out and long to live on a desert island far away from my family.
Will you please talk about the hard days. The days you don’t want to be creative and joyful? The days you want no one to ask you for anything. I know you have grown children and the demands for your time and attention have now shifted, but please tell me about your days when you felt like this.
Thank you so much for the good work you are doing.
I honestly feel like you are 3 of my newest best friends.
ANNE: Hi Stacey! First of all, you’re adorable, thank you so much!
It’s kind of funny how many people think Pam, Anna, and I do not have challenging times in our lives! We are human and life happens and have all gone through or are currently going through very challenging times. I certainly don’t want to speak for my friends, but we do have this conversion amongst ourselves often.
Most recently was just a couple of days ago, in fact, so I believe I can safely speak for all of us, that what you see in us is our deliberate choice to not allow the challenging times to define our lives. Not even for a day. We may have grumpy moments, difficult times and tragedies happen and emotions and everything else that everyone experiences and yet we know for sure that these things do not have the power to define us nor decide for us what kind of day we’re having.
And that’s exactly the reason why I never say I am having a bad day or I am grumpy today. Challenges, or feeling tired, not feeling creative—these are temporary things that do not, in my world, consume nor define an entire day. How I feel at any given moment is my choice. It all comes down to how I want to feel.
What does my life feel like when I’m grumpy? It feels like I’m stuck under a lot of weight. Coming from that place of misery everything else I see takes on this same hue of grumpiness—my dogs, my husband, my jobs, the things I need to do for the day—everything seems to turn into work that I don’t want to do. I complain and a black cloud follows me around, blocking out any light and none of that feels good to me.
So, on the spectrum of choices in front of me as to how I want to feel, grumpy is just not in there. Nor is holding onto any negative feelings for very long because it all feels the same ands it produces the same result. It blocks the light of who I am. I talk about this extensively in our Childhood Redefined Summit. It’s something people want to explore and learn about, to have tools to shift themselves.
So, a summary for you is this: my life has proven time and again that when I deliberately choose to feel good then I’m in receiving mode for all of the goodness, inspiration, and light that is coming to me right now. There are a zillion subcategories why I deliberately choose to feel good as well, and one of them is my relationship with my husband and my family.
I know where I want to be at the end of the day and that’s simply feeling good, not feeling bad. I don’t want to hand the weight to anyone else that my grumpiness carries as I was talking about in the first question. I don’t want to make them feel bad by handing them my stuff, the weight of my baggage. I want my family to know they are valuable in my life and I appreciate and celebrate them. I look around and I can’t stay in a grumpy place when I’m surrounded by such goodness.
On any given day, in fact this day, I’m going through some challenging things and yet why would I want to use that as a label for my day or my life? Why would I want to allow those challenges to make me feel bad when feeling good is a choice? I honestly can get there by choosing it.
I also trust that any challenges are here to allow me to expand, learn, and grow. I get to fine tune who I am and who I want to be. I am always more of my best self when I’ve learned how to walk through a difficulty without letting it define who I am. So again, summary: feeling bad feels bad, grumpy happens but it doesn’t take us anywhere good. Feeling good feels good and I do all I can to deliberately choose the latter. I remind myself that I am light and I do what I can to let my light shine.
PAM: Just a couple things I want to pick up there. The first piece being that choice, when you notice that you’re grumpy learn to make the choice to move through it, to recognize it. Through experience, I knew that when I got stuck there it just got worse. It would spiral down and down. Everything takes on that hue. Then I spread it around and make everybody more miserable.
The realization that I would make better choices myself and for my life and for everything that was going to happen in our day when I chose to find a way to move through it. That was huge for me. As it came up in an earlier question, it’s okay to want a quieter day. That’s about our relationship and communication with our family. Even when my kids were young they wanted to help me feel better if I was tired or cranky. I could say I was not up for that today, can we do this instead? It’s also helpful for them that you can recognize and make choices, that these things aren’t just happening to you. We are free to make choices in every moment.
The other thing is I pay attention to patterns. I’d also pay attention to any patterns, if this was happening more regularly. If so, then I’d do the work to dig into it to find the roots.
Instead of reading them to you, I’m going to share in the show notes a couple of blog posts I wrote that may be relevant. One is called Finding Joy, which is about some of the bigger mind shifts on my unschooling journey that helped me find joy more often. The other is A Positive Outlook Isn’t Turning a Blind Eye, about how living joyfully doesn’t mean life is without challenges. It’s not about ignoring those challenges or stuffing them down saying I shouldn’t feel them. Or this shouldn’t be happening. It’s about ways to walk through them.
There’s another one, Mindfulness and Unschooling, that might be helpful. I’ll link to that one too.
It’s not a day—a bad day or a hard day—they’re just moments. When you think of it as a day you’re just looking for more bad stuff! It really does affect our whole outlook, our perspective.
Seeing the good stuff, walking towards the good stuff, making choices knowing I still have choices was really helpful.
ANNA: As Anne mentioned, we get that a lot.
For me, the tool that I used did depend on the environment and the ages. I can definitely take more time for myself now, but that wasn’t really an option when the kids were young. I would look for the little things: touching the earth, being around trees just being outside could ground me and re-center me.
Gratitude is a biggie. When chaos was swirling around me in any form I can look around for anything that sparks a smile or joy. That could be my comfortable bed at the end of the day. When the sun hits my room in a certain way. A bird pauses outside my window. And things about my children: their laugh, their smile. Anything that brings me back to this life because there is so much. When I use gratitude to change my energy I can turn my day around.
I look at it like Pam says, difficult moments. With each new moment is a chance to turn it around. That feels easier to me, nor insurmountable. Difficult days or difficult times feels so heavy and insurmountable but knowing that each moment I get to choose how I feel and I can turn it around. That feels easy, even it what can be difficult times.
ANNE: I would like to add one other tool that I have shared with others, who have appreciated it and I’ve used for a long time is, that whenever anything beautiful or unique comes along I call it a gift just for me from the universe. When you start opening your eyes to anything that is in front of you that surprises you or takes your breath away, as Anna says a bird.
I was reminded of this as a blue bird flew by. I would say, “Thank you, thank you for that gift just for me.”
I see a pattern in the sky, “Thank you for that gift just for me.”
I drive down our driveway and see all the apple trees blossoming and wow! I’d say, “Thank you for that gift just for me.”
It shifts immediately because you can’t even begin to name all the gifts that are in front of you, just for you. But when you do start naming the ones you really notice just makes a huge impact and makes the shift easy also.
PAM: And I’m going to jump in with one more tool that I thought about while you guys were chatting. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a lot of things is to not keep overwhelming myself. A big list of the million and one things that are on my plate that I want to do something with but instead just look at what is right in front of me in this moment. These couple of things that I can do today, that I want to do today.
When there are little kids around I focus on what I can do with them. As for the other things that I’m feeling weight about, they exist but there’s nothing I can do about them right in this moment. That’s a bigger picture thing. A longer-term thing. Right when it’s feeling overwhelming I can look down instead of up at all the things. I can focus on this moment and find the joy in the moment by doing that one little thing with my child. That builds up my strength and my excitement and I end up actually accomplishing one of those things that was on my plate!
I can still move forward with this weight, I just don’t need to notice it all at once. I can just focus on what’s in front of me and work on that. It’s a way to get through so much when things are overwhelming.
And that is the last question for this month!
I want to thank you both for answering questions with me. I love it so much! It’s a great moment of the month to hang out with you guys. As a reminder, there are links in the show notes that we talked about in this episode.