PAM: Hi everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.com and today I’m here with Robyn Coburn. Hi, Robyn!
ROBYN: Hi, Pam!
PAM: I have known Robyn through online unschooling circles for many years now and have always really enjoyed her perspective. I love that she is still involved online and at unschooling conferences, sharing her experience and insight. I have ten questions for you today Robyn so let’s dive in. To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you guys discovered unschooling?
ROBYN: Yes, we have been unschooling all along. Jayn is now seventeen and she has never been to school.
When I was pregnant, my husband and I knew that we wanted to homeschool but we did not really know anything about unschooling. I read one or two things and it all sounded a little bit strange and scary.
Then, when Jayn was ten months old and I do know this because I did write it in my calendar, I actually read my first John Holt book which was How Children Fail then I immediately read How Children Learn. So, I was primed and ready at that point.
I joined a local homeschooling group when Jayn was about eighteen months old and I started participating online in different lists. There was a local list in California that was for the homeschools of California organization, which is the state-wide support group. There was a very interesting woman whose writings I always responded to very positively whose name was Pam Sorooshian.
Then at one point there was some kind of little altercation or kerfuffle and the organizers of the list told Pam that she could not have an advertisement in her sig line. I think it was for a homeschooling group that she was part of. She said, “Well, I am going to leave this list,” and I was very worried because I had enjoyed what she was writing about homeschooling so much. Then I said, “Where can I find your writing?” to her. She said, “Well I am over on this unschooling group,” that was one of the ones that Sandra Dodd was running, and I went over there and that is when I really started learning about unschooling. I was very, very grateful. Pam has subsequently resolved her differences with HSC, I should just add.
But that little moment was a wonderful gateway for me to find this whole other kind of writing about unschooling. It clicked very quickly I have to say. My husband James is a film production sound mixer and he currently teaches production sound at the New York Film Academy here in Los Angeles. I used to be in film and theater and now I am a writer and I have a business where I help people write their resumes and cover letters, primarily for working in entertainment, but also just generally. I actually help a lot of unschoolers with their resume both kids and parents, moms especially.
I think homeschooling as a plan crystallized for me when Jayn was about two and a half years old and she had some swimming lessons. We had this very nice lady that came to our house. Jayn loved the water, we had a swimming pool that was part of the apartment complex. She was playing with the lady, it did not seem like she was learning to swim. It was all about putting her face in the water which she did all the time anyway. I thought, well, I do not actually know if she is getting anything from this. You can tell this was before I started unschooling or I would not have even started with it.
After about roughly five or six lessons it did not look like we were doing anything. It seemed like we were spending money unnecessarily and I said, you know (winter was coming too), I think we will just stop with the lessons. Then the following summer, I just played with Jayn in the pool and she learned to swim by herself with just playing over the course of the whole summer.
Then somebody said to her, “Oh you are such a good swimmer,” and she said, “Yes my swimming teacher taught me.” (laughs) My jaw hit the floor. I was like, “WHAT?” I said to her, “No she did not. Where did you get that from? You did this yourself.”
So that just crystallized to me the danger of having a teacher. That not only will the teacher take credit for your learning, you might give the teacher credit for your learning. It struck me that maybe this is something Jayn was susceptible to and so at that point I really became determined to unschool in a way that I had not been quite as determined before.
I called myself an unschooler from a very early age—I mean, Jayn’s early age, because I was in a homeschooling group where there was an awful lot of early academics. People were finding curriculum at three and four years old so, in defense, I started saying even before Jayn was school age that we were unschooling. I know that it is kind of a thing that you cannot be officially unschooling until your child is school-aged, but in our case, there was a genuine reason for adopting the title a little sooner.
PAM: Yes, the push for academics is getting earlier and earlier, isn’t it?
ROBYN: Yes, in defiance of all studies and science.
PAM: I know. It is really interesting to watch that interplay between the information and studies and what they are telling us, and yet what we are still feeling pulled on a societal level to implement, right?
ROBYN: I like that unschooling and homeschooling in a way isolated me a lot from those influences because even though there was some of that in the homeschooling group, all I had to do was say, “Unschooler,” and nobody hassled me about it anymore.
The homeschool parents at this my homeschooling group were very gentle; there was a lot of mindful parenting. There was not punishment and spanking. There was not that kind of bossiness going on all the time at the park days, the set up of the free play park day group not having lessons, so it was really nice. I found some wonderful women there whose parenting, even though their education plan was different, their parenting was a very similar philosophy, so that was very nice.
The only time I ever came across conventional parenting, really, was when I made the mistake of going to the park on a weekend. It was like, “Hmm, hmm, hmm.” Missing moms in a group complaining about their husbands. I do not know you, I do not want to, goodbye.
PAM: That was something I found when we began unschooling because I did not find it until my kids were in school, that I really did feel draw to move away from those communities and relationships and to find new ones that were unschooling-focused. I wanted unschooling answers to my questions and concerns and to learn more about that, rather than getting the conventional ones.
Those were the ones that were not working for me anyway. If I had not switched that up, I was surrounded by all that conventional perspective and answers. I was not getting the information I was looking for, so I really did find an actual movement away from those kinds of communities into ones that I felt more comfortable with now.
ROBYN: I would encourage a new unschooler to look for a different community and to take a break from being around people that forces you to question it. It is like when you go into recovery, one of the first things they say is do not keep going and hanging out with your old drinking buddies at the bar because you will wind up having a drink. Even if it is just online, you can find people—you may not have any local homeschoolers depending on where you live. You can always find homeschooling online.
PAM: Exactly, that is what I have found.
You mentioned Jayn, and I would love to hear a little bit more about what she is up to right now, like the kinds of things she is interested in and how she is pursuing it.
ROBYN: Oh, she is so fabulous. Well, her latest thing is she is extremely excited about speaking at the conference for the first time.
PAM: Oh, how awesome!
ROBYN: She went ahead and joined the local homeschooling speakers league. It is something like Toastmasters, but for kids. She has been a few times with a friend whose whole family has been members for a long time.
She said to me, “I would like to join the speakers league,” and I said, “Great, lets do that.” So, she goes twice a month—except they are about to break for summer, they do break over the summer. So, that is what she is doing now. She used to go to a dance class once a week and then the teacher retired. So, now, she is doing this instead and it is really nice.
As her activities, she spends a lot of time doing video gaming, electronic gaming, she plays World of Warcraft, which is on her computer. She plays Overwatch, which is on the Xbox. She plays Persona 5, which is on the … other system. (laughs)
With the World of Warcraft, she has friends that play it and they sometimes they meet-up inside the computer or she will be on Skype with a friend and they ware both be playing but separately, and she does that a lot. So, WOW has been a social kind of gaming experience whereas Overwatch and Person 5 are separate.
But she multitasks like crazy. She will be playing a game and she will be talking to a friend on Skype or she will be texting back and forth and they will be having a text conversations or group chats. How she does that beats me, I can not do two things at once anymore, I have gotten too old.
The other things she loves is Harry Potter. She loves the books and the movies and she loves the Walking Dead. She and I have watched the Walking Dead together and talk about it and just laugh at the hilariousness. I mean it is very silly and, “Oh that is a great effect,” “Look how they did that make-up,” sort of thing.
And she is very interested in make-up and skin care. She has a lot of friends who are interested in make-up. One of her friends is a lass called Void Moi, that is her name, Void. She does make-up as art. Like her face is her canvas. She does this incredible, incredible thing.
She has a couple of other friends who are interested in glamour make-up. They get together and talk about that all the time. She knows everything, like, you ask about some obscure product she can tell you about the whole history.
Let’s see, what else. She is very interested in how language is used. She will say to me, “Oh mum, you should not say that word, that has become, it is not correct to use that phrase because it means such and such and such and offends some particular.” She knows all of those kinds of things.
She has recently started learning the ukulele which seems to be something that a lot of her friends do too. I guess she thought, “I better learn ukulele so we can all play together.”
That is that and she is great, she is just very awesome and her life has been much improved since we moved from our one bedroom apartment into this house. We finally have a house thanks to the death of my mother-in-law, she left us enough money to buy a house. Jayn is a lot happier now that she has her own really private place instead of all together thing that we lived with. We have been here for, I think we are going into our fourth year. It really improved our happiness.
The other thing that improved our happiness is that we just got a cat, so, we have had our first pet. Last Thanksgiving, we got a cat from the shelter and she is just the most adorable thing. If we are ever running out of conversation between us, we can just talk about how nice the cat is. It is great most of all for us a conversation and communion of the cat. Jayn had always been too nervous to get a cat, plus they did not allow pets. Now we finally got a cat and Jayn says petting the cat decreases her anxiety, if she ever has any anxiety. She will attend to the cat for a little while, then she feels relaxed again. So that is very interesting. Oh, and she just became a vegetarian.
PAM: Oh, did she?
ROBYN: She is very excited. She still eats fish, because she will not give up sushi. She does not want to give up sushi. She is so excited and pleased to be a vegetarian. She feels like she never did like beef and she hoped with my bad cooking chicken that she is eating something.
PAM: I love hearing all the different things, you know, as you were coming up with, “oh this…oh this…” It is so fun to see all these threads as they weave together for our kids.
You see how, the make-up and the Walking Dead kind of go together. I can even see, for us here, Harry Potter and language became a thing. Then language into speaking. Persona the series is pretty popular over here too.
It is just so cool to see how things weave and appear isn’t it?
ROBYN: Yes, yes it is. For a very long time she was not interested in Harry Potter even though I had read the books to her, it just did not click. Then suddenly, a couple of years ago, it just clicked.
It became a much bigger interest than it did before and she will listen to the soundtracks and we will watch the movies together as soon as they open and discuss the movies and how a scene in the book, how it is different. The level of detail that Jayn goes into now with her interest is huge and she used to be interested in other things and explore them in enormous detail but it is just fun.
I also love that she wants me to share in her interests. She really wants me to watch things with her. She will want me to watch her playing a game sometimes, which, sometimes, it is a bit of a struggle because the games are sometimes more interesting to play than to watch. (laughs)
But I watch it anyway, though. I will ask her questions. It is cool that she has the goals that she has—she wants to get a certain number of coins so she can buy a particular skin for a character, that she has to play this many games or for so many hours or whatever it is. It is fun.
PAM: It is nice when they invite you into their world, isn’t it? That is something I always am careful to make time for.
Like, last night, I was walking by Joseph’s room and he called me in and I ended up there for ten minutes while he showed me a couple of different videos that he had come across that he thought I might like.
That is how you keep the connection strong, isn’t it?
ROBYN: Yes. Jayn likes to process her thoughts, and not just her feelings, but also her plans for the day—she likes to process verbally. It really helps her to have someone just listen to her. Talking about the minutiae of what she is going to be doing, the order of things, or whether she is going to do this task before that, or the other way around. It is not asking for advice, it is just actually you being a listening peer. So, I am happy to be there for that.
You know, she will be laughing, I will hear her laughing, and I will say, “What is that?” and she will tell me what she has been watching—something online or a funny video—and then we will laugh together, and it is nice. There is never any secrecy. Poor thing, she cannot keep anything confidential. But, I mean, she does not seem to want to, she does not have the desire to separate her life from out lives.
PAM: Yes, she is not worried about being judged. She is happy to share, that is awesome. So, I figure we better move on to the next question! (laughs)
When you were in the thick of deschooling what was the biggest fear that was tripping you up and how did you work through it?
ROBYN: Well now, you sent me this question and I was looking at this one and I thought, this is actually a tough question because I really cannot remember any fears.
Obviously, Jayn did not need to deschool because she never went to school, other that that one aborted swimming teacher. It is only myself that is doing the deschooling, as someone who had a very successful school experience and a less successful home life.
I really enjoyed school and going to school and received a lot of kudos for being a good student. But, I do not remember having any fears about it. My fears were more … I was unschooling, and having read John Holt, I was unschooling because I was afraid of what the public school system and schooling in general would do to Jayn. It might take away from her efforts. This is the kinds of stories I was hearing.
Whether that would have happened or not, I do not know, but I was more afraid that school would harm her than unschooling would hurt her at all. So, I do not know, I suppose there was, in a sense, the same fears that every parent has.
You know, some maniac stealing your kids. I noticed that whenever there was one of those, a child is kidnapped, it was always they were walking home alone from school but, well, there is another reason not to go to school. (laughs)
There is also you know babies wandered out of the house because mum was taking a nap. So, I never took naps. I feel like I did not have a lot of fears because I immediately had taken that action to address it. Such as not nap.
The only time I had been genuinely scared is when Jayn got lost at Disneyland for about ten minutes when she was very little. But that is not anything to do with unschooling. Those things are the things that happen to every parent in any situation.
I never really felt any fear about how would she learn something because there was so much information available to me already. There was much discussion already, people had asked me that question. There was no question I could come up with that someone had not already asked or asked over and over again.
Oh gosh, so, I do not have very good answers.
PAM: I think that is really helpful, though, because what you were saying, there was always answers to your questions, but you were pursuing that information, right? And actively continuing to learn so that you had those answers in your pocket when you wondered about something.
I think that is a really important part of deschooling. You can intellectually understand, “Oh yes, they can learn outside school,” and you can not send them to school or take them out and kind of sit there and enjoy your days and stuff.
But, I think it is more likely that fears are going to come up, and it is more easy to get stuck in them, if you have not done a lot of learning and processing on how it works philosophically to understand what you are seeing in front of you. So, that your kids playing games for days—how with fear you can really generalize stuff. “They just play all day,” or whatever your particular fear. “They are not reading yet and they are nine,” you know, whatever it is.
If you have not dug deeper into how learning really works with unschooling, how those kind of fears can come up, so, as you said, you were learning. You were reading those books. You were in the online communities and participating. You were seeing those questions come up for other people, so you kind of inoculated yourself with knowing and being able to recognize things that you saw.
Does that make sense?
ROBYN: Yes, yes it does.
I have to say, that one of the big things was that Jayn was three when we went to our first conference. The conferences were so very reassuring on every issue because you see kids who are just a little older than your child, and then older still, and then the pre-teens and the teenagers and the young adults and they are all there in front of you and you can see this continuing. This continuum, there, is our future. This is all we have to do, keep unschooling and you move through.
I was also, even then I was still a little naïve because there was stuff that happened still even in unschooling. It is not a guarantee that your child will never have any kind of problem or emotional issue or disorder or develop some kind of medical issue, whatever it might be. Unschooling does not create a guarantee and there may be a point where your kid does not ever learn some specific thing or does turn out to have challenges learning whatever it might be.
Like Jayn has now twice taken the (inaudible) she still has not managed to pass the math portion but she gets better and better every time and it beats me because she knows how to do it when she does the tests at home and the practice she does not get any of them wrong. And then when she did the actual test she did get enough wrong to not quite pass, so. We were scratching our heads and going, “Nah lets not bother anymore, it costs too much to do it every time.” The only purpose for doing was for the fact of not having to get a work permit before the age of eighteen. She is almost eighteen now, so why bother.
PAM: Yes, that is another great point.
ROBYN: This is pretty good for someone who started learning about math—the theory of it, the nomenclature, the proper like formulas and stuff, as against generalized arithmetic—about three weeks before she took the test.
Her whole approach to taking a test was just very pragmatic. There was no sense of it being bound up with her self worth or any kind of external thing, it was very much for a pragmatic purpose. It didn’t work out and she is just shrugging her shoulders and saying, “Oh well, it did not work out.” It has not affected her own belief in herself or her own belief in her intelligence.
She is like, “Okay I can carry a calculator. I have got a calculator in my phone. This is really very unnecessary. I do know how to do it when it is for a real practical reason.”
I get impatient now when I see some of the questions that are asked around socially. Do not be stupid. That is a stupid idea. Which is not very nice—I think it, I do not say it. It is like, “Oh what if my child never …” That is just stupid. It is. Your child either will or they will not, but they will still be happy.
PAM: Ah, beautiful. Yes, exactly right, because you know there never is only one path to something.
ROBYN: That is exactly it.
The whole point of unschooling is to not do school. The school is still there, you know, if you really are that worried that by the time your child is fifteen, that they aren’t going to … the funniest one I ever heard was, “What if they do not learn history?” What!? Of all subjects, you are worried about history? What if they do not learn history?
Well, there is this really good channel, A&E. The school is still there, they can always do that, but I hope that you will not make them go if they do not want to. I do not think Jayn had any desire whatsoever.
There that was fear. We found one—my fear was that she would want to go to school. That was one! Ah we found a fear! (laughs)
And, in my mind, I would have felt like I had not been giving her enough, if she had wanted to go to the school. My question, whenever someone does say that their child wants to go to school, is, “Well, why do they want to do that?”
It has always been a little baffling why someone would want to give up the opportunity to spend their days doing just exactly what they like in order to go somewhere they get told where to go and what to do by the sound of a bell. But, some people have their own reasons for going to school and if it works for them great! But that was my fear, that she would want to go to school, and she never did. It was like you will not be able to spend all day playing video games if you go to school. Right, I do not want to go. That was very easy thing to do was but it never came up.
I recall many years ago too conversations online about sleeping patters and I definitely felt a virtual connection with you because Jayn’s sleeping patterns seemed similar to Joseph’s. So, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how you approach that.
ROBYN: Well, I sure wish I had of known that there were other people out there. I think I have managed to track down about two other people who are like Jayn or at least as of a few years ago. I only knew only two other kids who were anywhere near like Jayn.
I will say first of all the way we handled it, was only possible because Jayn is an only child. If there had been siblings it would have been much more difficult to handle, to live this way.
But Jayn, from a very early age, I guess I want to say probably from about three or four, that was when I started quantifying it. Jayn lives on a longer day than regular people. Her day is about twenty-six hours rather than twenty-four.
So, she would sleep for twelve—no she would sleep for ten (sometimes she would sleep for twelve) she would sleep for ten—then she would be up for sixteen. If she had a nap, then she would sleep for five and then she would be up and then she would sleep for another five later. But whatever it was we would be on a march around the clock it was longer than a twenty-four-hour day. The only time, the only reset we had was her dance class every week and sometimes we could not even get up to go to it.
I followed Jayn on her schedule around the clock and for a third of the time—at least a third of the time—that meant that she was awake all night. We would get up at six and then seven, then eight and we would be up all night long and then we would go to sleep. The only way for me to have a peaceful life was for me to follow her. She was too little to be left alone. She could not do anything for herself like make food or anything like. So, I followed her.
And all of the advice that works for many children, that helps them go to sleep, or go to sleep when they are tired, even make warm baths and dark rooms, make a nest, none of that worked. She would not go to sleep, nor would she wake up. You know, you could hang her upside down by her ankles she would still sleep.
When she was tired, she was a very good sleeper. She was actually a long sleeper, she was sleeping through four-hour stretches almost immediately at the hospital. They actually call that sleeping through the night, sleeping for four hours. Most of us, when we say “sleep through the night” we are thinking eight hours but no. No, with babies they sleep between four and six hours through the night. She has been doing that since the beginning.
It was really very tiring, but also very interesting, and the person to miss out was my husband. He stayed on a regular daytime schedule. Sometimes, late at night, with just her and I we would spend a lot of time being very close and doing things together. We would go after something, sometimes we would try we would feel a pull here and there.
It could lead to light tubes that change color. They go all night long, they go they change color. We would go and do a drive, like a figure eight, with some of these tubes. It was very fun. We would go places that were open late. We drove to IKEA, she would play at IKEA. IKEA would close at like nine or ten. We would go to the supermarket in the middle of the night because it was open twenty-four hours, that sort of thing.
Then there were times that it was frustrating because there wasn’t anywhere interesting to go. Then when we were awake during the day it was a day kind of schedule. We would go out to the park and those sorts of things. We had a bunch of friends who were homeschooling who, I guess they scratched their heads, but they accepted us. They accepted our weird schedule: “What is Jayn’s schedule like at the moment? Can we come see you or is she sleeping during the day?”
Basically, I stayed with her until somewhere around about ten, ten years old, eleven years old. I started (maybe it was nine) I started working outside the home part time for a bit and I started saying, “You know what, I cannot keep staying up all night.”
But she was okay with it, so at first, we transitioned out of me just being up on her schedule to me laying down on the sofa taking a nap, sleeping while she was awake. I would just do things like make up a picnic basket which we took to park day, or I would make it up and we would have it at home. So that it was something good for her to have during the evening, during the night or whenever.
Sometimes it was during the day when I was just trying to nap. Then I would get to a point where I would slowly get back onto a more regular schedule. I am still sort of something of a night owl, and now she has her own scheduling. She knows she has something coming up, she manages to arrange her sleeping somehow. She makes herself stay up to push through a little bit so that she goes to bed later. It is weird, it is like her whole schedule has fallen away instead of being a very slow march, like one hour a day—we would go to sleep an hour, two hours later every day. Now she will be able to flip herself around over the course of three or four days.
The great thing is I can just do me I do not have to worry about her sleep at all. I do not have to sit there with her. What I do now for her food, because I know she is going to be getting up at two, three in the morning, or one o’clock in the morning that is when her right time is going to be, I make her a little crock pot early in the evening and leave it going for her when she gets up. That is the easiest thing.
The fears that she would never be able to get up and go somewhere if she was allowed to have her own sleep schedule have not come to pass.
Every now and then she is like, “I wish I could cut this strange sleep schedule,” but it is still up to her to find a way to solve it. I cannot tell her time. Sometimes she is like, “Oh I’m so tired and I know I am supposed to stay up, but I am going to go to bed.” “What are you supposed to stay up for?” “Oh, it is just my schedule.”
It was very valuable to me to do that with her because we got to spend so much time together. And we still manage to have our own tension between us too, which grows. Jayn sometimes, if she is frustrated about something, she lashes out at the nearest object. With the frustration bit, the big thing is, do not take it personally. It was much more peaceful when I was just acceptant that this was out of line and I did not try to fight against it or say, “Alrighty, you should not speak this way.” When I was acceptant and faced it and just went with the flow of that.
A lot of the time I would be tired but I did not have to be cranky as well as tired, I could just be tired. I got used to finding stillness inside me. Just being calm and taking deep breaths. And knowing this too shall pass.
And the truth is that—it has got to be seven years now since I have done the all night with Jayn thing—I do not regret it and we all sleep normally. I mean I sleep normally, James sleeps normally.
It did not affect our ability to go to sleep at night or anything like that, which I know some people do have disorders. I read recently that sleeping during the day is actually classified as a sleep disorder. What? No, this is what is normal for her. It is normal for her because any strategy to try and change it did not work and made everybody unhappy. It added stress to everybody’s life. The only thing that made our life peaceful and pleasant was thinking this WAS normal for Jayn.
Knowing that I had the ability. I do not think I could do it now, too old now, I feel like if I tried I really would be exhausted, but then I had the energy and the strength and I did it. I did it, I just stayed up with her.
Then I have a good story to tell unschooling parents who are worried that their child cannot go to bed on the dot at eight o’clock. Oh ya, try this…you know. (laughs) That is the only thing that I have been able to add something to the whole story of believing in unschooling.
PAM: And it is just so helpful for them to get to know their own bodies and understand. Even being able to recognize this longer day that is natural for them.
Like, for us, I realize when I looked back—Joseph was nine, turning ten in a couple of weeks, when they left school and we started unschooling—how much time I did spend helping him get to sleep and helping him get up in the morning to fit in with the school schedule. That took a lot of time and effort and then, once we were no longer doing that, he was okay with staying up on his own.
Again, we noticed it was just a creep of half an hour, or an hour or two—usually an hour so I would say; I would guess, twenty-five-hour day sort of deal. But he would completely go around the clock with it in quite a recognizable pattern. For years and for years and he has learned that about himself, exactly the same as you are mentioning with Jayn.
If something is coming up that they want to do, they know themselves and their sleeping pattern so much that they know ways to shift. They know when things are difficult and it is not worth it to say, “You know what, I am just too tired, I am just going to keep sleeping,” or, “I am going to go to bed instead.”
I just think it is really valuable to know that they understand themselves and to be able to work with that rather than being told that that is wrong or having to fight against it every day. Can you imagine having spent a good chunk of your childhood fighting your own body’s sleeping patterns?
So, yes, it is different, but it is so important.
ROBYN: I cannot imagine the exhaustion that conventional parents have who have a job and have a child that they are just fighting this schedule, just forever. When people say, “Oh homeschooling must be so hard,” it is not as hard as going to school and doing all that stuff. It is not as hard as all of the trappings that go with schooling, let alone the unschooling parenting concept or how difficult it is to constantly be battling your children.
It is so much easier not to be living in a state of siege and battle every day.
You alluded to this a little in the last question but I came across a great response that you gave to a mom asking about things to do during a melt down, when your child is very upset. I was hoping you could share some of your insights and tips.
ROBYN: Thank you yes, I appreciate you liking that piece. I went back and read it again. It was just something written on a list in response to a parent’s question. Sandra grabbed it and keeps it on her website.
Sometimes I look at my old writing and go, “Wow gee I was so erudite, what happened?” (laughs)
The main thing about that is, that I remember, is when Ren Allen’s remarked that she once wrote, that when her child is having some kind of meltdown or problem or upset that is a cue to herself to become her best self. That is what inspired what I was writing. There is nothing I write that is not inspired by something creative that someone else has said.
The first thing I would say is it is right in there, in that kind of a title, to call it a meltdown not a tantrum. First thing, change how you describe what is happening with your child. Instead of saying it is a tantrum, which has all kinds of baggage—that it is unworthy to be attended to, that it is something silly and that a child is doing something that is inconvenient. If you rephrase how you describe it, as a meltdown, or your child is having some kind of problem, it is a lot easier to switch on your compassion and help your child. Instead of, with the conventional wisdom, conventional advice, that if they are having a tantrum, you should ignore it or they will always use a tantrum to get what they want.
Well, you know what, as soon as you take that whole idea out of your vocabulary, you could basically say my child has a problem and she needs some help. Then, next time, she will know what to do when she has the same problem. That is a better philosophy and it is a kinder approach. It is the approach that always worked for me.
The other thing as a tip I have is what I used to do: I would print out things—that Ren had said, good advice and other little tips. I would print them out and post them around my work-station or where I could see them near my computer, where I would see them a lot. Sometimes I even printed out things I said myself, “Oh that is good I better remember that one.” (laughs) I would see it and it would be under my eye all day and my eye would be caught by these little different sayings, so I was surrounded by good advice and good voices even when I was not online.
So, every now and then I could stop and take a deep breath (there is another good tip, always stop and take a deep breath or two first) and then I would see one of these little sayings and I would remember that there was some better way than the knee-jerk feeling I was having that was just a carry over from my own childhood.
The other thing, something I have said a lot, the answer to most problems is in a box labeled, “more attention.” That is the way, more attention always helps.
Then the other thing is, I think the very first thing I said, and that is trying to avoid the known situations. So that is something, if you know that your kid is always going to have a problem when they go somewhere loud and dark, do not go somewhere loud and dark.
Jayn did not like large crowds she did not like dark noisy places. She did not like places like Chuck E Cheese, that kind of thing. It was worse if it was a dark restaurant that played loud music. She is never going to be a rave attendee because she is still the same: no dark, noisy, crowded. There are some kids that are affected by the fluorescent lighting in stores.
I wrote—kind of wrote it by accident—helping Jayn become emotionally organized. I was reading that over in preparation for this interview. That phrase struck me, “emotionally organized.” It is futile to try and speak to your child logically and give them a lecture about their behavior when they are emotionally disorganized. Their emotional state is always going to trump their logic.
It is not just children, I think that is everybody, and me. Look at Donald Trump, he will respond in an emotional manner to any kind of criticism, but he is an adult. Even an elderly adult, their emotions will trump their logic a lot of the time.
You cannot try and give your child better skills in the moment when they are emotionally disorganized or they are having an emotional moment. You have to wait until they are calm and rational again to try to give them some ideas for next time. So, do not try and stop it right then, ride the wave—you just have to ride the wave. Try acceptance, try and be a buffer, which a lot of people think you walk away and leave them laying in the floor. No. Pick them up and give them a cuddle, you know, that is the best thing.
Today, these days now, Jayn is seventeen, now I find that just being very silent. Finding that same stillness that I had when she was young and I was tired and did not want to be cranky. Be very silent and just let her speak, let her vent. Sometimes I would snap back at that. I am still not as good at not taking things personally as I would want to be. It is still the goal to reach of always being calm, always being as patient as want to be. I do not know if I will ever be as patient as I want to be but I am still going to keep trying. Because, being silent, I know that works with it.
There is this wonderful word I am crazier and crazier about: akrasia. It means deciding on the best course of action and then doing something else, doing some other thing. I feel like I have that in me a lot because I know just stay quiet and let her keep talking, do not try and offer a solution and do not try and say, “I do not like your tone of voice,” or any of those things, just be silent and breath in. Ten minutes later she will come out and say, “I am sorry mum that I snapped at you.” That is the right course of action but still sometimes I do something else. You know, I guess life would be dull if we did not have challenges.
PAM: We definitely are always learning, aren’t we?
Yes, it is not useful to hold up perfection. Each moment is each moment and we do the best that we can, you know, as much as we remember those tools. I think what has helped me most is finding out what works best for my child in those moments. Like you were saying, you know that the silence and letting them have that space to vent to help them release.
ROBYN: Not like letting them have the space as in leaving the space, still being present.
PAM: That is a great point, that connection piece is still there, right? That they know someone is listening and understanding their turmoil or whatever it is that they are going through.
ROBYN: Even if you do not understand it, they can understand that she is having something.
PAM: Yes, exactly. You do not have to understand the issue itself but understanding for them as a person. I mean, it is not hard to realize, to remember those moments when we are bubbling over with frustration about something. It is not the “something,” because you know we can always jump and fix that “something” but that is not where they are in that moment, right?
And the same when we are upset and we are venting or bubbling over to someone, we are not looking to them to give us the solution in that moment. I mean, eventually we want to process and get to that point, but not in those moments. I love that “emotional disorganization,” that phrase that you are talking about. That is not the time for it, right?
One of the things I used to have, the little sign, something that I had wrote down, “What loving action can I take right now?”
It reminded me to see if my action was going to be loving or was it going to be angry or punitive. I did not punish but that did not mean sometimes Jayn, in the absence of punishment, Jayn saw my stern voice as punishment.
ROBYN: She did not feel as badly as if I had punished her in some way, which, you know, I never did so. What loving act can I take right now?
PAM: Yes, that is a great question to ask. A great perspective to bring to it. So, we should move on to question six!
It is another question that I see pretty regularly out and about and it is can the idea of unschooling spoil a child. Because especially when someone is brand new and they are first looking in it might look like kinds of actions that we are talking about would end up spoiling a child, but, in reality, it is really different, isn’t it?
ROBYN: Well, I think it is different. I do not think that Jayn is spoiled but I also think that this is one of those occasions Sandra has talked a lot about where people are using phrases that are not their own—they have not come up with it. It is something they have heard or has been repeated to them when they were children or whatever, it is it is not original thinking. They are parroting a phrase that children can get spoiled.
The first thing is to say again, look at the language and words that we use to describe our children. That matters a lot. Our own actions and the words we use change the way we think about it.
It is interesting; I actually have not seen that question very much in the things that I have been reading in the lists that I am on. At least, not recently, but I am not on any way near as many lists as I used to be I have to say. I only participate in just a couple these days rather than the plethora that I used to.
I guess if it comes from idea that a child is spoiled if they get everything they want so they have got a feeling like they are entitled to everything. There is a whole discussion of what a child is entitled to. Maybe a child is entitled to everything that you can possibly give them as their parent who loves them. That is a whole other discussion.
Is it that the child is spoiled when they get angry when they do not get something they want and start demanding things? Is it that they are angry and demanding or is it that they are disappointed and do not know how to express their disappointment?
Sometimes I think if you are asking about spoiling a child, are you jealous of having children, is that what that is? I do not know what people are visualizing when they think a child is spoiled. Is it a fear, some kind of fear operating inside them that they will not be able to give their child everything they want to? That might be where it is coming from.
If someone is asking that question, I want to say, “Well no they are not spoiled. I do not think that they are spoiled but also what do you mean by that? What do you mean by spoiled? What are you envisioning when you think of a spoiled child?”
There is a lot said in popular culture about spoiled children. The idea of these rich children, it is the rich kids who have everything. Like the Sixteen Candles and those sorts of teen movies where there is always the rich kid who is always the horrible one, you know what I mean? It is an old school trope that I am not sure if it is real. I do not know if people, are people have they been trained by pop culture and conventional parenting to resent children who have been given love and stuff offered freely? I do not know. I am not even sure it is, are children really spoiled?
PAM: I think they are coming, my impression anyway from the conversations surrounding the question are often that it is the idea that the kids will start to feel entitled to things or entitled for other people to do things for them and expectations.
You know, that if you say ‘yes’ more and you get them what they are interested in, they are going to come to expect you to always do that for them. Or, they will feel entitled for that and start demanding it from other people.
I mean, from my perspective, it is just that the whole entire motivation for giving our children things and letting them do what they want. If our child wants to go to the park and we can get them to the park, we want that to help them and for them to do things as often as possible, right? That is that whole, “Of course we are going to say yes more because those are life experiences and those are ways that they are pursuing what is fun and interesting and joyful for them.”
It is just so different because I do not see that expectation developing because we have such a different motivation. We are not saying yes because we want them to stop asking us the damn question. That is the difference, the questions are not controlling, they are not manipulative. There you go, I think that is the word I was looking for.
ROBYN: I think that you also choose not to use the word manipulative about your child ever. If you choose not to use that word, you have to then search around for other words, and you might find that ‘manipulative’ never applied anyway.
My reality, the reality of unschooling that I see, is that vast majority of the unschooled kids as they grow up and become young adults and teenagers, even tweens, is that they are extremely generous. So, they are the opposite—if spoiled is self-centered, selfish children that demand stuff—they are the opposite of that. Isn’t it how they are going to end up that matters?
I mean, there might be a little period where they want a lot of stuff but I think that there is almost a developmental stage children are not naturally minimalist, I do not think. I think there is a point in development where being surrounded by things that are theirs gives them a sense of abundance, and then gradually it tapers off kind of naturally.
It was like, Jayn always wanted more ice cream in her bowl than she could possibly eat. It really pleased her to have that much, even though there was still half a bowl full when she was finished. I ended up eating the leftover ice cream, and I could plan for it. I did not have to serve myself a bowl because I knew I could eat hers.
That still, you can plan things if you are concerned about weight. I am thinking a little bit, I was thinking this question over that idea of love languages, that children have different love languages, everybody has these love languages supposedly. I do not think as necessarily as cut and dried and delineated as some of the earlier literature.
I think that sometimes maybe the love language that is missing is the one that people might crave maybe—that is just a kind of theory I have. I know that one of Jayn’s primary ones is gift and objects, being given stuff. That all comes back to accepting who she is. It is not her only love language but it is definitely something she responds to enormously, being given something, a tangible object and it really makes her just be very happy, even if it is something small. I did not create that in her, it is something that in her, nature intended.
When you think of the love languages the idea that some are more approved than others, the idea is that if things are a person’s primary love language it is somehow more acceptable than if their love language is spending time or acts of service or whatever the rest are titled. I think there are five originally then they got extended but it does not mean that is all she wants.
I remember when she was very little, I remember taking her to the Disney store in the mall and they just started—hard to imagine this was a new thing once—they had just started coming out with those fashion doll size eleven inch princess dolls. Before that they did not have those, amazing, now they are everywhere but. She saw them and she was so excited, she just threw her arms in the air. They were something ridiculous like ten dollars, they were so inexpensive, they were beautiful. There was only at first like three or four, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and, yes, I think that was all there was and then Ariel came along a little later. She actually rushed over and she was so excited.
I said, Do you want one of these, I will get you one,” because she was so happy and she is a doll collector. So, she said she would have Snow White and, because they were so inexpensive, I said, “Would you like to get Cinderella as well?” She said no, I will just have one. So, right there she is being offered a second doll and she did not want it that day. We got it eventually, we have a collection. I say inexpensive, ten dollars I know to some people that would actually be a challenging amount of money to come up with for a doll. The thing is to reframe in your mind what they want away from being trivia and remember that we are unschooling which means that everything is educational and this is what we are buying instead of textbooks.
That is the other thing, it seems like a lot but it is not in addition to all these other things that are related to school—instead of that stuff. You know, lab equipment and textbooks and stuff that you have to participate in through school, school supplies.
PAM: Yes, I know, that is a great point.
ROBYN: She has never not been generous.
It is how children behave when you are not there to watch them that is sometimes spoken as a guide as to who they really are. If you do not have to, if they behave well even though you are not there to monitor them, their behavior, then that is good sign that they are behaving well from their heart, naturally.
PAM: Yes, yes, that is a great point.
Question number seven!
I find it interesting how our children’s needs change between the child and the teen years and I found that is not so much that the need us less but they do need us differently. I was wondering if you could speak to your experience?
ROBYN: I was so glad you asked this question.
Something that I have really noticed recently—it was just a couple of weeks ago—Jayn in kind of a joking manner said to me, I do not know why she said it, I cannot remember the context of how we got to this point, but she said, “Oh mum, you know I am just four years old.”
It just struck me as sort of true. What I have come to the conclusion of in my thinking recently, because this is going to be part of my presentations that I have been writing a lot about this recently, is that temperament does not actually change.
If your child has a temperament, a certain type of temperament when they are little, they are going keep that. It just maybe manifests itself in different ways with maturity. When Jayn was very young it was really easy to meet her needs because they were all simple needs, and now that she is at this point of being a teenager she is older she can do a lot more for herself now in a practical point of view. She does all her own laundry. She does not like getting her own food but she will if she has to, that sort of thing. There is that sort of period in between where they are not as able to do certain things. They still rely on you. Like she is seventeen, she is not driving, but she could be. You know, she could take care of getting herself places.
So, there is a point where they are beyond simple easy, the “here is a shiny object to distract you,” aspect, to where they really do need a lot of inventive thinking from parents to meet their needs. She still has the same emotional challenges, the emotional temperament aspect. She still does not like the loud, crowded places. She still needs to verbalize when she is frustrated. She still sort of takes it out on me a little bit because I am the safe person there. But something stressful or frustrating is happening that is outside of her control and outside of my control, you know outside of anybody’s control. She is able to calm herself a lot quicker when she realizes what is happening. It is not you, it is happening.
Whereas when she was little it would still be me, you know, it was still my fault when she was tiny. She very much more self aware, that is the change. She has not changed who she is, she is just more aware as an older child. So that makes it easier. I actually was a little bit surprised how much time, how much of my time she would still like. She would like even more of my time than I can give her as an adult who is running a business with a husband to do it with.
But my biggest challenge actually at home is balancing, but you know what I am jumping ahead we won’t, I think you question about the challenges of unschooling. But, Jayn does want my attention. It is just the quality of the time, the activities that we do together are different. It used to be that we were playing dolls and telling stories and drawing pictures and I was sitting listening to her make up her stories of dolls and now your dolls are (inaudible) and you say this mummy. It would very much fit into her agenda for the game, whatever it was the story she was telling and now it is more of a conversation too.
But she still says that spending time with me is still her favorite thing to do. And spending time with her father is her next favorite thing to do. And spending time with all of us is her favorite thing to do. This is a teenager who would rather hang out with her mum than, I don’t know, any other number of other things. She gets antsy if we have not spent time together doing nothing in particular. Watching a tv show. Or she will be playing a game and it is actually kind of neat because I have my little writing station in the kitchen and she has her computers set up on the dining table. She has other things set up in her room. I can actually see her, we can speak through the archway very easily. She sometimes interrupts me and that is okay, but sometimes she talks and I do not even hear her because I am so involved in what I am doing. “Mum! I am speaking to you.”
So, she is actually a little more patient with me not hearing immediately than she used to be, now that she is grown up. But, she still needs me to hear her.
PAM: Yes, I know that. That has been my experience as well.
When they are younger, it is more helping them meet physical needs and helping them get set up for the things they want to do, and get things that they are interested in, and go places.
As they got older it was not that. Yes, we did not need to help them meet those needs so much—they can reach the Legos, they can play the game, they can set it up and everything—but there was still a lot of time for the conversations the connections and the processing of things, because now there were different kinds of experiences. So much more of it was, you know, conversational, really. To help them, as they wanted to process and chat about things. It wasn’t like they were off just doing all their own things now. Stuff still happened and stuff still came up. It was other things that they were learning about, right?
ROBYN: Right. There was never any sense here that I have to track her down. Nor that I am peripheral to her life and butting in. I don’t know, maybe that will come when she is actually moved out. But, it may never happen. I don’t think she is going to be living in our basement, but we may be living in hers. She is our retirement plan. It is wonderful.
PAM: Yes, it is wonderful, I know it is. Question number eight.
I know you and your family attend unschooling conferences pretty regularly and you mentioned that Jayn is now interested in speaking as well and started taking that class. I was wondering if you share a bit about your experience and what it is that you guys love about them.
ROBYN: This week I have been adding it up, it is either fourteen or fifteen—I am not sure whether we have been to three or four Life is Good, but we went to six Live and Learn, one Northeast Unschooling, two Good Vibrations, used to be Wide Sky Days, two Free to Be, and either three or four Life is Good and Jayn has additionally been to a Wide Sky Days by herself without us. She stayed with Erica. So, this is how many over the years we have been to.
What I love about it, I think for all of us actually, the experiences in seeing our friends and seeing people, people we know. It used to be seeing people I know online and being able to put faces to them and meeting them in person. For Jayn it has always been about meeting her friends—meeting new friends, but also connecting with the same friends again. She really loves seeing people that she only sees at these conferences even though they communicate through the years she sees them in person.
Then the other aspect I like is that time capsule aspect that I mentioned earlier, that you see these older kids and really, now that Jayn a young adult looking back, every promise was kept. When she was tiny we saw the ones that were five and six, and then she became exactly the same as those kids. Then we were looking at the pre-teens, the tweens, and she became exactly like those tweens.
So on and so on and so on, each time we went, that little promise of the future that this is what your kid is going to be like, that came true in every respect. It has been very reassuring.
I enjoy speaking; I do not shut up once I start, as you have probably noticed. I also really like hearing the new voices that are coming up because I participate less on lists now, I do like hearing new people speak.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your journey to unschooling?
ROBYN: Well the most challenging aspect is that I am still not very good at balancing the time for my own things and the time that my daughter wants me to spend time with her and my husband wants me to spend time with him and where am I putting my attention.
Looking back, what has been the most valuable outcome so far from choosing unschooling?
ROBYN: Well, that is a really short answer. I have a very happy daughter with no school damage and a close connection to her parents, to James and me. That is the outcome. That is it.
PAM: The relationship.
ROBYN: A very happy daughter who seems to be completely aware of the world and history and culture and science and, if she wants to find out about something, she knows how do that. She is still determining her career kind of path. The problem is not that she does not know what to do but that she has too many choices. There are so many different interests and ideas about her future that she is not yet sure which path is going to appeal to her most.
PAM: But that is okay because that is the nice thing about not feeling like you need to stick to a particular timetable, right? You were talking earlier about her being confident however things work out, you know, however they turn out.
So, being able to know that, “Oh, gee, I have all these interesting things and to be able to continue pursuing them all to see.” Then eventually, she will see, maybe she will come up with a way to combine them moving forward. Maybe one will start to stand out, but having that space is awesome.
ROBYN: Yes, as time goes on she just has seen more and more to add. (laughs)
That is the outcome and it is really fun to be able to be moving into, for me, the next stage of unschooling as a mum of someone who has grown up; who has done the homeschooling part of unschooling. As, in the sense that she is done with the educational. She is now an adult and to be able to say now I have the expertise of all of these years—my specific thing is unschooling and only child.
She was never an easy child, she was sort of easygoing for a minute. But, I realized that was not because she was easygoing but because her needs were easily met. That was why she appeared easygoing. (laughs)
But who is still very wonderful and whose friends really love her. Her friends love her. She has some great friends. For a little while there, when she was about seven or eight, she was sort of like, “I do not have any friends, nobody likes me, they are not happy to see me.” It just turned out that these were not the right friends for her, they were not her friends. The people who are happy to see her were living in other cities. So now she has her very dear friends who she just loves.
PAM: It is so much about just learning about ourselves. Over time, there are just so many different situations, right? Now she has both those experiences to start to understand and make the connections between them. It is how we learn through experience—it is just so beautiful.
ROBYN: You know, I have never gotten hooked up on trying to worry about what she is learning. I do not care, or I am not worried. I say I do not care but that sounds dismissive, but I mean it as I am not worried—that is my favorite phrase, it is not mine.
It is someone else’s side of unschooling, which is really a question being used as camouflage for some kind of critical statement that they want to make. I just say I am not worried. I am not worried because I mean it. You cannot argue with somebody shrugging their shoulders and saying I am not worried. Because I am not going to get fed up about their opinion, they are clueless really.
My job is to be an example, not a control warden or anything else. My job as an unschooling mum is to be an example and make sure she has the stuff she needs, helping her do what she wants to do. She is going to learn stuff. For me, it has never been a question of making sure she learns things. You cannot know what they are learning. So, I do not care about learning. I am kind of not a good homeschooler in that perspective.
PAM: Well, I think for me, on my unschooling journey, that was a point reasonably early in my unschooling. I realized that I did not need to look for the learning. I realized it came down the line in such a way that other things upstream that were basically fun and joy and doing things that were interesting to us. If I just did those things, the learning would happen on its own. It was not something I needed to worry about, that I needed to try and control or anything like that. What I could do was just support them and be with them and have fun.
ROBYN: But there are a lot of people who are on their way into unschooling that are new that it helps them to hear things like, change your focus and see the learning in this activity or that activity, all these activities that never bothered me. I did not care how long she spent playing video games as one of the big examples.
PAM: Well thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with me today Robyn it was so much fun!
ROBYN: I am very happy to have done it. I hope you can find some useful nuggets in amongst that lengthy discussion.
PAM: I thought it was awesome.
Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
ROBYN: Okay, well I am, I have a Facebook page that is just Robyn Coburn or is it iggyjingles—anyway. if you search for me you will find it. My current website is workinproduction.com, which is my business site but my e-mail address is on that site.
I am on the Always Learning list which is Sandra Dodd’s main John Holt discussion list. My other website is iggyjingles.com and it is the creativity list blog. It is in hiatus at the moment but there is a lot of material on there if anybody is interested in looking at enhancing your creativity. It is arts and crafts and writing and making and different ideas about what creativity means.
PAM: That is awesome. I want to thank you very much again for speaking with me and have a great day!
ROBYN: Thank you. Thank you very much Pam. Bye bye.