PAM: Hi everyone I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Tami Stroud. Hi Tami!
PAM: How are you?
PAM: That’s good. I came across Tami on-line and really enjoyed spending some time reading her blog. I was really fascinated by their adventures and wanted to learn more so I was very happy when she agreed to chat with me on the podcast. I am really looking forward to diving into your unschooling adventures.
To get us started Tami, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you discovered unschooling?
TAMI: Sure, sure. I am really excited to be here!
We have six children. We have four boys and two girls. They are currently ages thirteen down to four. We are an American family and we are actually visiting in the US right now but we for the last seven years have lived sort of a more nomadic, sometimes expat, lifestyle.
Our current expat home is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. My husband works there as head of libraries for a local private school. We moved to that place in the beginning of the 2015/2016 school year. Before there, our first place we moved to when we moved away from suburban Atlanta, was Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. We lived there for three years and the UAE—most people know it from Dubai and we lived about an hour and a half outside of Dubai.
After that, we lived in the native Alaskan Cup’ik village of Togiak, Alaska and it is this little, tiny fly-in village. We have a lot going for us for stuff talk about.
PAM: Yes, that is awesome!
TAMI: Let’s see. Our family is Christian—yes, we are Christian living in a Muslim Country. I am also, in addition to homeschooling and unschooling, passionate about fertility awareness and birth work and so sometimes I will work as a doula, a childbirth educator. Also, in Saudi Arabia I worked to create a group to help women learn fertility awareness, so that is kind of my other side interest.
Then with homeschooling, like when I moved to Riyadh, I ended up taking over their local Home Educators of Riyadh Facebook group when the previous admin was leaving the country. So that has been kind of a fun work because, how unschooling is seen in the US, that is how homeschooling is seen there. It is like this fringe crazy thing, so, if we can get people to not give you the side-eye for saying homeschooling. This is kind of on a school year schedule where just finishing up our seventh year of homeschooling; about to start our eighth year.
With unschooling, our unschooling schedule follows a more calendar year, so we are in the middle of our sixth year of intentionally unschooling.
That is kind of an overview of who our family is. I guess I can talk a little bit more about how we got to homeschooling and unschooling.
PAM: That would be cool.
Yes, could you chat about how you discovered it, how you came across it and what your family’s move to unschooling looked like?
TAMI: Sure. So, our homeschool time line seems to match up with how long we have be sort of moving around and stuff like that, but actually our family decided to start homeschooling before we even realized we were going to move.
My husband, obviously, he works in a school and I actually have an education degree, so we both come from this traditional schooling background. Before we had kids we just kind of assumed yes, our kids are going to go to school and that is that.
When I started having kids I stayed at home with my kids and then I ended up working part time at a local Christian preschool. Then they started a primary school that was attached to the preschool. So, my oldest, my young kids went there with me three days a week to the preschool and then when they started the kindergarten and so-forth my oldest ended up going to the kindergarten.
For me that should have been the perfect fit. They had this small class size, I knew all the teachers, they were all really nice people. They shared our religious views, like everything should have been this perfect fit and it just was not. My little kindergarten little boy was coming home hating school and I am like what is going on, what is wrong with this picture? So, for me, that set me searching.
What are other people doing? What are other people finding that is working for them? I was exploring what are people that are doing homeschooling, what does it look like for them and that sort of thing. I also had four kids at the time; I had just had my fourth, I believe.
The other thing I was noticing that year that my oldest went to kindergarten was that I was seeing how the different schedules were going. He went to school five days a week and then I worked three mornings a week and the little ones only went three mornings a week and so it was not even that busy of a schedule but I was already starting to see down the pipeline of all of us going in different directions and just, you know, that kind of lifestyle. That was just not really what I wanted. I did not want to be constantly transporting people everywhere that just was not the rhythm of life that I wanted.
PAM: Yes, that would be tough to manage, would it not?
TAMI: So, that summer, we knew that my husband was leaving the job he was at, independent of my son going to kindergarten and not liking kindergarten, and we knew he would get he was planning on doing another job, we did not know what. Every time, something would always turn up and everything had worked out, so that was how we were looking at it. Along with that, I was also thinking that the little Christian private school that my son went to did a homeschool co-op thing where they allowed homeschooled students to go part time, one or two or three days a week, then to be homeschooled the other days.
I thought maybe we will try that and maybe that will be a better fit for us. So, that was my plan going into his first grade year. Then, we get to the end of July and the beginning of August and nothing is really panning out as far as the job market and my husband sees—this is so insane—sees this listing on Craigslist to teach abroad.
When he sees it, we just treat it like a joke, “Yeah, we are going to Abu Dhabi, yeah.” So, he shoots off an e-mail to them, just kicking tires but neither of us are really taking it seriously. And then the recruiting agency ends up calling him. He ends up doing a little more research to realize they are legit, even though they are advertising on Craigslist.
One thing led to another and from the beginning of August, where we had no inkling that we were going to move or anything like that, to the beginning of September, our feet our on the ground in the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi.
TAMI: So, yes, from there, from that big move, homeschooling just made a whole lot more sense. It is this huge change for your family so it just simplifies a lot of things. We are not looking for private school; the only options over there for expats is to pay for an expensive private school and go that route if you are not homeschooling. There is no free public education for expats over there.
We had four kids and I was pregnant with my fifth at the time and so, yes, that did not make sense. So, even though we are kind of being pulled towards homeschooling, just everything is aligning where it makes a lot of sense for us to give this a go. We move and we decide we are going to do this homeschooling thing and I had been okay with a somewhat more relaxed homeschooling thing. We did like the five in row thing where you read the books and I still think that if you are going to homeschool it is a rather sweet curriculum. I have good memories of our time doing that, we had this lovely, schedule of, ‘we are going to do this in the morning and we are going to do this.’ You know, five little kids and it just does not work out.
I kept comparing what I wanted with my reality and I was like, ‘Okay, there has got to be a way to make both these things fit.’ I want my children to be learning things, I want us to be peaceful, I want us to have this nice, happy home. When I am creating these schedules, it is just not working out that way. There is always just this tension of not following the schedule then them not doing the work I want them to do. All of that, so that is what set me searching down the path of unschooling.
Then too, just the whole craziness of life that plows over all your ideas of what homeschooling is going to be like and then, two or three months down the road you’re like, ‘Oh, I have homeschooled like three days.’ But then you look at your kids and you are like, ‘Wait, we are still learning, they are still coming and talking to me about stuff and they are still picking up stuff here and there.’ And you’re like, ‘Okay, what is going on here?’ I am comparing my real-life experience with what is going on and saying, ‘This is still kind of working.’
So, I am just reading different people, their experiences and what they are saying they are doing, and what and how they are defining it. So basically, we get to about six years ago—it was Christmas break and, let’s see, I had five kids at the time and my youngest was still a baby and I remember talking to my husband about that I want to give unschooling a try. I want give it a legitimate try. And not this sort of guilt thing of where we do not actually do anything, you know. I wanted to do this thing in earnest. I was like, ‘We are going to do this for six months and see where we are.’ So, we did six months and the world did not explode, and it was fine. There were, for me, with the trial thing, I wanted to kind of stretch myself, I guess, and see where in the realm of academically unschooling, radically unschooling, all of that stuff, where my tolerance level was.
So, I really tried to push myself to say yes as much as I could and that sort of thing because I felt like we are going to try this and it is not a forever decision and we are just going to see how it goes. Then I can always tweak it later if want to. For me, that worked well. It gave me permission to kind of try a bunch of different things and not feel like this is some forever decision and I am going to ruin my kids or, you know, any of that stuff. It was just sort of this is our experiment that we are doing right now and we are going to see where it goes. That worked well for me and that gave me a lot more flexibility to say yes to different things.
PAM: That sounds really cool, because at first you were noticing it was happening almost by accident—you were not having enough time to homeschool more formally. Then that choice to do it in earnest for a while, give it that time and see what happens. I love the way you described that, choosing to do it purposefully, and do it as well as you can so that you can really see what it is like. Not, like you said, almost doing it guiltily, because that does not help you understand it better does it?
TAMI: Right, right. Because then you always have in the back of your head, ‘I should be.’ For me, when I finally decided we are really doing this and this is what I am choosing, then that gave me a whole new frame of reference and empowerment, ‘This is what we are doing and my kids are learning.’ The choice of doing it was a good thing for us.
PAM: I think that is huge. I think it helps because when we started as well, we said, ‘You know what, we will try it out for a year,’ like a school year kind of deal, because the kids left grades four, two and jr. kindergarten. They left in March break and we took the summer and then that was when I discovered unschooling and it was like, let’s try this—earnestly is a great word for it. I am going to learn as much as I can about it and I am really going to put my heart into it and see what happens. We can always change our mind later or tweak it, as you said, but I think giving it a good chunk of time because it is not something that you can understand and really delve into in a short amount of time. Six months to a year, I think that really helps take the pressure off it and lets you dive in without worrying. You know you can always change things up as you go along and learn more.
PAM: That is really helpful.
You have mentioned your nomadic lifestyle, so I am curious to know, what did your choice look like to not move back at the end of that job but to start moving around? I’m wondering what inspired that and to just talk a bit about where you guys have lived so far and what that has been like?
TAMI: In the beginning, we are moving there for a job and it was a two-year contract. We just thought, ‘Okay, we are going to do the two years. You can do anything for just a little amount of time and we will be done and we will flip back into our suburban Georgia life. Then, at the end of two years, we had not really admitted to ourselves that we kind of really wanted to keep doing this.
I was like, ‘Okay, well, maybe we will just do one more year.’ Then, at the end of that year, just a random connection. My husband had, while he was over there, finished up getting his media specialist certification, all that stuff. Somebody shot him an email of this job in remote Alaska, again, as a joke, and said, ‘Oh I found you a library job.’ (laughs)
So, in the same kind of way, my husband shoots off an email to the person posting the job listing and immediately they call us back, ‘We want to get in touch with you.’ Again, one thing led to another and were like, ‘Let’s just do this. Let’s just see what it is like.’ Moving to Alaska kind of solidified that we really like this experience of living in foreign places and experiencing the foreign culture and just getting to see life that way.
I know Alaska is technically not an expat location for us because we are American, but where we lived in Alaska was by far the most foreign place I have ever lived. It was this tiny Native Alaskan village and it is not on the road system. Like, you can only get there on these little planes and little planes only seat ten people and we are a family of eight. So, yeah, we pretty much fill up the little plane. The airports there, it is just a dirt airport totally exposed to the elements. You get outside and then you either—depending on the time of year—you either get on like a four-wheeler ATV to drive you to your house or you get on a snow machine.
In the village, there is no paved roads or anything like that and I think that maybe two or three people own big pickup trucks. Everyone else owns these four-wheeler ATVs, the snow machines, and that is how you get around. It is like one square mile and about a thousand people so yeah, live is just really, really different.
TAMI: For me, in Togiak, it was a really great experience as far as unschooling because it was this insular, little house on the prairie sort of thing and I ended up just having this idea that my whole focus was going to be on relationships while I was there. It was just so inward-focused and family-focused. There are no movie theaters there, there are no restaurants there. You just got to be content with the people you are with. And so, our two years in Alaska, my big focus is on really cultivating strong relationships with my kids and learning what they like and learning about them. I think as far as unschooling in our family’s journey and our time in Alaska was really valuable for that; to force us all to focus on each other and work through things and develop stronger relationships.
PAM: Fascinating. Did the kids enjoy it too? I imagine.
TAMI: Yes. I mean there were pluses and minus. It was nice to have that sort of deep focus on one another but at the same time it is also a place where in the winter you only get sunlight from like 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, so it is like dark a lot of the time in the winter. Conversely, when you get there in the summertime, you get light well after midnight, so our sleeping schedules were insane living there. But, for me, the winter and the darkness was really hard and I had to really work hard not to develop seasonal depression and that sort of thing; the two years was kind of enough for us.
Also, it was kind of hard if you want to go outside and play—it is a twenty-minute ordeal to get on all your gear and stuff. That, and then, especially for the real little ones, they would go outside for five minutes and be done. Then we would spend twenty more minutes pulling off all the gear. I mean there are pluses and minus.
For me it was a really valuable time for us but it was not like a forever home. When we were searching for our next place to go, we were really, really open. We looked at Hong Kong. We were seeing if there were places in Africa; we were thinking about Tanzania. We cast a really wide net and were really open about where we were going to go. Saudi Arabia just ended up being the best job combination that allowed us the most flexibility to travel to other places.
After you live in Togiak—lots of people who move to Riyadh, especially women as you can imagine, feel like it is really closed in and they have a hard time making friends with the other people and stuff like that—for me, moving from Togiak to Riyadh and ‘Yes, I can go to a restaurant!’ It feels a lot more open to me in comparison because we can get in the car and go on a road trip to the beach, you know, strangely, there is a lot more flexibility.
Riyadh is actually a good jumping off point to travel to other places. Like, we can go to Jordan or Egypt, we have been over to Eritrea and Oman, and so those places as a larger family—we can travel by car because as a larger family flying places, on your own dime at least, is kind of cost prohibitive. Then part of a typical sort of expat package is, a lot of times, flight benefits and so, what we do is, they pay for our family to fly back to Georgia each year and we can build in layovers to different places. Like, last year, we spent a week in France on the way there and ten days in Italy on the way back. So that job allows us the flexibility to do that as a larger family where as in some other places we would not be able to do that kind of thing so it works out well.
I have enjoyed actually the projects and working in Riyadh. Like, I host a homeschool meeting and I guess I kind of use an unschooling take on the homeschool meeting that I host weekly in Riyadh. I call it a ‘video of the week’ meeting and we basically watch some sort of online video, usually like a TED talk or something like that. It relates to education, education theory, or something like that. That is what the parents watch and the kids just get to play and do what ever they want. So, that is my homeschool meeting that I do for them. The kids have enjoyed that and they have gotten to know other kids from the community. Most of the people in our group are not expats, like, most of the kids that my kids have gotten to know are not western expats I should say, most of the kids are Egyptian expats that my kids have gotten to know.
PAM: That is fascinating. I love that idea, for your group, about watching a video. It gives you something to chat about and gives the kids time to play, that sound like an awesome meeting.
PAM: It is really cool to hear how, now this time for your third location, how it did not come out of the blue or fall into your lap but you purposefully found a place and now sounds like you are able to take advantage so much more of the possibilities of where you chose to relocate to because now you had more of an idea of what would be helpful for you.
Like all that ability to drive all sorts of places and even starting to play with flights. That is something we started doing as well in the last few years with the layovers and that kind of stuff. So that is really cool to see how that progressed for you guys.
TAMI: Yes, it has been an interesting adventure and our kids—actually, when people find out you are flying with six kids, they are you know, their eyes get really wide—but our kids actually fly really, really well and, I guess I feel like I should say “knock on wood” or something like that, but they do, they fly really well. It is usually uneventful and I just try to kind of go with the flow of just get everyone where we are going and make sure we have all of our stuff and not try to manage them too much and that works well for us.
PAM: That sounds awesome. I would like to move over to your website now and your blog. I really did have a lot of fun reading around there.
You have a great four-part series about work. You are digging into the question “Do people do hard things even when they are not forced to do them?” and I loved digging in that because that, to me, was such a cool insight into people in general and one of the great surprises of unschooling; something that I did not expect at first but discovered along the way, so I love digging into that. I enjoyed the connection that you made between the conventional method for encouraging hard work which is, you get this thing done and you get some sort of reward for a job well done—whether it is a mark or a sticker or even monetary prizes or whatever. The connection between that conventional method and the development of a sense of entitlement, so I was hoping you could explain that connection for us?
TAMI: Sure, right. The conventional thinking is, you have a behavior you want, and you either punish or reward to kind of push the person, child towards that behavior. Alfie Kohn has written a book [Punished by Rewards] and lots of wonderful things looking into the research and saying, the research says this does not get you where you want to go, as far as making somebody motivated out of their own will to do this thing.
So, with the rewards and punishment, I like to think of it as a ‘pull the string.’ For either good or bad, you are pulling the string with rewards or punishment to get a person to do what you want, and most parents and people, the idea is you are pulling the string for good. You are getting them to do this good thing; this good outcome is the reason why you are doing it.
But the thing I started thinking about is Stanley Milgram did experiments on people and this is in response to World War II, Nazi, Germany and all the atrocities that happened there. His question was, why would people do this, how could good people do this? I had read other books that walked you through these normal average German citizens and all the small little steps that happened to get them to a place that they never thought they would be, of atrocities that happened.
Milgram’s experiments had people separated and the subjects of the experiments thought they were pushing a button to harm a person in another room, that they could not see but that they could hear. The only thing telling them to do that or imposing upon them to do that was just somebody in authority telling them to do that. Like there was no other coercion or anything like that. The Milgram experiments found that overwhelmingly, most people, even though it clearly went against their conscience, continued to do what they thought was harm to the other person.
It just got me thinking about this idea of conditioning people with pulling the string, which Milgram calls the agentic state, where basically you relinquish responsibility or you think you relinquish responsibility to the person in authority. So, you say, ‘I do not have to be responsible for this because the person in authority is responsible for this.’ It stops you from really considering your decisions, like whether or not what I am actually doing is a good idea or bad idea because the person in authority has thought of that for me. With rewards and punishment and pulling the string, that is kind of what we are conditioning for: you do not have to think about this anymore because I have thought about it and you are going to do it because I have thought about it and you are going to keep doing that. So, it conditions them to not critically consider their decisions.
Then when you also think about the rewards and punishment in light of entitlement, that goes back to, you condition people to only want to do a thing if they are getting some sort of benefit. Whether that benefit be lack of punishment or an actual reward, rather than an altruistic freely giving of yourself that you want to give to another person. The idea is you create this reward economy that you are paying for the behavior or the goodness you want, rather than people just being good to be good and to freely give themselves.
My thoughts on unschooling, the idea is that people are naturally hardworking and giving and altruistic and that when you implement a reward economy—the rewards and punishment—that pushes people away from their natural inborn interests.
In part three, I talk about cultivating grit. Kind of where all of this started for me was that being Christian, and especially American and Christian, the hard work idea is together in a lot of ways for that. A lot of responses to the thought of unschooling were, ‘Well, it seems nice in theory but it makes lazy people,’ and that sort of thing. So, I wanted to explore the idea of, ‘Is that really the case?’ And what have other people written on this and where is the research on this?
Even if you pull it back and start at a baby, Alison Gopnik wrote the books The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib and she does this wonderful job of talking about how babies are these super-motivated beings and they try again and again and again and fail again and again and again before they actually master this new skill. They are also just hugely curious and babies are into everything. We see this and it is normal for us but, somehow, we kind of think that that just gets flipped off. You just flip a switch when you are five and you just go to school. But, I do not think that is the case. Nothing else works like that; humanity where there is a flip switch, it is all this over time and long growing process with lots of different influences—that’s how things change.
PAM: I was going to say, I think it makes sense when you think about that switch. When they start to go to school and they hit that age where parents start to think they need to exert more control and then that is where the rewards and the punishments start coming in and that subverts their whole intrinsic motivation, that grit that we see so clearly.
Alison Gopnik’s most recent book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Emma and I talked about it on the podcast a couple of episodes ago. She made such a great point that they do not give up when they are young, do they? They are like little scientists, they just keep trying and trying and trying. It is just amazing to watch them at work. You wonder, we just think that it is natural for that to disappear, as they get older. Oh, they don’t want to learn anymore, but to realize that that is because of the environment—the huge shift in environment that we put on them between when they are young babies and toddlers to when they hit school age.
I think that is such a great point that environment, especially the rewards and punishment that you were talking about how effective it is, but not in the way we are trying. We think we are rewarding them and they are going to learn, but they learn the complete opposite, don’t they?
TAMI: It is not where you want to go with this. In the moment, you get them to put the cup away or whatever the thing is, but in the long term—and I think that is where most parents really want to go, they have these long-term ideals—it does not get you where you want to go.
PAM: Yes. I really liked your point of how you are taking away, when you are pulling strings, you are taking away their agency. They learn to just sit back and wait to be told what to do because never once are they, or certainly not regularly, rewarded for proactive work. They are mostly just judged for whatever they chose to do, ‘that is right,’ or, ‘that is wrong,’ whatever you are rewarding.
Even with positive feedback you are stealing that intrinsic motivation away from them. They have chosen to do something and the parent says, ‘Oh, great job, thank you.’ All of sudden, that interaction seems like it is for the parent now.
TAMI: Right, and it is still part of a reward economy because your interactions is either rewarding or punishing. Like, if you are withholding that it is like kind of like a punishment and then by giving it, it is kind of like a reward.
If you have gone through school, then yes, you have been conditioned this way so you really, really you know. I still have to be really thoughtful about what I am doing in my interactions. I guess I am reconditioning myself. I am having to think about it differently than I grew up, for most of my years growing up I had this large swath of experience that reinforced that that was how things should be done.
PAM: You know what is really fascinating? (Random tidbit, laughs) When I look at my web site, the page that gets visited most from Google searches is article I wrote about, “I’m so proud of you!” Obviously, I go on the other side, why you are taking away their agency—I like that word—and interfering with their process. It is fascinating that that is just such a huge topic. I think so many of the searches are for people wanting to say I am so proud or looking for ways to express that etc. So, I think they might be a little shocked when they end up coming there, but it is amazing what a wide topic that is.
It is ubiquitous, I think, within our culture right now that we are encouraged to reward, to praise, because we don’t want to punish so much. If you praise all the good stuff, maybe they will want to do more, but they are, like you said, they are wanting to do it to get your positive reaction, to get that reward instead of choosing intrinsically and understanding the value for them in doing something. You are just taking it all out of their hands, aren’t you?
TAMI: Right. For me, a lot of what helps me clarify my interaction with my children is if, and a lot of people said this, if you think about the interaction with your spouse. Like, how would you react to him telling you, he did something, he finished this project at work or whatever, would you say, ‘Oh, good job, I am really proud of you.’ No, you would not.
PAM: You would be happy for them that they feel good about it, right?
PAM: Yes exactly. It is not a conversation that you would normally have. I think that does sometimes help people realize the difference. As we said, it is just so natural in our culture right now to do that with children. That is how you raise children properly, right?
But yes, it is not something you would ever do in a relationship. If you are having a connected, trusting, strong one-on-one relationship with anther person, that is a layer that adds to the disconnect in it because there is something else inside that relationship, not just the two people.
TAMI: Right. Also, it clarifies for me when it is okay for me to give appreciation: ‘Oh wow, thanks for doing the dishes, I appreciate that,’ or, ‘that makes my job easier.’ It is not like a reward of praise; no, I would tell my husband the same thing, if it was my turn to do the dishes and he did them for me or whatever. I would be, ‘Oh, thanks.’ I think a lot of with unschooling for me it is a lot about thinking through motivations and where this action is coming from.
Like when people talk about curriculum with unschooling and all these sorts of things, people want to just have these rules about, ‘Okay, you cannot do curriculum with unschooling,’ or, ‘you cannot, you know, do this,’ and it is a lot more nuanced than that. It is more about, ‘Where is this coming from?’ ‘Who is this coming from?’ and ‘What is the interaction really about?’
PAM: Yes. I think that is something that can really get in the way when you are first starting, because we are so conditioned and used to it. We just want the rules, right? We just want to, even when we go to unschooling, ‘Okay, well, tell me how to do it.’ You know?
PAM: ‘… and I will do what I am told,’ but understanding the principles and then why it works is really what can help you create that lifestyle in your home and the relationships that are at the foundation of it.
If you do not understand it and you are just going through the motions, that so often leads to chaos in families because everybody is just doing, this, this, this. Because we are saying yes all the time, and they are doing whatever they want, and you are not having the conversations.
Like your two years in Alaska understanding so deeply, getting to know each other and how you interact; and how to move through all these different situations and everything. That is part of really deeply understanding unschooling and relationships and how you guys are going to be able to move forward with your days versus just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, we are supposed to do this, we are supposed to do that.
Okay I guess we should move on to the next question!
I would like to shift to larger families. With six kids, I think you have some experience you will be able to share with us! So, with the diverging interests, I am sure, of six children, I would love to hear a bit about what your unschooling days look like. You know, just going through the day and doing x, y and z with everyone.
TAMI: Yes, I think everybody, all unschoolers have time with this question, what a typical day looks like. You know, for us especially, it varies depending on what location we are in and how old, what is the age range of the kids, and that sort of thing.
In general, I have a routine for myself and the kids can hop on or hop off my routine as they see fit. I get up and have my breakfast and stuff like that, and do all my sort of self-care things early in the morning so I am good to go for the day. I am super-introverted so I get up and try to do that kind of quietly by myself and have my breakfast with nobody else.
I do not mind hanging out with them when they have their breakfast later in the day, but I like to start my day off with quiet time because that is helpful for me to be my best self. Then throughout the day I have a goal to have at least one face-to-face, connected check in with each child. To hear what they are working on today, do they need help with anything and that sort of thing. That is kind of tied in with, I like to do a quiet observation that is part of my routine.
For us, in general, throughout the year, I feel like—since my husband still works in the school—we still are bound by some things with a typical school year schedule, but for us, I think it has kind of flipped than what a lot of school kids experience. During the school year our routine is to be really more insular and quiet. Our day-to-day during the week is really low key. We do not have a lot going on during the week.
The busiest thing usually during our week when we are home in Riyadh is to do the homeschool day once a week. Other than that, we are just low key. My husband likes to do some sort of outing on the weekends. So, one day during the weekend we will go drive to some natural site and see that. Our time during the day, during the school year when we have kind of our slow days is during the day before my husband gets home the time is really flexible. My kids, most of my kids know how to fix their own meals. I usually help the younger ones fix theirs but we do not have set meal times during the day. Everyone fixes themselves something when they want to eat during the day. Then we have a dinner together after my husband gets home in the evenings. A lot of times, I do not know, we kind of get on a routine and off a routine of like doing regular things in the evenings like the one that stuck is movie night. We usually have a movie night on the day before the weekend, there it is Thursday, so usually on Thursday nights we will have home made pizza and a movie.
Other than that we will plan things like, we have a pool in our building, so we will go swimming one night or we will do stuff like that. During the day, it is really free form and flexible and then in the evening it is a little more structured because we have a set dinner time and a lot of times we will try to do games or something sort of more planned in the evening with the whole family there. Then that is kind of our school year routine schedule and it is really low key, like I am, I really do not like adding things to our schedule.
People keep asking me, what all are your kids involved in, and I am like, nothing. I do not want to be involved in anything, their life is busy enough, this is enough. Because during the summer we are traveling to a bunch of different places and even, we are in the US, we took a road trip to Washington, DC. It is a lot, lot more busy during the summer and so we have these few months where it is super busy so I like, when it is the school year, to have a big swath of time where all the activities are sort of projects around the house and that sort of thing, really family-focused. That is kind of how we do things.
PAM: Yes, that sounds very nice. I think that certainly sounds like our first few years of unschooling too. The kids just had so many things that they personally wanted to get into and we did not have to go out a lot for it. There are tons of games and there are so many things to do at home that they were perfectly happy to have all that time just under their own control.
TAMI: Right. There is always some art project going on or some big play scene going on and you know that is very typical for our house. There is some block tower, yes that’s…
PAM: Exactly there is a whole world of stuffed animals set up.
PAM: Pirate battles and then there is that two three weeks in a row where you are making playdough every couple of days because there is this huge town. Then there was that one summer that we had the Lego table outside and there were these elaborate villages were built.
Then there was the time, I remember, we made puppets like Mario and Luigi, game puppets and they would just pause like a background on the TV and then they would use their puppets and do these elaborate shows of their own making. So yes, to have that time and space to get totally in your head with whatever is catching your attention is awesome.
So, last question …
I was hoping you might share some tips for larger families starting to move to unschooling.
PAM: I know that is one of the questions I get pretty regularly on my blog, ‘We have four, three, four, five kids and you know I am trying to say yes more and trying to help them do things that they are interested in and I am feeling frazzled.’ They are having a hard time imagining how to shift from just telling everybody, yes/no, this is what we are doing to start incorporating their input into their days basically. So, I was just wondering if you had any tips for larger families who are starting to move to unschooling.
TAMI: The best way that I have come to think about it is, if you have a larger family, like you feel, in the beginning you feel like you are moving an army and that sort of mentality, so, it is hard to get away from just managing everybody and everything. My thought is, instead of shifting away from managing your children and all these people, work on managing yourself and managing the environment.
For me, I focus on self-care, it’s really important because I need to have the energy and the focus and to be able to work with my kids in whatever way they need. I have developed strict boundaries about, ‘No I am going to sit here quietly.’ I am going to get up super early and sit and have a quiet breakfast because that is what I need to happily focus on the rest of the day.
Also, managing your environment is really big. I know in unschooling circles, talking about minimalism, it kind of has a two-edged thing. You want to feed your kid’s interests but, also, I think a lot of moms, especially in larger families—you times those things times six, or more or whatever—it becomes overwhelming. So, for me minimalism or embracing as much minimalism as an American family can stand, has really helped to simplify things.
Like, during the day, we have one set of dishes for everyone and we rinse and reuse them and I wash dishes once a day. In Alaska, we did not have a dishwasher so I liked doing it in the morning but we have a dishwasher now so you can do it in the evenings and they are ready to go for the next day.
Having less stuff overall has helped with that and with their wardrobes. When they were really little, and we were not even unschooling, we would do an everything-must-go sale. Like, where everything in their drawers got pulled out and onto the floor. What we ended up shifting to was a lot fewer clothes and I do not buy clothes that need folding. I buy clothes that can all be washed with different colors. So, we do not fold, we do not sort, and I know those things do not sound like they have to do with unschooling but it simplifies your life and frees you up to focus more on relationships and more on, ‘Ooh, lets work on this fun project,’ because you do not have that chatter in the back of your head of, ‘Oh, I am not getting this done, I am not getting this done and I have got to do this and I have got to do that.’
In your home as many wipeable surfaces as you can and that helps. I stash little bottles of vinegar and water and a rag in different places to make it super simple for the kids to help clean up. Even if they do it imperfectly, that is way better than not being done at all. Rearranging your house to allow the kids to do as much for themselves, allow them to dress themselves, fix their own food.
I mean, it is going to be done imperfectly but that is how we learn and we get to a point where one day you are like, ‘Oh wow, you are a really good cook,’ and that sort of thing. So, facilitate the kids doing as much for themselves as they can, that has helped.
I have also, and depending on which home it is, I also do zones, I guess, like, for my bedroom, I do not like to keep toy boxes and stuff in there. I like to keep it very much an adult room and not a kid room. I am kind of particular about that boundary. Like if a kid comes in there with a toy I am not cranky about it but just in general if something is left in there I will take it and move it to a room where we keep toys.
Our current house I do that with the living room also. I am experimenting also with having a few nicer things out on display which, larger families will understand this, that yes, for years it was just the joke we can not have nice things. I have one room where I put things out and we will see how it goes. In that room, we do not store toys in and again it is just like if they bring it in there it is no big deal, we just take it out at the end of the day and store it in a different room where toys can go.
Having zones helps me—if this is a zone that I have designated for kids to do their thing in and it is a mess, it does not bother me as much. I mean, because that is what they are supposed to be doing there and so I can just go sit in the living room where it is reasonably tidy because we do not keep toys and stuff in there. That kind of helps me be more relaxed about the chaos and stuff like that to simplify life so I can get in there with them and it makes it easier.
PAM: I really like that. That is a ton of tips about the environment—that is a great way to think about it. You mentioned the point where you do not want to be feeling guilty in the back of your mind, ‘I should be doing this, I need to be doing this.’ There is so many ways to manage the environment where you are not feeling that pull.
PAM: Like the way you talked about the dishes and having toys in certain places and the clothes. Just finding ways to manage the environment that just makes it so much easier for you guys to engage. Like you said, it does not matter that the room is messy where you know the kids have all their things and you can go in there and just have fun with them because you know that is where that happens. Without worrying and having in the back of your mind that the living room is a mess or whatever.
I think that is a really great point and I was sitting here listening to you thinking yes, that worked so well for us too. I remember when the kids were younger and first home and we just put everything down, made a big nice family kind of room for them down in the basement. And a big closet that was just full of their stuff and we could go down there and when I went down there it was just relaxing, it was kid time. Lets just get into whatever we feel like getting into and then we could go upstairs for movie night.
That is awesome, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today Tami, I had a lot of fun!
TAMI: Thank you so much. I have too.
PAM: That is wonderful, and before we go where is the best place for people to connect with you on-line?
TAMI: I occasionally write at StarryEyedPragmatist.com it is very infrequent though, so.
PAM: I love that name by the way. I will definitely have links to that in the show notes and thank you very much and have a great day with the kids.
TAMI: Thank you and you too.