PAM: Hi everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today, I’m here with Phoebe Wahl. Hi, Phoebe!
PAM: Hello. Just to give everyone a bit of an intro: Phoebe is an artist and her work focuses on themes of comfort, nostalgia and intimacy with nature and one another. Phoebe grew up unschooling and chose to go to college, graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2013 with a BFA in Illustration. She has been a regular contributor to Taproot Magazine and her first children’s book, Sonya’s Chickens, received the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for New Illustrator as well as being on various ‘Best Children’s Books of 2015’ list. Her next book, Backyard Fairies, is coming out next Spring.
PAM: I’m very excited to chat with you about your experience growing up unschooling. So, to get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
PHOEBE: Yeah, so I live in Bellingham Washington, which is kind-of like the northwestern most city in Washington State, so it’s right up by the Canadian border. I grew up here with my sister and our parents. Both my parents are avid outdoors people and environmentalists so we grew up doing a lot of camping, hiking and playing outside. Yeah, it’s a great place to grow up and I’m really happy to be living back here and to have spent an unschooled childhood here too.
PAM: I’m excited to get into that in a little bit!
What did your family’s move to unschooling look like?
PHOEBE: I was in kindergarten and my sister was in fourth grade and she was having a little bit of a hard time in school. She was a little bit of a “late reader,” “late” obviously in quotations, and she was having a hard time in school. I was just not having school at all. I’d only just started and pretty much right away I came home and told my mom that there just wasn’t enough time to draw.
My mom knew about John Holt and the unschooling movement from a neighbor who had older kids who were early unschoolers, so kind-of on the cusp of the trend. So, she started digging a little bit deeper into it and doing some research and half-way through that year I started going part-time to kindergarten, then the next year we stopped going to school altogether
It was kind-of a growing discontent, I think, with both my sister and I. My mom said she saw our thirst for living and learning—living is learning obviously, I guess—but, living and learning kind of disappear, kind of like a spark go out, and we were just less and less excited about school and learning. Both inside and outside of school, and that really bummed her out so she started looking for other options.
The first year was a transition year so I went to first grade part-time at a little hippy co-operative private school and then stayed home half the time. Then after that, second grade on, it was full unschooling for me and my sister had a little bit of a different journey. She ended up going to high school full-time but I was technically unschooled throughout.
PAM: That’s great. That’s so interesting that your older sister was in fourth grade too when it came to a head because the grade that my son was in too.
PHOEBE: Oh, really?
PAM: Yeah, because I hadn’t heard of homeschooling until that point but it was again, he wasn’t getting along well with the environment, right? And it was in my research that I finally came across the word homeschooling. So, I love that your mom had a neighbor.
PHOEBE: Yeah, I think that was huge, just having someone who had the language, because I think a lot of learning about a new way of doing things is just…when someone says a word and you’re like, “Oh, wait a second. That’s the word for it. That’s what I want to do!” So, I think that was really helpful.
My mom still lives across the street from those neighbors. We had our little unschooling pod. Their kids were well grown up by the time we were doing it, but I think she was a huge support person for my mom, having done it before.
PAM: Oh yeah, that’s awesome. It’s true though, because once I’d heard it and started following the little connections, … this, this, this. It just made so much sense. It’s like, “Oh, why did I not know any of this?” It’s like, “Of course, of course, of course.” You know?
I was wondering how your passion for drawing developed and if you could share a bit about how that journey unfolded for you?
PHOEBE: I don’t really know when it began because it has always just been a thing. I know that I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember and for as long as I can remember I knew that I wanted to be an artist in some form or another. I was saying that when I was four or five years old and that just kind of continued, and became true.
Before I started school and once I returned home to homeschool, I would spend up to eight hours a day drawing. It wasn’t every day that I spent that many hours but I always spent a significant amount of hours in a day drawing.
I would wake up before the rest of my family and kind of patter downstairs and get going. A day rarely passed where I wasn’t doing that for a few hours. I don’t really know where the discipline came from. I think that’s an interesting thing I think with any kind of passion that develops in kids because my parents never pressured me. They never said, “You should work really hard on this.” They just saw me gravitating towards it and let me go deep.
I think that is a huge gift that unschooling gave me. It really became a tool that allowed me to focus so intently on the thing I was passionate about. It gave me time and it fostered a sense of trust in myself and what I wanted to do with my time because I was the one choosing to draw. I was the one choosing to make art and it never felt like a hobby to me. It felt like my work. Unschooling allowed me to keep working.
PAM: You know, kids who have a passion like that, still, parents worry so much about their kid not experiencing all sorts of different things, right? There are so many different subjects in school, ‘you need experience in all these different areas,’ and they worry so much when a child is focused on one thing that they are missing out on so much.
But from an unschooling perspective, when you are looking and seeing them diving into that passion, that passion brings up so many things. It’s like you almost have a window to the world through whatever your passion is. It takes you all over the place, doesn’t it?
PHOEBE: Yeah, definitely, because I think what it did for me is that it gave me a context.
It gave me a context in which to learn everything else that I needed and wanted to learn around that. I did other things—I played outside, I played with all kinds of toys, we did science. But I think drawing being the main focus of my life, yeah, it gave me an incredible focus because then it’s about, like, learning about history is also part of drawing because I was really into drawing historical costumes. I would do massive amounts of historical research and then draw the things I was reading about. I would always draw the things I was reading about, whether my mom was reading us fiction or non-fiction.
I would definitely find ways to incorporate art into different science projects we were doing. Even math, which definitely I think would be considered my most traditional gap in my knowledge, eventually I figured out what I needed to know as an artist, as a self-employed artist. I know enough math to do what I need to do. I think unschooling also gave me the understanding that if I ever need to know more then you learn it because learning isn’t something that stops and starts: only in certain times of your life and only in certain places.
PAM: Yeah, that leads nicely into my next question.
I want to talk a little bit about that because that is one of the common worries when people first learn about unschooling. If you’re not going to follow a curriculum how do you know they are going to learn everything they are “supposed” to know? You talked a little bit there about how we see gaps. How really, everybody has gaps, right? So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that because really, how you define ‘gaps’ is really only in the context of defining curricula. Right?
PHOEBE: Yeah, I think you’re totally right. To talk about gaps is to box yourself into a certain way of thinking about learning because I definitely have gaps in my knowledge but, like you said, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.
I resisted doing math pretty much my whole childhood. I had a lot of anxiety about it. I still have some amount of anxiety about it. I built it up as this thing I was terrible at and so I avoided even trying to do it and I put up a wall. Later on when I was in high school—I went to high school part-time—I decided on my own to take a math class. I was in the bottom tier, I was kind-of embarrassed to be so far below my peers but the drive was all my own so for the first time in my life I was actually open to learning it.
It’s interesting now because I think a lot of my friends at the time who were in AP Calculus, unless those people are in a math or science field now I honestly think probably, our skill level has probably evened out. I kind-of doubt that those people ended up retaining massive amounts of information. Maybe they would be able to pick it up quicker than I would, or something, but I don’t know. I guess I feel like that’s a gap for me but also I don’t necessarily think I’m that much worse off than anyone else who had to suffer through learning lots of things that were not applicable to their lives.
Instead I was doing a lot of other things that were applicable to my life and spending a lot of hours honing a lot of other skills and then also developing that understanding that, you know, if you trust yourself, if you build up this confidence, you can learn anything any time upon demand. It’s all based on the context of, “Why do I need to know this thing?” because I think I’m a very hands-on learner and so once something becomes concrete, like, ‘I have to measure this piece of paper because I’m going to make it into a book,’ or ‘I have to balance my books because I run my own business.’ I am much more motivated to learn how to do things when they have a context.
PAM: I think that’s one of the biggest things for me. It’s something that I just kept learning more deeply each time. I thought, ‘Yeah, sure. Lifelong learning.’
As my kids got older and as I’ve thought about it more, and just observed myself and my own learning, I came to realize you truly have a lifetime to learn whatever. It really doesn’t matter at what age you learn things. It is so much more useful when it’s meaningful to you.
PHOEBE: Totally. I think my mom also, and both my parents, really nourished that idea too. I remember observing my mom doing a lot of learning with us because she was never in a traditional teacher role. I remember especially around math, I think in her attempts to get us excited about doing math, she actually went back and learned a lot of maths stuff that she had forgotten or that she had been anxious about in her childhood and never sat down and learned. It’s interesting because I think even though maybe she quote unquote ‘failed’ from a systemic standard of teaching us that when we were a kid. She also went back and had this amazing experience of relearning these things in an attempt to try and get us interested in it.
My parents were always very active in that way with our learning. They were very interested in asking questions of us and asking questions that they didn’t know the answer to that we were all going to figure out together. I think that’s a huge part of unschooling too: to remove the teaching role and to become humble and say, “I don’t know everything either. Let’s learn about all this stuff together.”
PAM: Oh, I love that, because that is a huge point: modeling being a lifelong learner yourself. It’s not about, “Oh, we’re not going to do any of that stuff,” and almost disconnecting, right? No, it’s about diving into life with even more excitement and energy. My monitor just started shaking because I’m going ‘Yeah!’ (laughter)
PHOEBE: Yeah, I think it’s totally true.
I think my parents did a really good job of modeling that curiosity and zest for life because that’s what is going to keep kids interested and engaged is to see adults being interested an engaged.
PAM: I know when my kids got older and were out and about in the world—and even going just to unschooling conferences or gatherings where there were older unschooled teens there—that zest for life is so beautiful, right? And it’s something that I find unschooled kids keep for a lot longer. I don’t know; maybe they don’t get so jaded. Maybe because they are not feeling like they have failed or been controlled so much, but it’s always so beautiful to see just that joy for life.
PHOEBE: Yeah! I don’t know a lot of other unschoolers actually because there were quite a few homeschoolers in the community we grew up in. Definitely I think unschooling is hitting the West Coast a lot slower than it hit the East Coast.
I know when I went to college on the East Coast I met a lot of people in the Boston area, which is where it kind-of got going, who were totally familiar with the term. A lot of the homeschoolers around where I lived who we peripherally knew through the community were much more rigid, curricula-based and a lot of them were pretty religious, so I would say that definitely the unschoolers that I have met do display those traits but I don’t have that many other unschooling role models.
I think maybe one of the things too is that I do feel like it gives you a sense of ‘your life is in your hands’ because you are given a lot of agency as an unschooler—at least I was. I think that there is something that self-motivation does to kids that gets them super-excited and engaged in things in a way that it’s kind-of impossible to be externally motivated that way.
I think that’s what it is for me: Every educational step I took was a choice, which is an enormous privilege that that was able to be a choice for me. I tried going back to fifth grade because I have always been really social and I loved hanging out with kids my age. So, mom was like, “Sure, try going to school. That’s totally fine.” I tried a bit and I lasted about a week and was like, “Nah! Still not enough time to draw.” Once the first-week-of-school-summer-camp-vibe faded away I was totally over it. So that was my choice. The way I was spending my time and the way I was choosing to manage my time and educate myself was always in my hands and I do think that that helps a lot with passion for life and agency in your own life is to say, “I’m here. I got myself here. I’m excited about what I’m doing.” It’s very intentional.
PAM: I love the word ‘agency,’ in making your own choices. Of course, your parents are there to help and support you whatever choices to you make but to know that you have control of your life and you’re making these choices, I think, and what goes hand-in-hand with that is a development of such a level of self-awareness because you’re making the choices and you’re seeing how they play out.
Just that feedback loop, it’s like, “That worked for me, that didn’t work for me. I’m going to tweak it this way.” Whereas when kids are always told what they are supposed to do they are learning about everybody else around them, what their requirements are. They are not learning as much about themselves and how they operate, I think.
PHOEBE: Yeah, totally.
PAM: There was one other thing that I wanted to bring out because I thought it was such a great point you made! When you were talking about all of the other things you were learning. When people worry about gaps: “Oh you don’t know this, or you don’t know that. Or maybe they won’t know that.” But it’s not like the unschooling child is sitting off in the corner and they’re not learning. Just because it’s not in the curriculum doesn’t mean it’s not valuable experience and learning. They are learning so many things, it’s just not in that box, right?
I think also it goes really hand-in-hand with society’s views. I know, in my case specifically, let’s say society’s views on art in general where it’s seen as this waste of time. It’s seen as a joke major and a fluff thing, kind-of like a hobby way to spend your time. I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs when I was spending all those hours drawing. You’re doing lots of complex math and engineering subconsciously in your brain when you’re drawing in perspective and when you’re learning different ways of drawing and thinking about all the art history I studied in relation to drawing. There are massive amounts of knowledge and subconscious stuff that goes into art and lots of really wonderful creative flow and play and all that too that is equally as important. Yes, so it’s funny being like, “Oh, there’s going to be gaps. Your kid is spending all this time playing or spending all this time drawing.”
That is valuable. Play is valuable. Art is valuable. The world doesn’t revolve around math and science. (laughter)
PAM: It’s so true. That’s one of the things I just loved watching my kids over time, because all that time to focus on your art but, like you were saying, all those different things that come into it and make connections and to see over time how that develops is just beautiful.
My daughter is a photographer and a million things go into pursuing and approaching that particular art. All that stuff, from history to math and patterns. I love the connections, the time that the kids have to think and dive in and just to ponder things, all the interesting, creative connections that are expressed through their work. Sometimes you’ll see a picture—your art, and my daughter’s photography, and even watching my son in his karate and stunt work—and you see the progression as they reach that depth.
PHOEBE: And it’s so rare that in any other setting kids or adults are given that much time to really go deeply into something. My partner has a son and he goes to public school and it’s just like: boom, boom, boom! The day is over before you know it and they do all these different things and then there’s recess and then there’s lunch and then you’re home and then it’s bedtime. It kind of blows my mind that I was able to just take an entire day to choose what I wanted to do as a kid. There’s just not a lot of importance placed on that in the current system, of sitting with something that you feel is important and just diving into it head first.
PAM: I had no idea that that much time would be valuable. You know what I mean?
The kids came home and I thought we’d be doing this, then this, then this. I knew I wasn’t going to rush them or push or anything but when we had the freedom to take the time that we wanted to just BE. I didn’t realize how much time we’d want. It was like, ‘look at all this time that I have just to be myself.’ Even if it’s just swinging or walking or drawing or taking pictures or whatever. It was so much more than I expected.
I think, for me, that’s been one of the most valuable things with unschooling is the time to be and explore yourself and the things that you enjoy.
PHOEBE: Yeah, definitely.
As you mentioned, you chose to take some classes in high school and then went to college, attending the Rhode Island School of Design. A lot of people are curious about college, and unschooling kids going to college. I was wondering what you found valuable about your college experience?
PHOEBE: Yeah, I mean, to me the fact that I was totally surrounded by a community which took art really seriously was incredibly valuable—not that I hadn’t been taken seriously my whole life because obviously my parents had an understanding of how important it was to me.
There is something about being part of an institution that is deeply invested in challenging students to create better and better work that is really magical. I think part of that is because my entire art experience before college had been self-guided that it was challenging and also really amazing to step into an environment where other people were holding a bar for me rather than holding it for myself.
I think the fact that I was used to holding it for myself really helped me. Like I was talking about earlier: the choice to be there. I was there because I wanted to be there. I was working hard because I wanted to work hard. It helps to be in an environment where you are surrounded by people you have a massive amount of respect for and where the bar is incredibly high because you’re going to be challenged, your work is going to be critiqued and that is going to lead to a lot of growth. I chose to go to college to improve my work and to grow and to just go even deeper. I didn’t go because I felt like it was some kind of obligation. You know, like: college is what you do after you finish high school. I’d never been on that track. In a way, I feel like my entire childhood was training for art school and then adulthood as an artist.
Yeah, I think it provided me with a lot of resources because it just expanded my worldview massively. I think especially to leave home and go so far away. From going to the north-western most point of the US and then going all the way over to Rhode Island to be on the completely other side of the country on a different ocean. It expanded my worldview literally and figuratively being a part of a massive art community and going to New York and going to museums and just being exposed to a tonne of art and a tonne of culture. Bellingham is a pretty small city and it’s a wonderful city but I think I’m really grateful that I was able to spend some time outside of it just being exposed to what else is out there.
PAM: I love that. It sounds like there is two parts to it: the distance and the being on your own and then the actual art side of it. I draw parallels with finding your tribe—being immersed with people who have as much love for what you are doing as you do. Of course you had support where you were but to have somebody who also loves it just as deeply and as creatively as you. It’s like a different language, isn’t it? Now you are surrounded by people who speak your language.
PHOEBE: Yeah, and your language is advancing all the time. You keep wanting the new packages of language to unpack. That was what was really exciting about leaving because I think being in a small city and being surrounded by the same people all your life; I think your language stagnates a little bit at some point. There is only a certain amount of input you’re getting of culture and what art is and also the feedback people are giving you, so I think it was massively helpful and rewarding and fulfilling to go and just be a tiny fish in a huge pond and see the wide art community and to be exposed to lots of other stuff and lots of other people.
PAM: We live rurally, about an hour outside of Toronto. We’ve got five acres and we’ve got a forest. Lissy was hours and hours a day taking pictures out and about around here but she got to a point where she was really wanting that level of community so at age eighteen, she looked around at college programs and stuff but she decided to go check out New York City. We had made arrangements for her to stay there for two months but when she got there the first couple of days was just getting used to being on her own now, in a different country. But oh my gosh, she found her tribe. You just sit around and you find this whole entire community that you can begin to participate in. Like, as you said, we were very supportive of her here and everything but sometimes you feel you need to go and just find where these communities live so that you can immerse yourself and, like you said, take your work and your art to a whole new level. That’s so interesting.
PHOEBE: And then sometimes you come back. Now I’m back in my hometown and I’m back surrounded by a lot of the people and places I grew up around but I’m still just so grateful that I left. Not to say that everyone should leave and that that’s superior but I think for me it was key because I think also it made me realize what a sense of place I had and how much it tied into my sense of self and my art. I think also once I really was done with school and figuring out my next steps and I had really developed my artistic style and thought about the kind of work I wanted to make, I thought, ‘I need to be making that work at home, because that work IS home.’ I thought about moving to New York City. A lot of my friends moved there and still live there. It was my plan for a long time and then I was like, ‘I can’t, I can’t see it. I don’t think that my work will be my best work there. I think my work will be my best work in the place where I began making work.’
PAM: It’s all about knowing yourself, isn’t it?
PAM: That’s the other thing: I think one thing unschooling does too is allow us to learn that things aren’t forever. These aren’t forever choices. They are our choices now and we still pay attention. We don’t beat ourselves up if something changes and we change our mind and want to do something else.
PHOEBE: Yeah, totally. I think it is a much more fluid way of interacting with the world. It’s a lot less linear and I think that that, in the end, is how life is and how learning is and I think it’s helped a lot in being an adult, accepting things as kind of fluid. Like, something might be right one day and it might not the next and that’s ok.
PAM: Exactly. Instead of beating ourselves up all the time. The idea of failure: ‘You have a goal, you have to stick to it, you can’t quit, don’t look like you are moving back on something.’ Everything is seen as failures when you change your mind, you must have not decided the right thing back there if you aren’t going to follow through on it. To understand that we’re just fluid and learning and growing. That ties back to lifelong learning too. It’s all just part of our days. “Unschooling is living,” you said way back at the beginning. Exactly. (laughter)
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you see your unschooling childhood influencing your art?
PHOEBE: Yeah, I think it’s impossible to separate the two things because they are both so ingrained in my identity that I don’t really know how one would be without the other or if one would even exist without the other, you know?
Like I said, I’ve moved back to my hometown and I find myself spending my days really similarly to the way that I spent my days when I was an unschooled kid. I wake up early and I work in my illustration studio in my pajamas and I listen to audiobooks which is pretty much like exactly what I did my entire childhood. To me that feels like a really good thing. I think especially because of the nature of what I do: creating things for kids, it feels right that through my daily routine and through the work I make I’m getting closer and closer to my kid-self because my kid-self, I think, really feels like my essential self.
I hope that addresses the question of how unschooling influenced my art because I just feel like they are inseparable. I think it’s really influenced my routine. Like I said, unschooling feels like it was training for my adult life. You learn how to be alone and you learn how to co-operate with others and how to structure your own time and how to motivate yourself and how to sit with the discontent of not feeling motivated and not feeling inspired and how to stay curious and engaged.
I don’t know, it’s all been huge in terms of my art because I think I illustrate and I create the things that I would have wanted to see have and touch and play with when I was a kid. So I think my art feels very inherently related to my childhood and unschooling was my childhood so I think that they will always be incredibly tightly linked.
PAM: Your book, Sonya’s Chickens. For me, there was quite a theme of trust in the relationship between the children and adults. It seemed to be different than your typical adult-child relationship.
PHOEBE: Yeah, I’m glad that you got that from it. It think that’s something I probably subconsciously put into it because that was my experience of being parented.
PAM: Yeah, that is just your experience of how adults and children relate to one another.
PHOEBE: Yeah, like Sonya’s dad in the book, he trusts her with a lot of heavy information, you know, about the cycle of life. I think that’s definitely how my parents talked to me as a kid. They didn’t dumb stuff down, they presented it in a way that made sense to me or sometimes challenged me. I think trusting kids with information is huge just like trusting kids with how they want to spend their time and what they want to do with their body’s, and what they are excited about. I think it’s just as important as that.
PAM: I love that.
Your work has been described as “body positive” and in an online interview I enjoyed you were asked how you defined “body positivity.” I really loved your answer. You answered: “I think it is holding onto the core value that my worth does not lie in my physical features. It is being gentle and patient with myself, because truly loving, sustainable relationships are a “two steps forward, one step back” process. It is HARD work maintaining an appreciative and honest relationship with yourself. Above all it’s about trusting myself. Sometimes I breach my own trust and have to rebuild. But then again, sometimes my own strength and beauty will impress me beyond what I thought possible.”
I love your answer and I think the process applies well to just about every societal expectation we may find ourselves grappling with. You know: not sending kids to school; the parent-child relationship that we were talking about—going against the conventional wisdom on that. I was hoping you might expand a bit about how the process plays out for you.
PHOEBE: Yeah, I think it has everything to do with that fluidity that we were talking about and the patience and the gentleness and the self-trust. I think those are all very strong tenets of the way that I feel like unschooling influenced my life.
I don’t know, it’s funny, while I still identify with a lot of parts of the ‘body positivity’ movement, I also feel like lately I think ‘body neutrality’ has been really appealing to me. I think ‘positivity’ also puts a lot of weight on an individual’s shoulders to stand up against massive societal problems and it can also make you feel like you are failing: ‘Oh, I’m not being positive enough. I’m not loving myself enough.’ It maintains a hyper-focus on bodies at all. In reality, I think I love my body the most when I’m not thinking about it. When I’m making something and being defined by something other than my body or when I’m camping and I just haven’t looked in a mirror for a week. When my body is just a tool. When it’s just like a sack that my brain and guts and muscles are carried around in. (laughter)
So, I think the gentleness and patience part of ‘body positivity’ has become something that I think is really important and just letting the feelings flow over you. You know, like, you’re allowed to be frustrated. You’re allowed to feel these feelings that our culture beats into you and it’s not your fault. You know, that all feelings are allowed. I think it totally relates back to what we were talking about: self-motivation.
Also, of course, even though I was a really self-motivated kid unschooling I still, of course, went through dry spells. I still go through dry spells with my work where I’m just like, “I have no ideas. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what path I’m on.” And I think unschooling has influenced not only the way I feel about my body but also the way that I work and exist in the world. I try to still have gentleness and patience in myself that says, “It’s ok to feel these feelings, just ride it out. Feel these sad feelings and these frustrated feelings and these feelings of not being motivated.” Experience them and kiss them goodbye and just get up tomorrow and work hard at something. I don’t know if that makes sense.
PAM: It does. That’s kind of the impression I got from the two steps forward, one step back, because there is always something more to learn. You always bump up against things and then get to the point of the ease.
I loved how you were talking about your body as a tool, as a container. That’s one thing I found, too. At first when you’re unschooling and you really feel like you are going against convention, you feel that energy, you feel that push, and it was only a few years later where I was just so comfortable just being out in the world with my kids. It wasn’t at all about unschooling or going to school. That conflict, that positive-negative side just didn’t bubble up as much anymore. We were just out there being in the world and if somebody asked, “Why aren’t they in school?” It was just a conversation; there was no pressure any more.
I think that’s such a great point because it’s cliché, but it really is a journey and we are forever, always learning, so there’s always a couple of steps forward and then maybe something comes up and you’re like, “Hey! I felt that, I noticed that.” Or like you were talking about earlier; the discomfort that you sit with. “Oh there’s discomfort here from something, I’m going to have to sit, wait it out, see if I can find the root.” There’s your little step back or off to the side and then you move forward. It’s just such a beautiful image, right?
PHOEBE: (laughter) Yes, I think that’s true. I think it’s great.
It goes back to that fluidity that we were talking about too and I think the body stuff really ties into that fluidity and the flexibility. Because I think a lot of societal norms teach us that your body is one way and you should work to make it another. Say: Maybe once you lose weight and then you’ll just be skinny forever. I think also I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life. I try hard, obviously I don’t always succeed, but I try hard to look at it through that lens of flexibility and fluidity. Sometimes my body is going to be one way and sometimes it’s going to be another and that is going to change as I age. It’s going to change depending on all these other things in my life. It’s just like any other thing in life. It’s not always in your control.
PAM: That’s a word that was popping in my head is the control piece where we still feel we need to control external things.
I could just sit with that thought for ages. (laughter) That doesn’t work very well for podcasts.
PHOEBE: I think wanting to have control and not having it and sitting with the frustration of that, dealing with the frustration of that.
PAM: That’s such a great point. Ok, last question for you.
As a grown unschooler, what piece of advice would you like to share with unschooling parents who are just starting out on this journey?
PHOEBE: Oh man! I feel like you should be asking my parents that question. I should get my mom on the line. Um. I don’t know.
PAM: No pressure.
PHOEBE: I think there is a lot of fear in our culture and in the system around removing kids from this thing that we rely on so heavily to keep everyone in a certain box and in a certain line and on a certain trajectory. So, I guess I’d say don’t let the system scare you into thinking your kid is going to fail if they don’t do or learn things in a certain way.
I think that really goes for all parents. I probably scared the crap out of my mom by only drawing all the time and refusing to do other things. I was really stubborn and I hated doing things someone else’s way and on someone else’s schedule and I’m sure that made my parents lives not that pleasant a lot of the time. But I think parents, unschooling and not, are really brave because, like I said, our culture doesn’t make it easy to feel ok about having kids who think outside the box and doing things that are outside of the box. It must be really scary to trust that even if your kid is refusing to learn math or read, that they are going to come around to it some day and it’s all going to be ok. That to me, I’m like, “That must be so scary.”
I think about that a lot in terms of, “Will I unschool my own kids?” Thinking about my experience and I don’t know if I will. I will probably have to meet my kids first, but it’s always really interesting because definitely when I think about it in that context, I think, “That must have been scary.” That is brave for parents to be like, “No. I’m going to step outside of this institution that our culture puts so much trust in.” I think that takes a lot of courage to step outside the line. I don’t really know if that’s advice but I’d say, “Good job! It’s going to be ok. You’re doing great!”
PAM: The fear thing; that was a great point. You nailed it.
It is a level of trust. It’s a huge level of trust. I know when newer parents come in, it’s how you define trust. It’s not trust as in closing your eyes and hoping it all works out in the end. It’s that trust of really paying attention and watching your kids. Watching them over time for a while and I swear so many times when, as a parent, you’re like, “Hmm, I wouldn’t do it that way.” Or maybe, “Why is she just doing this all the time?” But, if you are paying attention you see over time these little connections: “Oh look. Look what she did there. I could not have imagined that.” And you are just shocked and surprised and in awe of your children and that’s where the trust starts to build because it’s like, “Wow, I could have controlled them and helped, even maybe very nicely coerced, them along my path. But holy crap, look at the path they took. I could never have even imagined that path and taken them along there. That’s just so much better for who they are as a person than I could have envisioned for them.”
Yes, that trust is so helpful or else the fear is always on you. That’s so interesting. I think your point was great about whether or not you choose to unschool your children because it’s not a requirement, it’s not a failure. ‘Here’s my situation now, here’s my life, here’s my kids, I’ve got my kids, here is the way things are.’ But I bet you even if one of your children goes to school, you are not going to be bringing that whole ethos home with you.
PHOEBE: Yes, exactly. I think there is lots of ways you can give kids the gift of trust that aren’t necessarily only by unschooling because I think that that trust is going to have positive ripple effects. I think there is a lot of ways to bring that into kids’ lives. No matter what kind of school they go to.
PAM: Give them some agency. They can definitely still have space to make choices and time within the constraints. You know the value of that time for them just from your own experience, right?
PHOEBE: Yeah, absolutely.
PAM: Well, I want to say thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me Phoebe. It was a lot of fun.
PHOEBE: You are so welcome. Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.
PAM: Thank you so much for taking the time and before we go where is the best place for people to connect with you and check out your art online?
PHOEBE: You can go to my website which is www.phoebewahl.com and then I also have a shop which is linked from my website. Then also my Instagram which is @PhoebeWahl which is probably the best way to stay consistently up-to-date with what I’m up to, whether it’s what I’m cooking or what my cats doing, or you know, what I’m making.
PAM: That’s awesome, thank you, Phoebe.
PHOEBE: Thank you so much.