PAM: Welcome to another Q&A episode! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and I’m happy to be joined again by Anne Ohman and Anna Brown. Hi to you both!
ANNE and ANNA: Hello!
PAM: Good morning! This time I’m going to get us started!
Our first question is from Monica, she’s from Calgary, Canada.
Monica’s Question [TIME: 3:10]
I’m very new to unschooling. I believe in the principles of unschooling, but putting it into practice is a challenge. I have put aside my bias against screens recently and have let my two girls, five and eight, watch what they like when they like for as long as they like. On a ‘normal’ day, they have screentime as soon as they get up. Then we usually have an activity that takes us away from the house in the late morning for a couple of hours. They are pretty amenable to going out for which I am very grateful. Then when we get back home, they have screen time for an hour or two before dinner. We often have a ‘family watch’ after dinner or they will watch something themselves.
The problem I am struggling with is that they sometimes watch YouTube shows of people unwrapping toys, or playing with various toys. I do not have a problem with the content of the shows, but they have now made the connection that these toys can be purchased! We are not rich, but could “afford it,” but I don’t want to purchase every toy they ask for mainly because I am against amassing huge amounts of plastic stuff and I see toys that they have asked for played with a few times the first day and then forgotten. It seems such a waste. I usually say that we can’t afford it, but at the same time, I don’t want to give them a poverty mindset (deny themselves things/experiences when they are grown up even when they can afford it, but feel that they can’t, like me).
What are your views on this topic?
PAM: Hi, Monica, I know your question is about children asking for toys, but I did just want to mention using the phrase “screen time.” Having “screen time” says little about what they’re actually doing—it’s so much more than that, it’s not just a screen. I know that’s what you’re seeing but don’t stop there. What are they playing? What are they watching? What do they like about it? That can help you to see ways you can engage with them around the things they find interesting.
That said, I love that you’re asking this question because in your question you’re talking about how it feels uncomfortable to often be saying no to them! I think that might be because you’re realizing that it’s not really about saying yes or no to the toy, it’s about saying yes or no to the child, to their excitement and joy—it feels off to you, like maybe you’re dampening their enthusiasm and as you said you’re seeing it play out as a poverty mindset, one of denial.
I understand that it seems like a “waste” to you, but I think what can help is to shift and to realize, that’s your judgement, that it’s about the “toy”, the “thing,”—yet, the toy isn’t for you, it’s for them. It’s something *they’re* interested in. I’m thinking it might be helpful to look for ways to take yourself out of the equation altogether, out of that judgement piece. I was thinking you might try changing up the framework—you can say wholeheartedly yes to your child’s enthusiasm and excitement, join them in their JOY and their imaginings about this toy and how they might play with it, which may or may not actually play out as a yes to the purchase. That doesn’t need to be the only thing you guys talk about.
Another way to change things up, you could give them an allowance so that the purchase power is out of your hands and into theirs—they don’t always have to come for a “yes/no.” You’re getting yourself out of that judgement place, that way they’ll be learning about themselves when they consider whether to spend money on a toy; not learning how you feel about the toy.
They’ll now have to think about and decide for themselves how they might feel about it. You’re no longer the gatekeeper; now you’re someone they can bounce their thoughts off of, as they think it through. They’ll have that conversation. And there will be times when they buy something and they are disappointed, as you say, they play with it for a few times on the first day and then forget about it, but they’ll learn great things through that experience as well. And there will be times when something’s more expensive and they can hatch plans for saving up for it, and sometimes they’ll follow through on that bigger purchase and sometimes they’ll change their mind halfway and it’s ALL great learning.
I have a blog post, ‘Playing with Money,’ that you can check out that goes more in depth about these ideas. I’ll put a link in the show notes. Also, I remembered from Q&A episode 21, question 4 and that might have some ideas that you might find helpful. Anna?
ANNA: Pam said it pretty much exactly but I’m going to say it again, only because we get this question a lot. It’s the wording piece that is so helpful to look at. Screen time is such a limiting word and it’s really just starting from a place of judgement. Being more specific with the language, specifically saying what they’re watching, YouTube, or Dora the Explorer or whatever they’re specifically doing can help you connect with how they’re spending the time instead of just dismissing it as “screen time.” Trying to understand and enjoy that with them is the next step.
As for the toys specifically, my girls often just wanted to talk about them and then they would move on. For example, we would see a toy, they would express interest, and I would say, “Gosh, that really does look cool!” “What do you like most about it?” “What are some things we could do with it?” And we would just talk about it. We would have this great engaged conversation and 90 percent of the time, that was all they wanted. They wanted me to see it and see what they loved about it and to talk about with them. Way more often than not, it was me, I would say, “Hey let’s get it!” “It sounds fun!” and they would say, “We don’t need that!” (laughing)
It would always make me laugh because this is a common struggle for people. It would happen more in stores because the internet wasn’t as big and I don’t even know if YouTube was around back then. So, we were more likely to be walking around in the store. Over and over again they just wanted me to engage with them, talk about it, and share what they felt about it.
But the other thing from your question that stuck out to me was your desire to not have a lot of toys. We talked about this in our last Q&A. That’s your feeling about it, but they might feel very differently. Toys were a big part of our environment. It was the sacred work they did when they were young and we learned so much from it and from finding cool toys together. Me finding them or they finding them or a combination. When they were done, some things were given away to be loved by someone else, some things were consigned and we got money to buy new things, some things stored because we weren’t ready to get rid of them.
We actually moved last year from their childhood home and they were turning 17 and 19 at the time and it was at that point that they were ready to part with things that they had wanted to keep through the years. We still kept some of the special pieces and we delighted in going through all of it and remembering all of the fun times we had—those books and toys and items. I think tapping into that joy could really shift things for you, instead of bringing the heaviness of expectations. I would also be concerned about passing along the scarcity mentality that you talked about. We really dealt an abundance, even while having conversations about finances and priorities. Pam gave some great tips about all the different ways that can look. Those are the pieces that I wanted to talk about.
ANNE: Hello! Hi, Monica. I am so glad you wrote to us and welcome to unschooling. I love that you told us you’re new to unschooling. It’s so cool early in your unschooling journey that you recognize that you’re having a challenge putting the principles of unschooling into practice. It is difficult to examine long-held beliefs that were handed to us by society and not only that, we have radical beliefs that we have come to ourselves.
Probably those are the most difficult for us to look at and examine or at least for us to realize that we do need to examine them. But it’s still absolutely necessary, especially if they don’t allow our children the freedom to follow the flow of their own hearts and their own lives. All of this examining that you’re doing here and now is really great and it’s so cool because it’s just one small portion of your days and years ahead when it’s going to become a pretty regular thing. To hear something come out of your mouth or see something that’s in your head and have to stop and say, “Wait a minute, do I really believe that?”, “Does this belief serve me well?”, “Is this belief serving my family well?”
And I’m more addressing not even the toy situation, which is a belief that you have, but also the fact that you we’re disappointed that they stumbled upon these YouTube videos to begin with. That’s a preconceived judgement and definition that you had in your head.
So, if we can stop and see that some things that we’re holding onto do not serve our children or us well, that’s really wonderful. Because the energy you want to be in on your unschooling journey is one where you’re open to truly seeing and hearing and honoring your children and all that they are. And all that they love to do because that’s exactly the truth. Our children are what they love.
So, with everything they’re drawn to, not even just the toys but the YouTube videos, it’s important to honor that and go into it yourself and see the reasons why they love it. See it through their eyes because there really is so much learning and enjoyment and world expansion happening with everything they’re drawn to. Yes, that includes YouTube videos of people unwrapping toys. (You guys, is that a thing? Really? (laughing))
How exciting to a child to watch an unboxing or an unwrapping of something that I’m interested in, something that I’m drawn to. I’m fascinated by your perspective because you being new to unschooling, new to questioning these beliefs that you might not recognize what you’re holding onto yet. That is unschooling right there. It’s not so much the principles of unschooling that are hard to put into practice—with children learning from life because that just happens, the learning happens in glorious living. It’s within us the parents, where the work needs to be done.
We can first get out of their way and then join them on their fabulous unschooling journey. And if we’re clinging on to things that we believe to be true and telling our children that they’re wrong to be interested in something because we think it’s wasteful or whatever it is you are feeling, none of that is unschooling at all. We unschool to expand our children’s world, not to shelter them. And we question what we believe so that we can happily follow the children to wherever they’re leading us with the questions, the answers, their curiosities and mostly their joy.
Their joy in watching these YouTube videos, even if it’s something we think we don’t like or that we previously thought was bad or wrong, if our wise children are interested in it and are drawn to it and want more of it, then there is something there that has great value to them. Something that is speaking to their very being-ness. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.
This is their unschooling job actually. Naturally gravitating toward those things that they find interesting. That is where all the learning is in unschooling and they can only get to where they need to be when we get out of their way with our rules and judgments and edicts, which I know you are loosening up on.
Last night I was watching HGTV. This is just a little story of the bigger picture of our unschooling lives and examining what we may be holding on to. HGTV, my latest obsession, which I watch so incredibly often that sometimes I have it on without the sound just because I feel inspired and comforted and excited by all the projects they are doing on that channel. I have it on right now for my bulldog out in the living room so that he’s quiet during the podcast recording. (laughing) He’s going to come up to me with all these ideas!
Anyway, on the show I was watching, the main character was laying in this bed and she was saying how she could see straight down the hallway from that bed. She said that was so great for parents who were waiting for their teens to come home and the teens are trying to sneak in the house past curfew without getting caught. Oh my gosh! It struck me, as it often does, how incredibly foreign that entire mainstream view of teens or even children in general is to all the radical unschoolers I know. And what an amazing wonderful life we have where we are good friends with our children. We have mutually respectful relationships where we have conversations about things instead of the parent dictating the rules and a child trying to not get caught breaking them.
I remember talking to some people once a long time ago, maybe it was when my kids were teenagers and they could not believe that my children were never once punished for anything in all of their lives. Now THAT is a foreign and very sad concept to me, thinking that adults feel they have the right to inflict punishment on another human being just because the human being is a child of theirs. So, no, not only have my children never been punished for anything, we have lived entirely in the opposite direction of what comes as a result of a parent punishing child. Every move I make with my children I have examined because I want to make sure that it brings us closer together instead of pushing us apart. And it’s these kinds of things we can step away from even if, especially if, we have decided for ourselves to believe it before we came on this parenting journey. We question every belief and thought that we find ourselves clinging on to that has the possibility of pushing our children away from us.
Seriously, I believe our children are here asking us to clean our slates and let them show us how amazing the world and life and love and family can be. My goodness, what a gift they’re bringing to us with that. That’s exactly what I did. From the first time my first born cried, I knew he was here to show me the way to live and everything I had known before his presence here, I think it left me. I was there for him to see what he sees, to learn what he knows, to have him show me what he needed in life and that’s how it’s been ever since.
He turns 27 years old next week and we are good, good friends. So, if this is where you’d like to be, you are doing such a good job asking these questions. Just make sure you’re able to back up a bit into your question and dig deeper to see what it really is you’re holding on to, what it is you’re really asking of your child, then find a way to either release it or discuss it in a way that will bring you closer together.
And you can do that by making sure you see everything from your child’s amazing perspective.
ANNA: I just have to say, in case there are any inquiring minds out there, same here—never any punishments in our house. It’s such a bizarre concept. Now I don’t think about it but I remember along the way people would say, “That will never last. That’s not going work.”
ANNE: It’s every step of the way, they’re like, “Just wait until they’re walking. Wait for the terrible twos. Wait till they go to school. Wait until they’re teens.” It never came because of examining and walking toward the connection and the relationship with the children.
ANNA: I just had to say that in case anyone was wondering.
I will go ahead with question two, from Heather in WA state.
Heather’s Question [TIME: 21:10]
We’re an unschooling family with four kids ages six, four, two, and six months. I would say we’re 100% unschoolers in terms of academics, and we’re still working on all the lifestyle elements!
My question is about how you and your families have handled kids’ freedom to leave the house or yard by themselves. We have a fenced backyard where the kids can always play. The front yard is unfenced and faces a usually calm street. Generally, we let the four and six-year-old play in the front, ride their bikes around the block, and cross the street to play at the school playground by themselves (one good reason to have a school there, haha!), as long as they let us know where they’re going. The two-year-old doesn’t yet remember not to run into the street, so she needs an adult to accompany her for all those things.
Even with these (I think) fairly generous boundaries compared to other families in the U.S., the older kids, especially the six-year-old, are often trying to “escape,” slipping out the door whenever we open it and running off to neighbors’ yards, and sometimes leaving without telling us (and the two-year-old follows). My six-year-old complains that he doesn’t have enough freedom to go “wherever he wants without a grown-up.” It’s very frustrating because we feel like we’re giving them as much freedom as we conceivably can where we live. We’re not afraid of kidnapping or anything, but there are some busy streets around the edges of our neighborhood, so I do worry about cars. I notice that his complaints come more often when we’ve been home for several days in a row. I try to get everyone out as much as I can, but … four kids! Sometimes I need some at-home days for my own well-being.
Do you have any ideas for how to negotiate this? Thanks!
ANNA: Well, hello!
It sounds like your parameters about striking off on their own are reasonable but I think you really hit the nail on the head with noticing that the issue springs up when you’ve been in the house for a while. As a mom, I totally get the reality you’re facing with four kids. Well, I can imagine that piece, having only just had two, but to the kids, they don’t understand that piece and it wasn’t a choice that they made.
So, I would think of creative ways for the six-year-old to get out on those days. It may be a mother’s helper or a teenager to help him have some adventures on the days you need to stay home. Or swap time with neighbors—maybe you take the littles and they strike out with the bigs or vice versa.
I look at behaviors as expressions of needs and when it seems like we’re at an impasse—he wants to go out alone and you aren’t comfortable with that—then we can sometimes get stuck there, but if we start peeling back the layers and see that he’s needing some extra attention on those days or activities or big muscle movements, then it becomes something that can be solved.
Maybe there’s some creative things to set up in the backyard space to bring out for special fun or that add a new layer of play or physical activities or things like clue hunts, obstacle courses, things that make that space inviting and fun. It just sounds like maybe it’s time for some creative problem-solving and discussion with the family.
Also, something that occurred to me in reading your question—he is the oldest of your four, so I would be aware of my language. Is he expected to be doing things because he’s the oldest or is he being told he’s a big boy now so you can do x, y, z? If so, he might be trying to make sense of what he’s hearing and reconcile it with what he sees as things big kids do.
I don’t know if that is at play here but I wanted to throw it out there, maybe something to watch for because he is so little. While he may seem huge and gigantic next to your two-year old, he is still a little guy who needs a lot of time and a lot of attention. Take it from the person with a 19 and 17-year old, six is so tiny when you see them.
ANNE: Hi Heather. Because I am a holder of the lantern and a digger of the deeper, I’m going to go back into your question and just draw attention to something in your words, in your mindset that could be shifted and could open up possibilities for you especially because you say you’re still working on all the lifestyle elements of unschooling. So, I want to offer you as many tidbits as possible in your language and energy and way of thinking and living.
You said you believe you are “giving” your children generous boundaries and to me, right there, that entire concept doesn’t have to be a part of your life and your vocabulary at all. We know what happens when we make sure kids know the parents are giving them boundaries. No matter how generous we feel they are. You even wrote the older kids, especially the six-year-old, is often trying to escape, running out the door whenever we open it, off to the neighbor’s yard, sometimes leaving without telling us and the two-year-old follows.
I feel like that is what happens when we have the parent-child echelon where the parents make the rules and boundaries and the kids are expected to obey and follow. That echelon does not and never has existed in my family. What did exist, and what does exist, is conversations, understanding, empathy, and validation. Mostly a deep trust that when there is a need or desire, there is a way to fulfill it that will make everybody happy. All of that stems from seeing circumstances from your child’s eyes.
So, if there are boundaries and rules—whether it’s limited tv time, computer time, no sugar in the house—the child’s going to run for the door and find a way to break the rules and want more tv and computer time, sneak a bag of brown sugar outside. The thing is, that’s not because it’s something that’s inside of them, that’s kind of what they’re doing because there are rules that are forbidding and limiting those things.
When you look at it through the eyes of your children, it just needs to be validated. In addition to all that Anna was saying about him being six and needing attention but the validation stuff, “I so understand.” “I know how frustrating this is. I so get that.” And then with validation you have an energy of trust that you can work it all out so everyone is happy and then you don’t have to state boundaries or rules. You’re having conversations and its kind of an awareness in respectful energy. After validating you could say, “Let’s keep talking about this and see what we can come up with, ways that we can make this feel better for all of us.”
The thing is, open communication with the older ones and not close it off and to see it from your child’s eyes and not have the parent-child echelon, that’s really, really important. You want to give them the freedom and trust to come up with solutions to their desires and your concerns. From a place of trust then everybody is open to hearing everyone’s ideas. As long as the kids are a part of it and they know that their ideas hold equal weight and value in the conversation. That is the eyes that you can see it through that I wanted to focus on because Anna had a lot of good ideas and Pam will too.
PAM: I just wanted to chat about things that came to mind as I read your question, Heather. A little twist on what Anne said, going back to you mentioning the fairly generous boundaries compared to other families in the U.S.” I’ve had those thoughts many times over the years—but I’ve learned it’s of little value to us.
Living and learning together as a family is not about comparing ourselves to anyone—whether it’s conventional families or other unschooling families. It’s about seeing our children’s needs and desires and figuring out our own real needs and desires and exploring ways to move forward from there.
Those are the things that are valid in our lives. Not what anybody else thinks about it. Seeing and validating his expressed desire to go places without a grown-up isn’t the same as giving him permission.
I think that’s one of the things that trips us up a lot when we’re thinking about validating something we’re at first fearful about. That as soon as we express empathy or understanding, it’s going to be interpreted as permission. “Well, you said I could go out the door.” It’s not.
The other piece, when he talks about, ‘Go wherever he wants without a grown-up,’ one shift that always really helped me was to realize that is his six-year-old solution to something that’s bothering him. If you dig deeper to find the need at the root of his proposed solution, I suspect you’ll be able to find all sorts of other ways to meet that need.
You already mentioned one clue—that you notice it bubbles up more when he’s been home for several days in a row. So, creative problem-solving like Anna was talking about. Brainstorming things around the need you think might be under there. You think he is wanting engagement and activity and you’re needing at-home time—there are so many places that can go. Anna had great ideas about making the backyard more interesting so that would be a really fun place to go.
Maybe he wants that engagement to be out and about, or is he happy to have other kids over to play? You’re trying to figure out ways that might work for you, while meeting his need for more engagement. Maybe you can invite other families with young kids over. Or a mother’s helper, an older kid who you can pay to come over and play with him. Or try to arrange outings for him with other families or grandparents. Maybe grandparents or somebody might take him for a nice trip while you stay home with the younger kids. Or are there places you can visit where you feel more relaxed, so it doesn’t feel as much pressure or stress on you?
Maybe none of those particular options will work in your circumstances, but it’s about getting the brainstorming juices going. Maybe your spouse can intentionally take him out somewhere every night to fill his cup, to the park, go around the block, or kick the soccer ball, or wherever. Try it for a couple of weeks and see how it goes—it may help you get closer to discovering the underlying need that he’s feeling, the need to run or/and escape.
It’s all about validating, observing, trying something, seeing what happens, having those open conversations about it, tweak it, and try again. It’s the feedback loop of life, that’s how it seems to me. That’s what we’re living instead of boundaries.
No matter how generous we think our boundaries are, as Anne talked about, they’re still boundaries. There is still an edge of conflict. Rather, think of it as a feedback loop. Try things you think might help, but in conversion with them, see what happens, talk about what happens. It’s really beautiful.
I’m getting goose bumps now because that is where we get to know each other so much better. And they come up with so many awesome ideas, no matter their age. Then it’s like, ‘I’m going to try to figure out a way we can make that happen for us and let’s see how it goes,’ so they truly feel you are a team together. That you are not trying to stop them from doing something but trying to help them do something with your needs and concerns also being part of the conversation.
ANNE: It’s that space where you get to know each other and what they are feeling, seeing, and they are heard and validated. Then they develop trust for you and your ideas.
When you come out right away and set boundaries, there is that echelon I keep talking about, that hierarchy that has to go away. Their voice has to be as valuable and have as much input and weight as your does.
PAM: Beautiful. OK, question number three from Shelsy in Orlando, FL.
Shelsy’s Question [TIME: 34:54]
Hi! Thank you so much for this podcast. Listening every week is essential to helping me stay centered in this unschooling journey.
I have a question about therapy and if/when it’s appropriate to seek it for a child. I have a little boy who’s six and from the very beginning he has made his presence felt. He has a strong personality, an amazing imagination, and he knows who he is and what he wants. He will not bend either if he doesn’t want to do something, or if he wants to do something and is being prevented. He can be violent when he doesn’t get his way. The last six years have been extremely eye opening and I have challenged a lot of assumptions, especially since beginning to unschool nine months ago. We have always leaned more toward natural and attachment parenting and our inclination is to resist most medical interventions unless truly necessary.
Earlier this summer the kids and I spent three weeks visiting family in Pennsylvania. When we were with my family we spent a majority of our time with their cousins, ages nine and two. My son is an introvert, he usually prefers to stay home and play video games. When he is around other children (besides his sister–their relationship ebbs and flows, but can tend to be violent at times) he is usually okay for awhile and then seeks to be on his own or wants to leave.
I knew this going into our trip and fully intended to escape with him upstairs to watch movies away from the other kids when he needed to, and we did often. But there were still plenty of times when his interactions with his cousins sparked conflict. The two older kids were not always kind to him. Other children always become very bossy around him–I guess because he doesn’t tend to “follow the rules.”
But when conflict arises, he is extremely impulsive, and his first impulse is almost always to hurt the other person. He’ll hit, scratch, and bite. He seems to snap into a sort of Hulk mode and it can often take a lot of effort to help him snap back out of it. Before the trip he told me that his heart wants him to do good things but his brain wants him to do bad things and it’s hard to listen to his heart.
I’m not really sure how to help him with this besides keeping him from other kids entirely or only under close supervision. It prevents him and the rest of the family from being able to participate in things where he would be in a typical childcare situation (such as church). My mother very adamantly suggested that he should be in some kind of therapy or counseling because to her his behavior is extremely abnormal. I find his behavior inconvenient and frustrating, but not completely out of the realm of normal for a six-year-old strong-willed boy, but I could be wrong. I really hesitate to take him anywhere because I have a suspicion that they will be quick to try to diagnose and possibly medicate, and I really don’t want to go down that route. I also don’t really want him to be expected to do multiple different kinds of therapies several times a week. He’s not broken–I’m not trying to fix him. But I do want to help him, and consequently the rest of the family, as well as other children he’ll come in contact with.
Since we’ve been home from the trip he’s really done pretty well, he doesn’t lash out quite as often. We babysat a four-year-old boy for a few hours and my son did okay until he just wanted his space back and he didn’t want to share. Once we calmed him down and let him do his own thing he was okay, even though he mostly ignored the other boy.
Is this something I can expect him to grow out of? How do I help him? Would some kind of therapy really be best for him? How do I know without opening the door to a bunch of other interventions?
PAM: Hi, Shelsy!
I love the bits you’ve shared about your son: he knows who he is and what he wants, he has an amazing imagination; and how he already talks about his motivations and impulses from his heart and his head. He’s only six—yes, he has a big personality, but that is who he is. I’m so happy for him that you guys have chosen unschooling—that this is going to help him so much in exploring and learning how he meshes with the world. And, as you say, he’s not broken—he doesn’t need fixing.
But in your quest to help him, to understand him better, maybe read through books like The Highly Sensitive Child and The Explosive Child. I think you may find some solid ideas for helping him through his days and the challenges he encounters. I’ll put links in the show notes and the caveat that Anne has shared before with the books: read them from our perspective. Don’t worry about the school suggestions. You’re reading it from your child’s perspective because they can help you see things through their eyes that you don’t realize yet. I think they can be very helpful that way.
The other thing I wanted to point out was, not hanging out with other kids or always being with right there with him, may well be good plans for now. You never once mentioned that he was asking to hang out with other kids. These were situations where he’s been put in with other kids.
If he’s not interested that’s okay; if he needs you right by his side to help him and the other kids, that’s okay too—it’s HIS unique path and story. What you want to do is help him shine as the amazing kid he is right now.
ANNA: Hi Shelsy.
I also loved your description, as I could just picture him and I just love that image and I love your connection to him and how you’re noticing triggers and becoming aware yourself of what works for him. It sounds like you are talking to him but I just wanted to make sure about that. With my oldest we talked very early on about her need for what we just call “space.” When I could see her becoming overwhelmed, I would help her find space, it sounds like you’re doing the same.
We also talked about what was happening in her body before she became overwhelmed, signs that she learned so that she could remove herself before she got to a place of being upset. Those were tools that she was able to develop and use throughout her childhood and really even still uses them today. She knows if she’s going to be out in a loud environment that she needs quiet time when she gets home. It was never presented as a problem, just something to know about herself and I feel like we all have those things. That was just part of our conversation, that we would talk about what works for us in different situations.
Pam mentioned The Explosive Child book, and that also came to my mind, again, not an unschooling book but I think there could be some helpful tools in there as you’re figuring out what’s going on. Interestingly, and—this is kind of an aside that will come from me because of my background—but when you described that his heart was wanting to do something but he was not able to do that, is so common in kids that are reacting to artificial dyes and to dairy. So, I’m going to throw it out there just as something to observe. It’s interesting because those exact words of “I know I want to do this differently but I’m not able to” is a big sign. I’ve seen kids when they are not eating artificial dyes suddenly don’t have any of those impulse issues because it really was coming from that. I’m not saying that’s the case here but certainly something to look into.
And I think just continuing to connect with him, understanding his body and learning to listen to his body, those are all helpful tools.
Maybe it’s all that he needs at this point. I just wanted to validate and hear you that therapy can be a slippery slope in our society because the first inclination does seem to be to control or mold the child to the environment versus understanding the child and helping them find tools. I think that’s really what is beautiful about you coming to unschooling because it allows you that space and that time to really find the tools and really to not label or try to change your son. So, I feel like you’re on the right track with all of that, just trusting and honoring who he is really is a beautiful gift. So, I think that’s really lovely, thank you for sharing that with us.
ANNE: Shelsy, unschooling probably no less than saved your child’s life because who he is needs to be celebrated and the unschooling life, as you know, as we’ve said, does not require any child to fit into any typical box. So, he will be free to be who he is.
I feel your pain and your desire to work through this and I’d like to recommend, if you haven’t already, to read my essay ‘I Am What I Am’ on my website shinewithunschooling.com. There are so many things you can do to help him. First of all, what I always say is to accept and celebrate him for being exactly who he is and in that energy, you’ll be able to be his partner and not just help him through these difficult challenges in life but honestly redesign your life so that he simply shines.
You can’t respond as if he’s a sensory typical child. With my Jacob, we let who he is guide our lives and we created our lives so that he would have a space where he felt safe and free to shine and felt celebrated for who he is. With Jacob—and I feel it with your son too—he’s owning a lot of weight in the world and I feel like there’s already so much going on in him with these intense emotions.
I always tried to help Jacob remove that weight from his shoulders. I remember the first time when, I forget what Jacob said, I know it was in response to something somebody else had said to him but I saw how he was owning the weight of the world and I immediately thought, “Wow! If he is owning this much weight then I need to do all I can to make sure his life is free from any more weight because he already has so much going on inside his head already.” Most of all I need to make sure that I am not the one who is handing him anymore weight.
It’s in that way that we created a life and a world where our focus was on allowing Jacob’s very sensitive being to shine. I surrounded him with people who only saw him shine. We followed him and what made him comfortable and at peace when his heart was at peace that was the direction we walked in.
When we had group gatherings, it was actually rarely, because my kids prefer to get together with friends on a one-on-one setting but those times when we were with friends, I was there with Jacob, with all of them, being one of the friends. I was never a “leave the kids alone and talk with the parents” kind of person. I wanted to be with the kids anyway, so there I was with the kids, on the floor playing games, talking about what they loved, inviting them into kind of a safe and honored space where all of them could shine together.
There, as one of them and that with that energy, I was able to help Jacob navigate the situations and circumstances and relationships. I’ve always said that I’ve been his interpreter and his translator. I would help the other kids understand what Jacob meant and I would help Jacob understand what the other kids meant when they said or did something. As I said, my energy would be right and the alignment right with the flow, with all the kids’ energy. So, it was always natural and right and kind of ensured that things would go more smoothly for everybody by being there and helping Jacob through all of this.
Most importantly I’d make sure I was in tune with Jacob’s energy. If I could see he was getting overwhelmed, we would talk about what to do next. I would keep him grounded and centered because it’s when he gets near the edge and goes over that edge, as you know, that it’s hard to get back after going over the edge. My goal was always to keep him centered and I did that by touching him, touching my cheek to his, it’s very powerful, rubbing his back a little, offering some water. That brought him back from all of the confusing, swirliness that was going on in his head and in his heart, being a highly sensitive child with sensory issues.
The other book is, The Out-of-Sync Child, that may be a good recommendation also. When you talk about other children becoming bossy around him, oh my goodness, this was one reason why we just did not go to many gatherings and leave the kids alone because we had too many early on incidents where kind of a school kid energy would pick up on Jacob’s vulnerability and gullibility and would really just start picking on him and abusing him and it was just awful. That’s why we made sure to prevent that from happening.
I’ve talked many times before in the podcasts about briefing and de-briefing and I don’t want to get into it now because I’m actually going to put together some thoughts on that on my website. So, if you want to give that a read, that would be great.
No, I don’t believe your child needs to see anyone, definitely does not need a diagnosis. He just needs to be seen and celebrated and honored for being who he is and have a respectful partner helping him navigate, that very large and sensitive passionate being that he is.
I’ve noticed with a lot of parents with highly emotional and explosive children that they’re afraid of those big emotions and that kind of gives the kids the feelings that these emotions are wrong, that who they are is wrong. You know, he may be picking up on that energy already and I know you don’t want him to feel that he’s wrong—as you said, he’s not broken. So just watch yourself with being afraid of his energy. Just do your best, as I said, to keep him centered and not near the edge. Help him to navigate that as his partner.
And, for you, if you hold on to all the ways that you know he shines, that’s what I’d do—go through all the things that make him light up and his conversations are so beautiful with you. That’s so incredibly shining. You hold on to that with your interactions with him and, as I said, help him stay centered and grounded. That’ll help him to see that he is a gloriously perfect human being, being exactly who he is. Then he’ll be open to your gentle guidance as he walks forward in life and just loving who he is, able to celebrate himself and that right there is really where all children should be. Thank you so much for writing and sharing all that.
ANNA: I will go ahead and read question four which is anonymous.
Anonymous Question [TIME: 51:20]
I’m feeling stuck.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about things and I realize it’s not food fear or a need to control. Maybe at one point it was, but now it’s not. I would love to let my kids eat a range of different things and learn for themselves what works for them and what doesn’t. This works great for things that give an immediate reaction like a sore tummy, rash, headache etc. But I don’t know if we can learn what makes us feel awful if the effects are not instant and also worse with a cumulative effect. Also, if we don’t have the testing to understand WHY a body is reacting in certain ways. I’m grateful for all the testing available and the doctors who understand mental health illness as a physical illness rather than just being an emotional problem.
My concern is my eight-year-old son’s health and happiness. According to his doctor, psychologist, and test results, it would be potentially damaging to his short and long-term mental and physical health to let him control his food choices. I won’t go into every medical detail as it’s complicated and involves several factors. The point is, it’s not about food or control of trusting him to make good choices. It’s about nourishing and nurturing him so that he can be his happiest and healthiest self today and in the future. I wish so much that we could just allow complete freedom to experiment and let him learn on his own what works for him and what doesn’t. The problem is that it’s not that easy. He needs a continued restricted diet, supplements and testing. It’s not easy for him, I know. Food at our unschooling table would not be restricted at all if there weren’t good reasons for it to be.
He knows he feels terrible but he’s tired of the diets and the testing and the supplements. I get it and empathize with him. But he doesn’t understand the potential implications of not doing so. And I believe it would be negligent and irresponsible of me to allow him complete freedom of choice when I understand the medical implications.
So where to from here? I love asking the question “Why not yes” and can generally gladly accommodate all other needs and requests made by my kids. But when it comes to food, I can find way too many reasons to say no. I know that unschoolers recommend to set your child up for success but also allow them freedom to learn on their own. I don’t know how that works for us and feel like I can’t have both. I read your book too and look forward to reading it many times as we continue our journey.
Please understand that this is not the same as it would be if my kids had no health concerns. My daughter has no health concerns and in the last few months since relaxing all the food rules to see what would happen, she has been fine and making varied and balanced choices. My son is an absolute mess. Exhausted, depressed, highly anxious, aggressive, pale, dark under his eyes and not sleeping. This is not his personality, he is a very different kid otherwise. Of course, I love him at all times and support him through his miserable times but it breaks my heart to see him suffering and it makes our time together much less enjoyable.
Do I let him make his choices and feel flat and miserable and hope that maybe he will choose for himself to care about his health before he does any permanent damage? Or do I step in and take full control? Is there an in-between?
In the past, I felt like we had a good balance. I always cooked foods that he liked and if there were yucky supplements to take I always hid them in something yummy or syringed them to him like a little bird. We’ve found ways to make things easier by playing games and making his favourite treats to take to parties etc. Now that he is getting older he is pushing away from this more and I worry it will hurt our relationship and he will start sneaking food or refusing to take supplements etc.
I guess the question is, are there times when it is appropriate and kind for a parent to say no and give the child as many options and choices within the boundaries as possible? I know this isn’t unschooling but I’m not sure what our other options are. Is it kind to tell an eight-year-old that their behaviour and attitude make them really difficult to be around and you much prefer their company when they are being positive and happy? (I’m not talking happy happy joy joy all the time. My kids know I’m very big on all feelings being ok and I love them when they’re feeling sad, angry, frustrated etc,…but this goes way beyond that and it’s stressful for the rest of the family to be around him when he’s so miserable and negative) I also have my daughter to consider as she adores her big brother. She loves playing with him and he is generally very patient and playful. When affected by poor food choices/lack of supplements however, he is very aggressive and nasty to her and she gets confused as to why he is so different and becomes very fearful around him.
I so want what is best for my son and our relationship. My kids are my priority and I spent all day happily doing things with them or for them. My son is a gorgeous kid who is kind, empathetic, thoughtful and creative. He’s amazing and I want to see him enjoying life without fatigue and anxiety. This is the only thing that is causing me stress and I don’t know what to do.
Jonah often tells me at night (when he is in his most open and chatty mood of the day) that I shouldn’t listen to daytime Jonah as he doesn’t know what he wants. For example, last night he was telling me that he wants to be able to run fast like Sonic and that every day I need to make sure he does his running practice and eats the right foods for his energy needs. But then daytime comes and I try to help him achieve what he asked for and he knocks me back. He’s also told me in the past that I just shouldn’t let him eat the foods that harm him but then if they are available to him he will want to eat them and I don’t know if he wants me to say yes or no. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t force him to run or stop him from putting food in his mouth if he wanted to. It’s like he is asking me to set limits for him but then in the moment he doesn’t want me to. This is very confusing for me. He will often tell me at night that I just need to be more firm and not give him options (what kid says that!) But that doesn’t feel right to me. Isn’t the point to let him make his own decisions in the moment so he can learn things for himself? Or am I letting him down by not setting a limit that he has previously asked me to?
I have similar confusing thoughts around his attitude to things at times. One example would be his birthday this year. He helped me plan it. All he wanted was to spend a day at a water park with his best friend and have her for a sleepover. So that’s what he got. He was really excited about it and seemed to have a great time and was very happy. But when we got home he complained that it wasn’t very fun and that he wouldn’t like to go there again. This is common for him. We often spend hours together doing whatever he wants to do and he appears happy. But then later he’ll tell me he had “the worst day ever and that he’s never happy”. I sometimes just don’t know how to respond when he says stuff like that. I feel like I bend over backwards trying to make him happy, and I love doing it and I’m not resentful. But I do wonder if, no matter what I do, he’s going to say he’s always unhappy anyway.”
ANNA: There is a lot there and first, I just wanted to say that I feel your love for him and I appreciate that and I appreciate all that you’re sharing.
I’m going to talk a bit about the food stuff because we have had health and food issues at our house and did find that it was best for them to make decisions on their own, even when that meant going through difficult times. We would talk about how we’re feeling and patterns that we noticed but they needed to come to it on their own. I felt that I had to prioritize the relationship.
I’m wondering about your situation and it seems a bit different but I’m not sure why the foods that are harming him are in the house, that is one question, not knowing the specifics it’s hard to make a suggestion.
We have one out of the four of us who needs to be gluten-free and our meals are gluten-free. When we are out some of the rest of us may choose to eat gluten but it isn’t a part of our home. There are so many tasty options that no one ever feels like they’re missing out at all and if they were, then we’d talk about that and find solutions that feel good.
My youngest had her gluten problems from birth and quite possibly is celiac but she had to get there on her own and she decided around 13 to stop eating gluten. So, now it’s been about four or five years. We talked about it plenty before that but me forcing her to give it up, even though it was causing health problems, was not something I was comfortable with. I shared my best information and I trusted in her. I think sharing the impact we feel when people eat a food they react to is reasonable and you can share experiences when you have something to eat or drink and how it affects you. Open discussion about how our bodies feel and react to things has been a part of our family.
They are not a part of all unschooling families, but it has worked for us and I feel like both my girls have an understanding of what works for them and what doesn’t and that has come from inside of them and not from me. I have shared my journey with food too and modeled making adjustments but again I just have to trust in their journey.
People pick up really quickly if someone has an agenda. So, if you start a conversation and you share your experience with an agenda, nothing is going to change. It will just create distance and not connection. I know that I don’t know what’s best for another and that I can’t avoid or plan for every eventuality. I focus on right now and today and maintaining my connection, then together we can navigate whatever comes our way. And when I say trusting, it doesn’t mean trusting that things will work out like I want them to work out. It’s trusting that everything is unfolding how it needs to even if I don’t like the feel of it in the moment or I don’t understand it.
That’s the opposite of control. It’s letting go and that is something that I have to practice pretty much every day because we can try to control all outcomes but it never works and so often creates distance in a relationship. My priority is the connection, because I’ve seen when our connections are secure that we have a much easier time navigating what comes our way.
I just wanted to say a tiny bit about the last bit of your question which was how he can be unhappy about things and you feel like you’re creating and doing the things that he wants to do and he still is unhappy. I have a child who also is now an adult that can be that person, that can kind of see the dark side of things and say, “I didn’t like this about it.”
It was surprising to me at times because I look at the world in a very different way. But it’s been such a beautiful journey connecting with her and honoring where she is and how she needs to express things but also being true to who I am and the joy that I like to find and the gratitude in each moment. I empathize with that but I think it can be navigated where you’re both honored where you are.
So, I’m going to hand this over to Pam.
PAM: Thank you, Anna, that was really beautiful stuff.
I’m trying to look ahead at my notes. That last piece that you were talking about—for me one of the things that helps there is once I’ve done something that my child was interested in so and so.
In this example, it was his birthday and what he wanted to do for his birthday. We made these plans, we’re excited about them and we did it. Then I need to cut my expectations off of how things flow after and not feel judged by how he sees it after because that’s about him, that’s how he’s learning, how he’s processing.
I’ve had many situations where my kids have had a different experience than I have from something and to make that shift and say it’s interesting to know this piece about them, this way that they’re seeing it. That’s really fascinating and interesting and understanding it from their perspective but separating it from mine, to not feel like I’m being judged and it was a waste of my time and energy in the first place to do this thing just because even though they seem to enjoy it in the moment maybe something didn’t work as well for them later when they’re talking about it.
What they can do, when they have that time to process with you and have that conversation with you, the next time you guys make plans maybe something that you’ve learned from that can be adapted into the plans moving forward and say, “Remember last time, you said you didn’t like this piece,” or whatever, but to not take that on as judgment on ourselves but we’re doing the best in each moment.
The one thing I wanted to bring out, and Anna mentioned this and it’s beautiful and for me in situations like this—I always go back to the relationship as my touchstone. For me to support my children as they work through these challenges, I need to have a solid and trusting relationship with them. As Anna said, that is when things go more easily or the conversations are more open and information gets on the table, needs and feelings get laid out, or else they get protected because that trust isn’t there.
Trust comes when you drop that agenda that Anna was talking about because, if you don’t, they won’t be sharing things, they won’t be coming to me to chat about things, if they make a connection between something they ate and something they’re feeling, and they don’t truly trust us. They think we’ll say, “See, I told you. Remember I told you that might happen?”
If that’s the attitude you’re going to bring, they’re not going to want to share it, that’s too judgmental. You want it to be a place where they can safely share all information without feeling like they’re going to be judged by it because they want to get it out there to think about and process it. That’s why deeply understanding how unschooling works and why trusting relationships are so important is key—deschooling is key.
As far as taking the time to understand ourselves, and to separate ourselves from our children so we can focus on what they want for themselves, not what we want for them. When I was reading through the question it sparked my blog post about ‘Unschooling with Strong Beliefs’ that I’ll link to in the show notes, I think that would be really helpful for you to read with this situation in mind. I use a different example but throughout this, this is your belief, that you need to be saving him from some sort of long-term thing. I think Anna addressed that really well.
If he is a “different kid” depending on what he eats, he will discover that himself—and he will deeply know and understand it in a way that he never will if it’s just you telling him that over and over, trying to convince him, trying to control things for his own good. As soon as the phrase, “for their own good” comes out, that’s a great clue for us that we need to dig a little bit deeper.
With the back and forth on limiting things you mentioned about him saying, “You need to limit me.” And the next day not wanting it, that sounds so human! I’ve known so many adults, myself included, who have gone to bed at night thinking, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to exercise and eat right,’ and then have trouble following through the next day—it’s the whole New Year’s Resolution thing! We all have this perfect image in our head and we need to figure out the reality of it.
What you’re learning there is that really perfect vision that I truly want to put the effort into following. I think that’s one huge piece is to know it’s so human, so normal. And you asked, “What kid says that?”, in relation to asking you to help him set limits on himself, and I just wanted to say my kids have said things like that, and I’ve heard of other unschooling kids say that, because they trust their parents to help them navigate whatever challenge they’re working through.
The key question for you is, is he asking for help because he wants to do it, or because he knows that’s what you want him to do? Just something for you to ponder. I also wanted to mention, because you mentioned feeling uncomfortable, about when my kids have asked for help that I’m uncomfortable giving, we talk about that too. In situations like that I’m willing to try out “policing mode” for a bit so they can see how it feels because it’s what they’ve been asking to experience, but it’s not a viable long term solution—it’s a pit stop along the way.
It’s that feedback loop, let’s try this and see what happens, let’s see how that feels.
Another thing worth considering is, like I mentioned in Question 1, try to take yourself out of the equation—don’t be the person standing between him and food, help him explore ways for him and food to interact directly; that’s where the real learning is. Try having lots of the food he can eat with abandon available so he can easily grab it whenever he wants—make it pretty and appealing and fun, and see what happens. If there’s stuff he wants to try limiting, instead of having it in the kitchen and you playing bad cop, try not having it in the house at all—that way it’s not an immediate temptation, and see what happens. Again, feedback loop.
It’s about working with him, toward his goals, trying out a hundred different possibilities and having lots of open and non-judgmental conversations along the way to help him process what he’s discovering both about his food motivations and about how he feels physically and emotionally after he eats a wide range of things.
One of my sons has diabetes and that’s a food-related thing too and you talk about supplements. There were times when he wasn’t interested, he didn’t want to have to take his blood sugar yet another time or give himself another needle when he was younger. I would just do all that I could for him to help him because I could say it’s a boundary, something that has to be done but never once did we have that conversation because it was just a given. So, we just worked and figured everything out and again it was a whole feedback thing, “What are you feeling?”, “What are you wanting?”, “If you have this, then there’s this insulin implication.”, etc. It never became like a point of contention. I never put myself in that bad cop spot and I think that was an easier way to envision it, to realize that you’re helping them figure their way through the situation as it is and helping them explore all sorts of possibilities.
ANNE: Hi, I’m here.
I have so many notes swirling in my head and scribbled on my paper that I’m going to try and make sense of it all but yes, to what Pam just said, trying to remember what Pam just said. (laughing)
When it is a conversation and again when his voice has as much weight and value as yours, that’s fine-tuning of life and not the parental hierarchy with a parent giving an edict. Oh goodness, I just feel like this whole thing is so much weight on him. I want him to be free from that weight and even when his behavior is what you are seeing as inappropriate and automatically saying, ‘because you ate these foods,’ oh my goodness, I feel like that’s so much weight on him.
I feel like it’s clouding so many things and I’m wondering if he’s feeling like he’s not being seen for who he is no matter what, no matter what he eats: when he’s eating the right foods, if he’s getting parental approval then maybe that’s why he’s saying I need you to limit me because I like this when you’re happy with me and my choices and he’s not eating the right thing and he does something that’s not the best behavior and does it automatically get blamed on the food? It’s clouding everything and I think the issue, as they’ve been saying is to remove yourself from that and then that cloud will go away. I think his weight will be more evenly distributed. I’m an energy feeling person, that’s why I’m speaking in these terms!
He can know who he is. I’m wanting him to know who he is no matter what. Instead, you’re telling him who he is and who he becomes with food issues. He needs a chance to know himself better. I’m going to mention a book we’ve mentioned many times, it used to be called Preventing Childhood Eating Problems now it’s called, Kids, Carrots, and Candy: a practical, positive approach to raising children free of food and weight problems, and I’m not sure the whole message is exactly what you’re looking for, but I think you’ll pick up some really good bits in it and again read it through an unschoolers eyes and what is appropriate for your situation.
The book removes the weight of the whole food issue, maybe not for the same reasons and maybe it does cover necessary diets for medical reasons, but I want him to be seen and celebrated for who he is. To not have any food issues on that, at all, because who he is—What does he love? When does he light up?—that’s where he needs to be seen and not have a cloud hanging over him all the time of judging his behavior based on his food decisions.
I hope I said all the swirliness as well as I could. So that’s it!
PAM: That was the last question for this month!
Thank you so much to both of you for answering questions with me and just a reminder for everybody there are links in the show notes for all the blog post and books that we mention this episode, so you can go do your homework.
And, as always, if you would like to submit a question for the Q&A show just go to livingjoyfully.ca/podcast and click on the link.
Have a great day everybody!