PAM: Welcome to another Q&A episode! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and I’m so happy to be joined again by Anne Ohman and Anna Brown. Hi guys.
ANNE and ANNA: Hello!
PAM: Hello. Good morning. And good morning or afternoon to everyone listening! And we’ve got four nice questions lined up so do you want to get us started, Anne?
ANNE: I would love to. The first one is from Heather, in Arizona.
Heather’s Question [1:40]
I am SO blown away by Anne’s article about Radical Validation! Especially this paragraph, “When we try to get them out of and away from the uncomfortable feelings because we don’t know how to help them (and just want them to be happy), they just go further into those emotions to protect their right to feel that way. But now they have yet another new level added to their already existing discomfort…”
and she continues-
We have been struggling with how to help a situation in our home for a while. Our 10yo daughter constantly criticizes and belittles her 12yo brother. The only way we know to deal with this (because it is heartbreaking to see how hurt our son is by her comments and treatment) is to remind her to, “Please treat him as kind as you’d want to be treated”. I realize that has so much weight and isn’t the ideal way to handle it. We’d love some further detailed ideas on the best way to validate.
Hi Heather! First, I do want to say that the excerpt that Heather quoted is actually from a post I wrote on our Childhood Redefined online group. And I did add that post to my website shinewithunschooling.com under articles and essays about validating our children so there is more there also to read.
So, Heather! I’m so very happy that my words landed at home in your heart and I’m so glad that you are asking for help for your specific situation here. And in that post you referred to, you might remember that I had also written that I like to call it radical validation because it may be counterintuitive at first and it is definitely not what most parents offer to their children when a child is going through a difficult time.
So, I can see, and feel actually, in your situation that what your intuition is telling you is to protect the child who is the subject of the belittling by asking the sibling who is doing it to stop. And yes, that is a natural instinct. And what I am asking is that you don’t stop there, you keep digging. Because obviously that hasn’t worked so far. If you haven’t had a shift in circumstances that’s an indication that you need to keep digging and come up with a different perspective than that natural instinct to protect. And, in this case, I can really feel that the one who is really hurting in some way, the one who needs your validation also, is your 10-year-old daughter.
So, that’s when you back up and take a look at the broader view of what’s going on more. What is she seeing in him, her brother, that is making her maybe feel like she is not seen or heard? I think this is what you want to take an honest, radical look at. Even if it’s what others might see as typical sibling rivalry stuff, you can look into your daughter’s heart and see the world and see her brother from her eyes, from her perspective. And you can radically validate the things that maybe you don’t even want to see, let alone validate.
But yes, radical validation is sometimes saying, “I hear you. I get that you feel like you don’t like your brother and sometimes wish that he wasn’t even here.” Now that might sound extreme to some people, but that is something that a child might actually be feeling at times. And until it is seen and heard and validated, it probably won’t go away, and may even get bigger. But I wonder if you can feel for yourself, even in me saying those words out loud, that validation, how saying it back to the child in a sincere understanding way could really diffuse those words that otherwise would weigh very heavily inside of a child.
You know, they also might start thinking they’re a horrible person for thinking these thoughts about their sibling. They might be worried that you would be horrified and upset if you heard what they were feeling and thinking. So, there again we have layer upon layer of weight that the child is now carrying. And yes, the child has been doing what looks and sounds like bullying, but when those feelings that can even be scary to them, are validated, then they are released. They’re out in the open! And you are not only NOT freaking out about it, but you are saying, “Oh my goodness, I see you, I hear you, I completely understand! I feel that way sometimes too.” Can you feel what a huge difference that would make in any situation really?
Our minds can always be our worst enemies and validating is a way to help the child not spiral downward those layers upon layers of weight. I’ve always said that no matter what my child has done or said or felt, I would shift it around so that I could see it in a way to help them get back to a place of feeling good about themselves. So that means, when for example if Sam would have said something that sounded mean to Jacob and then stormed off into his room, I of course would validate how Jacob might be feeling. And then after giving him some space, I would go to Sam and I would validate how he was feeling because he is also the one who needs help now moving through this thing that he said or he did to get to a place where he can feel good about himself again.
And that radical validation gives us space so that those feelings and those words or that action can exist between us and then dissipate instead of just getting larger and larger inside of Sam. Because there was a reason that he said what he said and I was usually able to go inside of it and see it from his perspective and sincerely validate and say, “I know, I get it, I so understand because I sometimes feel that way too.” The really beautiful thing about radical validation is seeing my now adult, always radically unschooled and validated sons not only know HOW to validate other people, especially their sweethearts. . . but it’s their natural, automatic reaction to say I understand, I’m so sorry, I hear you. And that is really beautiful and that is radical validation.
PAM: I love that, Anne. And we found that same thing as well.
For us—or for me in these situations—what really worked best was for me to have lots of those one-on-one conversations with each child individually. Because that’s the important piece, right? Because in a private conversation I was much more able to be open and validate the child in front of me without worrying that the other child was hearing or thinking that it was at their expense. We’re seeing things through this child’s eyes, you know, and we can do that with each child.
So, in this case, Heather, you could have open conversations with your daughter about why she’s criticizing her brother. Maybe what the triggers are, what she’s trying to accomplish, how she feels after, how she feels before, what those frustrations are.
And as Anne mentioned, the key is being non-judgmental so that she feels free to express herself. Because yes, she may be feeling bad about it. She may be worried about having these feelings in the first place. So, to be there and to be open and not judgmental allows her to release these thoughts, these feelings, everything, so that you guys can work through them together. You’re free to validate her perspective and her feelings because they absolutely are true for her. All stop. This is it. This is how she’s feeling.
Maybe there are things about her brother’s behavior that she finds frustrating and you can take those moments and really see them from her perspective and validate her feelings and her frustrations as totally her perspective and valid. You can say you’re sorry she’s feeling so frustrated that often she’s lashing out at her brother.
And then, seeing patterns to those moments. See if there are some patterns. Maybe it’s a pattern to how she’s feeling, does it happen more actively when she’s hungry or after she’s been hanging out with friends or when your son’s been doing a certain something? Maybe you can see patterns from the outside that you can bring to your conversations with her that she hasn’t yet recognized.
And again, without judgment, you can share, maybe at times when it comes up, and when it flows into the conversation how her brother is feeling too, right? So, I found that was an opportunity, in those conversations, you had to have that openness, that non-judgmental feeling before you can bring this in because if you don’t, it can feel like you’re trying to convince them; it’s a judgment piece, “Yeah, but your brother feels like crap after.” No, it’s just as part of the flow of the conversation sharing all aspects of the situation where you can share little pieces. You know, maybe one child isn’t bothered as much and another child is and you can kind of explain that. It helps them start to understand each other better as well. And then you can brainstorm, if it’s a frustration that she’s feeling, other ways for her to express it. Because it’s not about tamping it down, not focusing on the stopping of it but focusing on what’s behind it and maybe other ways that she can work through that.
And also have conversations with your son. Find out how he feels when it’s happening. And after you’ve had some conversations with your daughter you’ll be able to explain to him what you’ve learned from her—if it’s something that he’s doing that frustrates her, you can brainstorm with your son other ways to accomplish whatever it is that’s getting in the way. If it’s just blowing off steam, you can explain to him that she doesn’t mean for him to take it personally. You’re able to more deeply explain one sibling to the other once you’ve had some of these conversations around it. And you can mention that you’re working with her for a plan for next time and you guys will see how it goes and you’ll tweak it from there so that they both feel that you’re on their team.
You can work with each of them individually and keep them in the loop about how the other one is feeling and reacting, but they both know that you’re there for them and sharing their perspective with the other. You can understand and validate what each one of them is experiencing and be that go-between, working to find a way through those moments that is more comfortable for all three of you because there is also that piece, right? The piece that you’re uncomfortable with it as well.
So yes, that might be lots of conversations with each of them, but they’re not big sit-down things. Most often they’re short little updates, little tweaks, “Oh, I just thought of this, what about this?” Sometimes they do evolve into longer brainstorming sessions, but over a few weeks, maybe even months until this new way of engaging in those moments becomes a habit. Because right now you have one habit, right? And habits aren’t going to change overnight just because someone understands them intellectually. It’s going to be a process. But that is one of the huge advantages of unschooling is we have the time to do this processing and to understand each other to that depth.
ANNA: So much of what I wanted to say, you guys covered.
I think something that’s been really helpful for me and I’ve talked about it a lot here before, but it’s that I look at behaviors as an expression of need. Because I think we can really get stuck when the behavior is something—especially when it’s something that is hurting someone we love or it’s damaging something or whatever, we can kind of get stuck on that behavior.
But when we look at it as an expression of a need, that helps us take that deep breath and get to that place of love and compassion towards who is exhibiting the behavior. That’s really where I start and just kind of digging in to see what’s going on. And you guys really said it, is it about attention, jealousy, frustration, power? Looking for those patterns can help you head off the upset and criticism. And you may find that your daughter maybe isn’t getting space or that she’s hungry and not feeling heard and all of those things will just give you clues, like Pam and Anne have talked about.
Because I really do feel like radical validation is the most critical in these situations that you’re talking about. And Pam already covered talking to them separately, because I think that’s really important. That gives you the ability to do that radical validation without feeling like you’re betraying someone or hurting someone, you’re able to just see and focus on the person in front of you. And I think that there may be ways for you to be a translator, which Pam kind of touched on. Being able to help them understand each other. I just feel that when we feel loved even in our yuckiest moments it means so much and it changes things.
There were so many times when my girls, you know that was really all that they needed was validation that they never wanted to see each other again, they didn’t want a sister at all, and I could be there and reflect that, hear that and understand that and honestly it would be five minutes later they would be laughing and playing and it was always just this magical thing.
But now, of course, you can’t go into with that agenda and I really tried never to, I always tried to be just delighted and surprised when we got there! But it did play out that way so often because those feelings don’t feel great to them either. So, when they’re able to hear them, get rid of them, acknowledge them and be heard, they want to move on too. I think it’s when you don’t feel heard, or it’s being pushed down that you kind of get this death-grip on those feelings and that just feels yucky for everybody so it just kind of becomes festering and gets worse and worse. But we just found when we’re able to say it, still be loved and heard and looked in the eye with love and compassion, even in those moments of ugliness, oh my gosh, it’s transformational. It really is. It’s beautiful.
So, you guys covered it, so we will go on!
ANNE: Can I just say one more thing too? The important thing also that I was talking about and wanted to add on once again is that the person who instigates, as you say, the ugly situation, I feel that they get stuck there and that’s why validation is super important for them because, I find that with myself, if I’m grumpy and I say something that I shouldn’t say and then I want to get out of that but I’m like, I’m going to feel like an idiot (laughs), you know what I mean?
You feel like you’ve got to stay there almost because I created this energy, how do I shift out of it? Validation is the key. Somebody from the outside coming in and saying, “That was okay. We know who you really are, we see who you really are, and this is a part of life and we get that.”
And the whole thing, when Pam said, “Those feelings are valid,” ah! ah! the core of validation! (Laughter) Everything is valid, so we let them know that. Their feelings are valid, so that’s the validation.
ANNA: Yes, so beautiful!
Okay, so I’m going to go ahead on to question two which is from Mikael from France.
Mikael’s Question [TIME: 18:30]
Thank you for your kind help to all unschoolers and their parents! You are wonderful!
I have a question concerning my son who is almost 7. He has a temperament that makes him being unhappy almost all the time. He complains very often and for very small things. I have already understood that he is a hyper-sensitive person. My wife and I are doing our best to make him happy but still sometimes it is very difficult. What would you advise us to do to make things better?
Best regards, Mikael
ANNA: Hello, and thank you for your question.
You know, I have kind of learned that there really are some people who just tend to look at things from a darker perspective at times in their life. Because it can definitely ebb and flow too. And I found it really helpful to be mindful of my energy and to openly share my delight in the world. Not in contrast to their statement, so not a tit-for-tat when they’re upset about something, “No I love this!” but really just in general, to be aware of my general energy.
In the moment of the complaint, validation is so important that we just talked about. Because again, when someone feels heard and understood, they can often let go and move on. When we try to convince them that it’s fine or it’s not so bad, or it’s this, or I love it, or it’s great, they hold on to that upset or complaint because they’re committed to it, like Anne just said. ‘No, I am committed to not liking this and you’re not hearing me.’
So, validation, maybe even re-listen to question one with your son in mind and thinking about your situation and what’s happening there because I think you’ll find when he feels heard about the things that are upsetting him, he’s able to move on much more quickly.
But just some other fun tools that we’ve used along the way: ending our day naming three things that we’re grateful for, or we like to talk about our favorite parts of our day and sharing stories especially when we’ve been apart and we’re able to kind of bring those together and share. Because we found that when you know you’re going to be sharing things later on, you’re actually looking for the things that delight you during the day and you’re bringing that energy to the day as you walk through it. And I know that there are some people that write them down and read them later and keep jars that have favorite moments and at the end of the year they read them. We haven’t done that, but we have a friend who does it and they love it and get such joy from it.
I think having a child that can be unhappy at times shed a light on me and how I was moving through my days. Early on, I saw the areas where I was adding weight onto myself and onto her. So, I think it’s helpful to look at patterns in our own behavior too. Give yourself space to feel and room to move through things but be aware of what you’re handing to others. I think a lot of times we aren’t aware. And be aware of the stories you tell.
When we come home from being out, do we talk about traffic and frustrations or do we talk about something cool or how happy we are to be home? At a restaurant, do we talk about how wonderful the food is or how slow the server is? We’re often unaware of the stories we’re creating and those stories are creating our environment. That awareness can allow us to focus on joy, which I believe brings more joy.
So, I’ve always found that when I do that, it helps the whole household. And I don’t do that to change anyone else here. I do it because it changes me and because it feels good and it brings joy to my experiences.
And the same really goes for looking at the child who tends to be more negative. Instead of focusing there, focus on all the amazing things that you love about that child. And I’ve talked about this before, and maybe we can find something to reference in the show-notes about making a list of all the things you love and read it every day. Greet your child with that light and love energy. And Anne mentioned this maybe in the last one about how sometimes when we have a child that brings weight, when we’re about to see them, we kind of pull that weight to ourselves and it’s like, “Ugh, here they come, what’s it going to be, are they upset?” But no! We can change that energy, that energy to greet them with joy, and she does that so well, and we can greet that child with joy and love, it uplifts the energy in the room and just again can be transformational. And I think all those pieces of validation and looking at your own energy and your story can be really helpful.
ANNE: Yes, all of that was so very beautiful. I had one word written on my answer was all in caps: validation (laughter). But I did think of other things while you were talking and I had to validated that my two dogs are having a hard time and now they’re upset again and barking again, so (laughter).
Yes, how does he shine, how does he shine? Because, you know, my thing is, all children shine when they’re celebrated for being exactly who they are so look and see when he lights up and nurture that and go there. Hold that in your heart during the more uncomfortable times. And this goes back again to validation because I wonder if you’ve ever done that when he starts to complain or when he gets unhappy. You say, “Oh, my goodness. I so understand and I can feel that with you. I’m so sorry.”
And I’ve talked before about how my Jacob would own the weight of the world and I would just hug him and say, “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry but you are doing such a great job being Jacob and it’s so wonderful.” And he would just relax into that. Just validation of who he is even when they are owning the weight of the world.
And a very important thing is to not take it personally because that just separates your relationships so quickly. And I know it’s hard sometimes, we feel like we’re on this amazing stress-free life of unschooling and they have everything that’s wonderful and yet it’s still their real lives and to diminish that is very wrong and to validate that, yes, they still have their things that they feel are weighty and heavy and that make them unhappy and it is really, really important not to take it personally as anything we have done or created. Just allow it to be theirs. Validate and let it flow, let it flow over you.
PAM: I love all that. And one thing that jumped out for me was when he wrote, “He complains very often and for very small things.” Absolutely, the piece of validating that but also, I got the impression that maybe those very small things, part of that validation is accepting that those are real. I know when my kids were younger, they were all quite sensitive in that respect too. And a good chunk of my time was taken up with managing the environment. And you guys talked quite a bit about the energy piece in the environment, but there’s that physical piece, too. That made their days easier, and mine too in return.
They saw me doing what I could to make things more comfortable for them and that built their trust in me. They knew that I was watching out for them. That I knew, if this chair bothered them, I would make sure this other chair was all ready for them and help them get comfortable and settled. And they could also see through my actions that I really understood them and respected those needs. And as they got older and we continued to chat about things, they began to take over some of that environmental management for their comfort. And now they completely take care of that. They knew what they could do though because they’d seen me doing it for them. They didn’t just stop at complaining about it, right? It’s helping them and validating the complaining and understanding that’s a real need of theirs to be met and then showing them ways that you can accommodate that need.
And in this case, he’s only six, it takes time.
The other piece was—I think you guys alluded to this—but shifting away from using “happy” as a measure to using “comfort” is one thing that helped me. So, you want to make his world as comfortable as you can, but like you were saying, it might just not be someone’s perspective at the moment or as it ebbs and flows—he can be comfortable but may still not be particularly happy. But if he’s not comfortable, very little is going to make him happy, right? So, I think that whole comfort piece lies beneath. And then you’re not trying to measure his feelings, you’re measuring what you can help with. Because you can’t make him feel anything.
ANNE: Can I add?
PAM: Yeah, sure!
ANNE: Anne wants to add a little something again! (laughter)
PAM: Well I was just going to sum up and say that was the piece stuck out for me. (laughter)
ANNE: I also can feel that with what you’re saying, he may be picking up on an energy that you’re trying to change him, and I feel like he’s already sensitive if this is his energy, and if you haven’t read The Highly Sensitive Child book, that might be a good thing to do.
But he is probably very aware and owning of your feelings and what Anna was talking about of lighting up when you see him instead of feeling his weight and kind of dreading that. That’s really important because he has to know with the validation that you see him shine even as he is and do NOT want to fix him. And the small things, even when he complains for the very small things, a quick validation is, “Oh my, I know, I know!” Like, “This pen, this pen, I hate this pen.” “I KNOW.” You know, just like that. Instead of trying to change it all the time, that’s just another perspective there. Okay, bye! (laughter)
PAM: Okay! Question number three is from Carol in Montana.
Carol’s Question [TIME: 30:05]
I’d like to hear from you lovely ladies about your journey through unschooling. Specifically, when you felt uncertain about something that was happening with your child, how you dealt with it, and how it was later resolved. For instance, were you ever at a place where you were thinking you would like to see your child get more exercise, spend less time doing one particular thing, be more open to new experiences, etc.? How did you get through whatever the issue was for you? I love to hear from veteran moms about their reality with unschooling, especially their stories of conflict to resolution. So, I’m not asking about a specific question or concern of my own, but for you to tell your stories of epiphany and growth, and contrasting the way things were then with the way things are now.
Hi Carol! What a fun question! Now my unschooling journey has been a long string of epiphany and growth and it still is, right? You mentioned stories of conflict to resolution and I think it’s helpful to note that the vast majority of these stories are steeped in internal conflict and the resolution is my epiphany from a new way of seeing the situation and being able to drop the expectations I was holding my children to. So, it wasn’t a resolution between my child and I, per se. These were almost always internal conflicts that brought the big ah-ha moments, the epiphanies, and the personal growth. I have written articles about how I processed through some of those times when I was holding expectations that were out of sync with my kids and I’ll link to them in the show notes.
Some of those are very typical ones, when my son was playing more video games than I was comfortable with when we first started and when my daughter was refusing to read, again when we first started. These are puzzle pieces on our journey. My epiphanies surrounding our family relationships, and specifically sibling relationships, and we’ve already touched on some of those in this call already.
What I wanted to talk about was the thread that runs through them all is when I’m feeling uncomfortable about something in my children’s lives—I’ve found a path through it by looking to my children to learn more. So, it was by getting out of my head, out of that loop of conventional wisdom that was at the root of my expectations, like they need to exercise more, they need to spend less times playing video games or listening to Harry Potter and so on.
When I managed to drop that filter, I could more clearly look at them and see, right in that moment, that they are whole, they are learning. Without the filter of expectations, I could see how much they were learning, just that it was different than what I was looking for, looking through that lens of expectation. It freaked me out to look back at their path rather than just at this moment where I’m uncomfortable and see that their choices today are not the end of their engagement with that thing. It’s just the point they’re at right now and they are learning through their choices and they are learning at their pace, which is the only way they can learn, no matter if we try to rush them or even slow them down.
So, I hope that makes sense. If I’m thinking they need more exercise and I’m just looking at this point where they don’t seem to be getting much, but if I can open up and not only drop that expectation, that’s nice, but in doing that I open up my perspective over time and I can see the journey of that and I can see that what is happening today is not the definition of what’s going to happen in the future. Because it definitely isn’t the definition of what’s happened in the past, so recognizing the flaw of that chain. So, these were always internal conflicts and the path to resolution, to my epiphany was in connecting more deeply with my children and paying attention to what I was seeing. I had to think about it. I had to process it. I had to ask myself questions. And that’s how I came to understand what I was seeing much better.
ANNA: Yes. Mine is very similar too.
I found overwhelmingly in those moments of doubt or criticism, it was about me, you know? There was some baggage or outside voices that played that kept me from truly connecting with my child and what they loved. So, I always start with me. You know, what’s going on inside of me, what’s going on outside of me, how is it influencing my perspective? And I look at things in terms of is this enhancing or harming my line of connection, this line of thinking or this judgment that I’m holding on to. And as soon as I work through whatever bogeyman was presenting itself and that I found, I could reconnect and see my child again, and then, as always, all was well.
I’ve learned that I don’t know why things happen. I can’t control things in my life or theirs but if I focus my energy on staying connected and trusting that everything is in service to our growth, that things just flow. So, while I don’t really have a story, in particular to share, I just wanted to talk about my process, because really that’s the process I use over and over again when things bubble up and I feel myself judging or acting in a way that disconnects me from the people that I love. So that’s all I had for that. Anne?
ANNE: I said nothing like what you guys are saying! (laughter)
ANNE: I’m just joking! It’s exactly the same! (laughter).
First of all, I want Pam to read all the questions to me before I write down my notes because you do it in such a cheery, chippy way and I feel like I read them with so much weight! (laughter). So, I’m going to try that cheery, chippy way from now on. I’m like, “Oh! This is easy! Look how Pam’s reading it!” (laughter) So, anyway, here’s what I have to say.
Hi, Carol. I’m just going to go through my resume here for a little and I’ll get to a point, really, so just bare with me. I’ve been writing about unschooling in online forums since 1998, that’s 19 years. Jacob who just turned 27 and was just here, he was eight and Sam was four. I’ve been speaking at unschooling conferences since 2002 at the very first unschooling conference, talking about unschooling on this wonderful podcast, thanks to Pam, for many, many episodes. And most recently, I and all three of us have bared and shared our heart and soul at the Childhood Redefined Online Summit.
And in all of that, there is rarely a time when I do not share stories of my epiphanies and growth. Because unlike what Pam and Anna were saying, that’s what it’s all about (laughter)! It’s never about my children, it’s always about me. And throughout the years, the sooner I was able to realize that, the sooner we were able to move on. It takes *me* to see children are not stagnant. Children are always changing and they’re growing and evolving. And I usually did see this fairly easily because I really enjoyed seeing the world through their eyes. From the minute Jacob was born, I wanted to see everything through his eyes and through his heart.
So, it’s always been me that gets in a comfy place where I know my kids and I know what they love and we’re all doing great and look how happy and easy life is flowing and everything. And then they move on from that and I’m still in this comfy place saying, “Wait, wait, what happened here?” And my clue to the fact that I need to look in the mirror and see where I need to grow and shift and evolve and let go of the thing I was holding onto, that comfy place, was when it felt to me as if I was hitting up against a brick wall in my relationship with my kids. That’s when I knew I need to look in the mirror and say, “Oh, okay, you need to continue this.” So yeah, the growth and the epiphany is mine, because my children are always exactly where they need to be and I actually am too. And when I trust in that and keep up with them and join them exactly where they are in their lives, then it all flows so much more easily.
So, thank you for that question.
Does anybody else have anything else to add before I go on?
PAM: I’m good.
ANNE: Okay. Question four in Pam’s chipper voice (laughter) from Meredith in Virginia.
Meredith’s Question [TIME: 39:22]
My husband and I have homeschooled our two girls, ages 8 and 6, since the Fall of 2016. We LOVE it. I can safely say that bringing my girls home to learn has made me fall in love with them all over again. They are special, special people with immense gifts to share with the world.
After one year of homeschooling things were becoming even more clear about the best way for our girls to learn the important things in life. Unschooling was a concept I found that just plain made sense! Ever since then we have unschooled, or to us, just lived!
I have many questions but the biggest one and the one I will ask today is about sibling relationships. My two girls are just shy of two years apart. Lately they have begun a phase in life where they bicker and fuss with each other all the time. Or at least that is how it feels to me who is with them 24/7. To be blunt, it can drive me batty!
My oldest is craving independence and wanting more space to herself. My youngest just wants to do everything with her older sister. Both are very different in personality. My husband and I have tried to do more things with them separately, but it seems like a drop in the bucket. We do not live near family who can take one child for the morning or day so the girls can have breathing room. We have wonderful friends but all have different circumstances that would prevent them from helping in this way too. We are a one income family and so signing up for activities is limited. Plus, it seems unfair to me if I let my oldest take an art class and tell my youngest, who loves art just as much, that she can’t take it because her sister needs space. Am I thinking about this in the wrong way?
Then there is the actual fussing. They are not physical with each other, but are in the throes of retaliation. Tit for tat. One does something so the other does something back. For example, one girl feels the other hid her shoe (which in reality is stuffed under her bed) and so purposely takes the last remains of her sister’s favorite cereal, which she has had no interest in before this point. The other sister sees this injustice, gets mad, lets it be known she is mad and then refuses to let her sister have a bite of her ice cream later in the day, etc. It can go on and on. When we are home I can take each aside and talk with them about what is bothering them, validate their feelings and come up with a solution. This process takes a while, which I am happy to do, however it can be mere minutes after the first argument is settled when a new one erupts. The process starts all over again! Some days it seems that is all that happens. I’m not going to lie, trying to handle this in a non-yelling, respectful way leaves me exhausted!! Some days I just want to curl back up in my bed and hide under the covers. Any suggestions for this phase in their lives? And please confirm, this is just a phase, right?? Thanks for everything.
Hi, Meredith. It’s so wonderful that you saw unschooling was the way for you to simply live your lives and trust that the learning is the living. Yeah! I love how you’ve fallen in love with your girls all over again and you see their magnificence and that is so perfect and exactly what you need to hold onto in those times when you want to curl back up in bed and hide under the covers.
The cool thing is, though, the challenges you’re living now are simply life and there are no school issues piled on top that you have to dig through to see what be happening. So, yay! You can celebrate that! I kind of feel that you’re putting the weight on yourself of solving and fixing and, as you say, coming up with a solution. I could be wrong, but it kind of feels to me that your girls might be in a mode of keeping score on the amount of attention they get from you and you’re in the middle of it.
I feel like if you’re already validating and seeing them, then maybe you can go back to living. And if you stop owning the weight and feeling the need to fix everything, then you will have energy to maybe casually and lightly and simply divert their attention. “Snack, anyone?” “Hey, you guys want to watch this show with me for a little while?” Can you feel the difference of you owning all of the weight of their tit-for-tatting and holding onto it until you feel it has been resolved versus validating them and then you moving forward?
You’re not ignoring them, you’re not invalidating them, you’re simply saying, “Yes, I so see you and I trust in this moment and I’m not going to own it.” I’m going to let it be beside me here as I go forward instead of owning it myself.
So, maybe if it starts at one point in the day, don’t take it to your heart so much and have it stay there. See if, after you validate, you can let it float above you and out the door and maybe think of something that you’d like to do that might be an open invitation for them to join you without any expectations of that, of course. Maybe have a craft box that you can go to and start doing something that you want to do and see what happens. Let the validation be, and again, don’t own the weight of it yourself. It may be a turning point if they see and feel that yes, you hear them, and yet that you are no longer personally invested in whether or not they’re fussing and tit-for-tatting with each other. And this is, again, simply something because of your energy of choosing not to own the weight. You still are caring for them and understanding and validating, but you’re not owning it so much. And then this also allows space for them to gravitate toward what they might want to be doing more than to go back to the competition or whatever the tit-for-tatting is. If you keep your energy in a place of allowing possibilities to happen because you’re no longer owning their weight, then it’s in that space where things may have a chance to shift and flow more easily. The place on my website shinewithunschooling.com has articles and essays about validating our children and I do talk about that, the difference between validating and owning our children’s weight in the excerpt from my talk. So that’s all I have to say.
PAM: Sure! I will put that in the show notes. I love that piece about the energy shift that Anne was talking about and the piece that I’d like to talk about is the concept of fair that you brought up about the art class.
I’m also going to put a link to my talk, A Family of Individuals, which is really all about sibling relationships. And in that talk, I dig into the idea of fair and how it doesn’t mean equal. It’s a paradigm shift that we can make as parents, so I thought I’d share just a bit of an excerpt from that.
Equality in what you give a child isn’t a helpful measure of fairness or love, because what each child needs from you is probably different. One child may need more of your time, wanting a lot of personal interaction. Another might have an active outside interest that needs more of the family’s money to support it. And still another might need more of your direct participation, joining them as they pursue their interests. You may be giving each of your children very different things that take varying amounts of time and effort and money. But when their unique needs are being met, they each feel content, secure, and happy and equally loved. It’s been my experience that when each child feels like their needs are being met, they feel less competitive with their siblings. There’s minimal push and pull and struggle for attention or power. That’s because they have come to measure their happiness based on their own needs being met, instead of constantly comparing themselves with those around them to validate their own worth.
So in an unschooling family what does it look like if one child gets *super fun thing A* and is really happy? In my experience, their sibling doesn’t feel spiteful; they don’t demand they get one just to be fair. Now, that’s not to say that they might not try it out and like it and ask for one too because they feel they would also enjoy it. If so, when they get it they’ll most likely use it and learn and expand their world. But if a child is used to measuring “fair” by the numbers and wants something specifically because their sibling has it, once they get it, their goal is accomplished! There’s no need to actually use it—it just sits on the shelf.
What do kids learn if their parents make this paradigm shift? In my experience, instead of learning to measure fairness through numbers, they learn to see and consider the real people behind the numbers. The individuals. They learn that people have different needs, and that it’s meeting those needs that is important. They come to respect one another as individuals, happily allowing each other to live the lives they love because they understand that their sibling’s happiness doesn’t mean their unhappiness. And as they get older and extend this understanding beyond their family, their friends feel better understood and supported. And that’s a much better skill to bring into adulthood than a penchant for tit for tat comparisons.
So, let’s go back to the art class, if one daughter wants to take an art class on her own, that’s okay. If the other daughter wants to take the art class, she can take a different one, or the same one later. If she doesn’t want to take it on her own, you can go with her. And if she only wants to take it with her sister, then it’s not really about the art, is it? And that’s another clue for you, you can go from there.
I think you’ll find it helpful just to listen to the talk, or you can read it because the text is there too. So, it can start to give you a few more idea around how you can support each of your children individually and when they’re each feeling supported, there’s often less need over time to kind of battle it out with each other and those tit-for-tat situations.
ANNA: Yeah, so very much again similar to what you guys are saying.
But I do have two girls who are just under two years apart and they also have very different personalities, so it sounds very similar. I learned a lot through the years of navigating relationships and when they were young, they were super close—really inseparable. And as they got older, they too needed space. And it was at that point that I had to do some inner work to let go of any preconceived notions I had about their relationship. I had to sit and to be okay with the fact that they might never be friends. I needed to go there—from this idea that they were these two peas in a pod that we had for all these years. It was only then that we could really move on to problem solving and facilitating. And as I started facilitating them having separate friends and experiences, things dramatically improved. And what we found was when they would come back together, they were so excited to share their adventures with each other. Because they really did have this bond, they just needed some separation.
There were times when I needed to be the one who was engaged with the one who was not going out or doing the activity and I just saw that as beautiful connecting time for the two of us together. And as I mentioned before earlier, behavior is an expression of trying to meet a need. And if we can meet the need, then we will find that the behavior will change and often go away. So, I think you’ll find if you can facilitate their need to have space, the fighting and the bickering will die down. Because it really isn’t about the shoe or the cereal, it’s a need for autonomy and separate identity and to be seen for who they are.
As parents, we can fall into the trap—I think especially homeschooling parents—of one activity fits all for our children. We like the idea that we can take them all to the homeschool group that’s gathering or the deal that’s happening at this thing and it’s great and we bring everyone. It may be easier for us that way but easier isn’t always better. And while it can take some work and maybe some creative problem solving with rides and times and things like Pam was talking about, I believe that finding ways for them to have that autonomy and space from each other will ultimately help all the relationships in the family. I mean, that’s really what we saw over and over again.
And now you may know that my girls are about to be 18 and 20 in the next couple of months and they really do have a strong relationship. They’re still very different and they like to do things separately but I feel like their relationship and that foundation is so strong because of me not forcing anything on them and understanding that there were ebbs and flows and times when they needed that separate space and allowed them to kind of be the guide of that. So, I think that’s what I wanted to add about that one.
PAM: Yeah, I just want to say that that’s such a great point, Anna, in supporting them individually. That’s why I called that talk A Family of Individuals, because you can’t think of them as “children.”
PAM: As in, these are the kids and they all do the same things because they are the kids. No, these are two completely separate individuals and we’re trying to meet their individual unique need and from there they all feel supported, right?
ANNE: Yeah, and for us, Jacob and Sam were very different personalities and if there was something Sam wanted to do or go to, Jacob and I looked forward to that time alone and the other way around. So, that was the thing. You make that time special enough where they feel like their needs are being met in other ways. You do something with the other child that they really want to do while one child is in the class or whatever. And I know your issue was that you said you didn’t have enough money for both to take a class. There are so many options in between not doing it at all or having them both do and not having enough money. Just keep connecting with them, again, not owning their weight, and connecting with them and feeling their needs in the moment, as we’ve all been saying, that’s beyond the tit-for-tatting.
PAM: That’s beautiful!
ANNE: Which is a weird word that we’re using! (laughter) The tit-for-tat thing!
ANNA: Tit-for-tat! And I’m just going to reemphasize Pam’s point again, I think when you leave that paradigm of “fair” behind, so many possibilities will open up because it’s really about the individuals and connecting and you’ll find that you’ll get a lot of help from them, there. That’s not something you want to lay on them, this “fair” idea.
ANNE: Right. It’s something else that you’re owning, that relieves that. It’s so right that it’s not even present in our unschooling families because everybody’s needs are getting met and you’re seeing them, validating them, and as Pam said before, you’re on their team. That’s what make unschooling families so cool. The kids see that and feel that.
ANNA: And really support each other! I’ve seen somebody wanting something big that maybe is a big money thing that kind of involves something from all of us—they want to pitch in to make sure that person has that big thing, because they know when it becomes something that they’re interested in, we’re going to figure it out, whether it’s driving across the country or doing something else. And I so love that energy. Even though we did have some of the fighting that you’re talking about, that is the energy that is in our home. Helping each other figure out ways to do the things we want to do. And I love that.
ANNE: Right. With each handheld Nintendo console thing that Jacob would get for his birthday, he would also spend his birthday money for getting one for Sam, too! Because it was more fun to play with Sam!
ANNE: And now they’re 27 and 23 and they still have each other’s backs and are happy for each other and helping each other. So that’s what you want to build toward and just live in this moment. It’s really very wonderful. You can do this. You got this.
PAM: You got this! Yeah, I know, it’s amazing, isn’t it?
And that is the last question for this month. Thanks to both of you so much for answering questions with me. And just a reminder that there are links in the show notes for the things that we’ve mentioned today and as always, if you’d 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!
ANNE and ANNA: Bye!