PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Milva McDonald. Hi Milva!
MILVA: Hi, Pam!
PAM: Hi! Just as a bit of an introduction, Milva homeschooled her four now-adult children starting back in 1991. She also wrote for the Boston Globe and boston.com covering art and cultural events in Boston. And this year she published a book of essays about the homeschooling experience titled, Slow Homeschooling. I’m really looking forward to chatting with her about her family’s experience and to get us started, Milva …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
MILVA: Yes, absolutely. I’m looking forward to chatting as well. Thanks for having me. My kids are 32 to 19. My oldest daughter is 32, she’s expecting so I’m excited about becoming a grandmother this spring.
MILVA: Yeah! My son is 30 and then my two younger daughters are 20 and 19. And we started homeschooling, as you said, back in 1991 when my oldest daughter was six as a result of me not being thrilled with the kindergarten experience and looking for options. And I had a friend at the time who homeschooled and when she told me that she did this I just thought it was the nuttiest idea I had ever heard. [laughter]
But then I had never imagined doing it. I never even knew it was possible, but then my daughter’s kindergarten experience wasn’t satisfactory to me and I started looking for options. And because I’m so thorough, and when I research something I like to research everything, I asked my friend for some reading material and I started reading and I said, “Wow, this sounds like something I’d really love to do!” And I never looked back.
PAM: Do you remember what it was that really caught you attention when you were reading?
MILVA: Yeah, it was actually an essay by John Taylor Gatto. And I call it my one and really, only, conversion experience. I’ve never really felt so definitively sure about something as I did when I read that essay and realized that I wouldn’t send my kids to school.
But I always like to say that even though my homeschooling started because I was dissatisfied with the school experience, it really stopped because of homeschooling—because homeschooling really worked, and because of all the benefits of homeschooling, not because it was a reaction to school. It kind of started that way but I don’t think we would have kept going if it was just a reactionary activity. We kept going because it was something that really worked great. So, it was really the benefits of homeschooling that kept me going, not what I didn’t like about my daughter’s school experience.
PAM: I think that is such a great point because I found that as well.
At first, we’re choosing it in reaction to something that’s not working for us but eventually, as you start to understand it and you see the benefits, that becomes your reason. Because you’re right, you’re not going to hold on to that anger or that frustration or whatever it was that pushed you to look for something new. You’re not going to hold on to that forever. That can’t be a motivation to carry you on for years and years. I remember that shift when I realized, Oh, you know what? This is so great! I’m choosing this just because of itself, not because of the other things!
Milva: Absolutely! And I remember at the time, just making that choice kind of freed me up in so many other ways because once I realized, ‘Oh, I can educate my kids in this way that society sees as different, I don’t have to do these proscribed things, I can just choose what I want and how I want to live my life.’ It was just very freeing for me beyond that one choice.
PAM: Yeah, it’s really empowering, isn’t it? When you realize you can own one choice then you can start looking around. What do I really think about this and about this, right?
Milva: Yes, exactly.
Music has been a big thing in your family and I would love to hear how it has woven its way through your lives over the years.
MILVA: Well, my husband is a musician and actually, my first husband was a musician, so my four kids are from two different husbands. Sometimes that confuses people.
And I’ve always loved music and so, because their dads were musicians, my kids were always around music and also, we did music things together. I am an amateur singer—we all love to sing—so we sang in an intergenerational chorus when my kids were younger and that was really meaningful in so many different ways.
We were in a community of people and I remember this one story about when my son was an adolescent, during the rehearsals for the intergenerational chorus, he was sort of getting antsy and he was moving around and I didn’t know what was going on. He wasn’t singing where he was supposed to be and then one day my husband said to me, “When he’s ready to stand with the men, he’ll stand with the men.” And I sort of had this light bulb moment when I realized that that’s what he was doing. His voice was changing and he was transitioning and it was sort of this ability for me to observe my son moving and doing this sort of literal life transformation and it was a metaphor for what he was going through. Which was really cool!
And just being together a lot and going to concerts a lot, actually making music together—we used to have kids come over and my husband would lead jams and we used to go to open-mics and perform.
And then my 20-year-old daughter got really into jazz. This was one of those surprise things that happens when you’re homeschooling. We knew she loved to sing and we knew she was a good singer, and we knew she loved music, but somehow jazz hadn’t found it’s way onto our music scene, for some reason. And then when she was 11, my husband just put an Ella Fitzgerald recording on our MP3 player and she heard that and it was like that was it for her. She spent the next two years or more obsessively listening to Ella Fitzgerald and then she moved on to Miles Davis and other jazz musicians and it was really an intensive study for her. By the time she was 12, she knew every solo that Ella Fitzgerald had ever sung.
She started singing jazz herself, and she had a lot of space to do that on her own. She would just explore music. And then we started going to jazz jams. And there she learned a lot besides more about music, but she learned how to count off tunes and practical skills that musicians use; she learned those also by going to the jams. Also, there’s so much research now about how music helps kids’ brains and all this stuff that we probably knew all along but now science is telling us, “Oh, guess what!”
So, music was huge for us. And like I said, it’s not surprising since my husband is a musician, but it played a part in our lives in the community and also, even though I feel like not all my kids will become musicians—although one or two of them might—music is something they can have for their whole lives and enjoy and love so I think it is a great thing.
PAM: Yeah, and when I was reading that section in the book what came to me, like you said, your husbands were musicians, are musicians, and it was just something that you guys enjoyed so it felt like it was just part of family. There was no obligation for the kids, but it was something that your family was kind of steeped in; it was part of the conversations, part of the threads through your days.
And I was imagining for other families it may be a different kind of topic but so often we have some things that grow into family interests, even the background of our days, right?
MILVA: Yes, absolutely. That is definitely true.
They all eventually took lessons when they asked to take lessons, but actually my daughter who is the jazz singer, she took a few voice lessons when she was a teenager and it was very short lived, and she never really picked up an instrument.
She started asking to take piano lessons when she was ten because she had been in this production of The Sound of Music that summer and the woman who played Maria she really respected. She was an amazing singer and during a conversation she told my daughter that she had taken piano lessons and she felt like that was an important thing for her to develop skills as a musician, so that’s what made my daughter decide to ask to learn piano.
It wasn’t like we said, “Oh, we’re going to create this situation where you guys learn music.” It was definitely an exposure thing and they did it with us and they grew to love and appreciate it and want to study it on their own terms in their own ways.
They are all very different. My oldest daughter was a singer-songwriter, my son is a musician now and he plays Celtic music so he’s a folk musician, and Claire loves the jazz, and Abby, the youngest, she’d like to play classical. But for her, she enjoys doing it but she’s not going to pursue it as a career—at least not know, but who knows? She could change her mind!
PAM: That’s the fascinating thing, right? Music is a whole world and there are just so many places you can go with it. If somebody says, “Gee, I really wish my kids enjoyed music,” like you said, you think about the research and music is good for your brain and everything.
The difference is, if we as parents think something is valuable, then it’s valuable for us. So, it’s not about trying to convince our kids or trying to cajole them, “Try it out, just try it out, try out piano.” It’s not about that, but if it’s something that we think would be awesome, we can enjoy it and maybe they’ll see our enjoyment and maybe they’ll join us, and we’ll have fun together. But in the end, we’ve still gained a lot of enjoyment. So it’s about us grabbing hold of these things for ourselves, too.
MILVA: Absolutely. I think I make that point in the essay in the book where one of the important pieces, if you want to your kids to learn music, is modeling. You do it, you love it, and then they’ll see that as an example and they might decide they want to try it, or they might not. And sometimes you have to come to terms with it.
I thought my daughter would love classical singing because when she was six, we had a Mozart tape and she would go around the house singing ‘The Queen of the Night’ aria. But she didn’t gravitate towards that in the way that she gravitated towards jazz. That was definitely not something that we tried to convince her to do—it was completely her own.
So, when you model the love for it and they see it, and they try it out, they’re going to pick things up. But it’s going to definitely be their own things. The same way as we, as our own selves, gravitate towards some things.
PAM: That reminds me, a few weeks ago Emma and I talked about John Holt’s Escape from Childhood and he talked a lot about us not putting things on our kids and not making these activities about us or about them having to do them.
So, we’re modeling them, but we’re modeling them because we are choosing them for ourselves.
MILVA: You don’t necessarily think about the fact that you’re modeling it as you’re doing it…
PAM: Exactly! You’re just living together! But it’s about making choices for ourselves and knowing that it’s okay if I really enjoy this.
And you know what, if I am really enjoying listening to music and it’s bothering my kids, I’m going to put headphones on because we’re living together. But they see what we’re doing, and we see what they’re doing.
I imagine you guys started enjoying along with your daughter.
MILVA: Exactly. I learned so much about jazz because I hadn’t really listened to jazz before.
And that’s the other thing, is that we end up learning so much.
PAM: Yeah, I love that. Okay, we should probably go on!
In another one of your essays in the book titled ‘The Gift of Time,’ you share that your kids benefitted hugely from the simple availability of time and I found that as well. I think that turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of our unschooling lifestyle. I was wondering if you could share some of the benefits that you saw?
I really do think that if you have to pick one thing about homeschooling that is the greatest, it’s the time. They have time to delve into their interests. The way my daughter was able to do the jazz and I have another daughter who was obsessed with Shakespeare. The interests go on.
Everybody who homeschools knows that and has seen that their kids latch on to something and then they have the time to really deeply study it. And sometimes that’s in a way that people don’t think of as “study.”
When I say deeply study, I’m talking about my daughter going into her room with her Ella Fitzgerald CD’s and listening to them so many times that they were embedded into her brain. And she learned about all the phrasing and all kinds of things just from doing that. I consider that deep study. It wasn’t that she went and sat down with books.
There is that, and there is also time to develop relationships—family time. And it was such a wonderful lifestyle and we really had time to be together as a family. Also, everybody had time to be on their own.
A lot of people I know travelled. We didn’t do a lot of that, but time to take trips, travel and learn that way. I also am a big believer in the benefits of free play. So especially when the kids are little, when you homeschool they have a lot of time to play and that really, I think, is the most important piece of their learning: play.
And I think when I wrote that essay, I started with a story of when I had just met a dad whose daughter had been pulled out of school in Jr. High and I had asked him how he was doing, and he said, “She’s doing so well. She really has time now to live her life and do things she enjoys doing and she’s so much happier.” And that to me is also a big benefit—happiness and feeling like you’re enjoying life now.
So those are some of the things that I can think of about time.
PAM: And along with the relationships and that free time to explore, it helps them learn so much about themselves, doesn’t it?
MILVA: Absolutely. Self-knowledge is hugely important because it helps them through their whole lives. When you know yourself, you develop self-awareness.
I think I also wrote an essay titled Self-Awareness and Resiliency. Because one of the other interests that my daughter had besides jazz was psychology and she had gone to a seminar and she came home and she was talking about the topic of the seminar was self-awareness and how it fosters resiliency. And I hadn’t really thought about that before and I thought that that really made sense. One of the things that you get from having the time to delve into what you care about and also time to be alone is sort of knowing yourself. So, self-awareness is hugely important for all of us and I think that homeschooling really helps with that.
PAM: Yeah, I agree too.
Similar to that gift of time, yet still distinct in its own way, solitude is also valuable, isn’t it?
MILVA: Definitely. I think it’s valuable for all of us whether we’re kids or adults. It’s valuable for everybody no matter what your personality is. I’ve seen with my own kids—I have a couple of extroverts and I have a couple of introverts—so you would think that the introverts really need time alone and they do, but the extroverts really need the time alone, too! We all need time alone, and I think especially when you’re growing up.
One of the things that I think play is so great for is processing. And it is one of the ways the kids process what they see around them and try to figure things out, but they also use their time alone to process and think about what they’ve seen and what they’re learning. That is something that if you are just super busy and never have time alone you don’t get to do that as much.
That was one of the themes of Slow Homeschooling, I guess.
PAM: And the other thing that I found fascinating is that often times when they’re taking that solitude and that time to themselves to process etc, it’s wasn’t like they were sitting in a corner by themselves knowing that, ‘I need to process’ or ‘I need to think through things.’ But they were often doing more of a comforting kind of activity.
I know that Lissy would spend hours on the swing outside with her music, swinging. Joseph loves walking and would go for a walk. Michael could have maybe his bo staff or just be out doing a few flips. A little bit of the stuff that they know really well, that is almost rote to them and comforting. And that kind of helped them with all the processing that was going on even sometimes subconsciously, right?
MILVA: Absolutely. One of my kids—we had ducks—and she loved those ducks, and she would go out in the backyard and spend hours just sitting with the ducks. To me, all the ducks looked the same, but she knew them so well. So, I guess that wasn’t technically alone time because she was with the ducks! [laughter]
That was one example. Or they would knit, or just all different things.
And sometimes—I think I wrote this in one of the essays—I didn’t even necessarily know what they were doing. They would just go off in their rooms and I didn’t know necessarily what they were up to; they were just having time to do whatever they needed to do.
That is another piece I think that I talk about is just being able to figure out their lives. All this helps with all these buzzwords: with executive function—being able to organize things. And I had people say, you know, “Did your homeschooled child have trouble when she went to college?” Actually, she talked about how she found that she was coping more easily than some of her classmates who had been used to being sort of told what to do up until that point. And she already knew. For her it was like, “Oh, I’m here now because I want to be and I know how to organize my time because I’ve been doing it for years.” So, I think that’s a piece of it, too. They know how they want to fill their time and they know how to do it. I think that’s a huge benefit also.
Over the last decade or so, homeschooling has grown enough in popularity that we really become a market for a wide range of educational products, even beyond just the typical curriculum in a box. And I thought you made a great point about this. While these increased options are wonderful, they can also prolong our deschooling because of that philosophical journey we need to take to appreciate the remarkable value of these large swaths of free time in our family’s lives. Have you seen that as well?
It’s really a different world today then when I started homeschooling. As you say, the options are great and one of the things that I would say is that it allows people to homeschool that couldn’t homeschool otherwise. Which I think is great and I believe in options. But I think that the way that you put it that it can prolong our deschooling, that’s absolutely true. And I think back at the time when I started homeschooling if all the things had been available that are available now I probably would have done what I see a lot of families doing now which is just scheduling.
MILVA: You know, just one activity to another, a whole day or more than one, two, three, sometimes four or five days at a place where you drop your kid off. Partly you do that because you’re nervous when you first start homeschooling. It feels like a big responsibility and you want to make sure you do a “good job.” And you’re also coming from the school mindset and so it’s easy to do that and I think a lot of people do do that.
And what they lose, as you said, is that deschooling time where you’re sort of figuring out that you can do things other ways. And also getting the benefits of having all this time, the other thing I think that can be lost is the more organic nature of when you’re in a community of homeschoolers and you’re building activities or things to do together that come from the people in the group.
To me, it feels more organic and it’s more meaningful. And signing your kid up for something can also be fun and meaningful but it doesn’t have the same weight as when you’re with a group of people and you’re building this community. And it takes time. And commitment.
I think that ties back to the music and the music lessons that you were talking about too. You were talking about your daughter’s connection and reason at that moment—for example, her interest in piano lessons, right? The difference between what they get out of an experience when they are choosing that experience versus when we think, ‘This should be a good experience for you.’
You know what? They may even go and have fun, but when it’s not coming deeply from an interest that they have … there is much more opportunity I think for really deep learning and lots of connections when it’s something that they are choosing and they are initiating because that’s where their heart and soul is sitting at that point right now. There is a difference, don’t you think?
MILVA: Yes, I agree.
And also, when Claire did get into jazz and she wanted to explore that more—so, my husband is a musician and he said, “Well, we’ll invite some kids over.” And so, we invited kids over and mostly they were homeschoolers—but that one was in the evening so I don’t think they had to be homeschoolers but I think it was mostly homeschoolers as I recall. And then they would come over.
That was a quote, “organized” activity, but it came from my daughter’s real desire to do it and also my husband who is part of a community. So, it was just a bunch of people who knew each other playing music together and learning whatever my husband had to show them about blues improvising. There was more of that kind of thing.
When my older kids were little, there was a mom who wanted to do theater so she started this theater group and they did productions. And then my youngest daughter actually started her own theater company and that was actually really cool and amazing.
When she was 13 she came to me and said, “I want to do a production of Hamlet in the backyard this summer.” And I said, “Oh! Okay.” Like sure! Whatever! And I didn’t really know if it was going to happen. This is one of the really great things about homeschooling and unschooling is that, you know, you sit back and you watch and sometimes it doesn’t happen, but then these things unfold that are just so amazing to observe and I really feel like that was this huge privilege that I got to experience.
In this case, it was Hamlet. My daughter wanted to play Hamlet and knew she would never get cast as Hamlet. Because she was 13 and a girl! So, she did her own production and it was amazing how she was determined! I had no idea—she is this sort of quiet, introverted one and I had no idea this determination had been brewing in her.
Well, we had always been going to see Shakespeare plays. We took the kids because we loved them, and so we’d say, “Oh we’re going to go see these plays.” So, they had been exposed to Shakespeare, but this was brewing all this time and I didn’t know that. And she did it and then she started doing more. And over a period of three years I think they did a dozen Shakespeare productions.
PAM: Oh, wow!
MILVA: She started a theater, and this was all kids and they ran it all themselves. And I’m sure that that experience, whether or not those kids go on to become actors—most of them probably won’t—but just having that experience I’m sure just meant a lot in terms of, well they’re all familiar with Shakespeare now and comfortable with the text, but also just pulling that off. They really can, they can do so much if we just let them.
And they take it seriously, you know? They didn’t think “Oh we’re just a bunch of kids, we can’t do Shakespeare.” They didn’t have that in their head. They thought, “We can do this. Why not?” Nobody has said to them, “You’re too young to do that,” or, “You don’t know enough about Shakespeare to do that.”
Those are the kinds of things that are just so amazing to witness and observe and that’s what I feel like some of the biggest gifts are. For me, as a parent who did this, it was just miraculous. Really.
PAM: Really. That is just an amazing story.
And I think it wraps it all back to time, right? Giving our children the time to discover these aspects of themselves, but also the time to be able to take on these big projects of their own and dive in as deep as they want versus trying to fit that around a schedule of three or four days at various things, right?
MILVA: Yeah. And my kids, by the time they were teenagers, they were very busy because they were all very active. But it was all activities of their own choosing. And a lot of it was, my daughter was busy doing Youth Quake—that was the name of her theater company—so even though she did a lot of other things, she had the time because she wasn’t in a school all day and didn’t have tons of homework, so she had the time to do that.
By the time they were teenagers they, well, I kind of compare it to play. They had spent their childhoods playing and then they just kept doing that, so the theater company was my daughter’s version of playing. It was fun, it was experimenting, it was exploring. So, it’s very connected to me—the things that they chose pursue when they were older are very connected to the playing and exploring that they did when they were younger. And I feel like for even all of us even we as adults, that’s when we get the most joy out of life is when we’re getting that spirit of play into whatever we’re doing.
It makes such a big difference when you realize that the things that you’re doing are your choice and that you can bring that open, curious, playful attitude with you to everything that you’re choosing to do. It’s just such a huge mind shift and makes such a difference in how we enjoy our days.
MILVA: Yeah. I think so.
PAM: Yeah. There was one other piece that I thought of while you were talking about that as well as about the value of time and about, certainly nowadays when you first start homeschooling and there are so many options around us, the other piece that I think can slow down—and there’s nothing wrong with it because it’s a step, and we go step by step by step as we learn more. And maybe that’s a comfortable first step to do some more activities.
But what it can get in the way of is understanding how we as human beings can learn on our own. Because you still have that kind of teacher-student set-up even if it’s in a homeschooling kind of environment—maybe a co-op or something like that. To get to that point where you truly understand that children, people, human beings, can learn things on their own and don’t always need to be taught, then you can get to the spot where you understand that using these kinds of opportunities really is a choice.
It’s not the “best” way to learn—there are lots of ways to learn. It’s a way to learn and if that’s your choice, that’s wonderful. It’s that big piece of getting to the point where you understand that learning doesn’t need to have a teacher.
MILVA: That’s right, and I do think that sometimes teachers are really valuable, but I always say that they are valuable when the teacher is chosen by the learner.
And I think that sometimes happens when we’re not even aware of it. There are some people who I look back on, like that woman who was in The Sound of Music with my daughter when she was eight. My daughter never took lessons with her but she was definitely a teacher of my daughter’s because my daughter identified her as someone she admired and wanted to learn from. So, I think that definitely can happen.
I think there are teachers out there, but they are just there. I think all of us have probably been teachers too without even being aware of it at times. Sometimes we are aware of it and the student says, “I want you to teach me.” And then you go, “Okay.” But I think the main point is when the person chooses the teacher then it is the most significant and meaningful learning.
PAM: Yeah, I loved that.
And it’s so interesting to see people’s journey at the beginning too because then there is sometimes a point where there is kind of a backlash against formal environments. It’s like, “We homeschool, don’t even mention anything that’s like a class or a course or whatever.” And that’s totally okay. That’s where we are on our journey. We’re figuring this stuff out and eventually they’ll get to a place where they realize, well that may be a great environment if some one is choosing and wanting that—maybe it’s the person that they really want to connect with.
It’s just so fascinating to see the give and take and really the whole journey that comes with that deschooling period as you really figure out the way learning happens.
And, you know, one of my kids loves being in a classroom. Actually, she’s in college right now and she loves it. My other kids, they have enjoyed it, they have done it, I wouldn’t say they have always loved it, but Claire always really loved it. And at the school where she goes, they have a system where they have shopping, as they call it.
So, at the beginning of the semester, you can go around to different classes and try them out and then decide which ones of them you want to take! And obviously there are requirements, too, through your major, and that’s the other piece, and that’s sometimes where people say, “Well if you let your kid do whatever they want then how are they ever going to be able to do things that they don’t want to? Because sometimes people have to do that.”
And the answer is that I’m smart enough to realize that they grow up and they understand that. That is a human thing, that’s like being human. And they want something, and they say, “Well, in order to get what I want I have to do X, Y, and Z.” So, it’s not really an issue, I’ve never seen it be an issue.
So yeah, I do have one kid who loves the traditional classroom setting. But she loved being homeschooled and unschooled and now she loves what she’s doing in her college and I think she’ll just keep doing what she loves because that’s what she’s always done. And that’s what she loves right now. She loves the whole atmosphere, she really does. But again, there by choice.
PAM: Yeah, it makes all the difference in the world, I think. Which leads nicely to the next question.
I wanted to talk a bit about the essay in the book, ‘Do Kids Have to Go to College?’ And I’d love to chat about my favorite line in there was: there’s a certain amount of irony and play when homeschooling parents expect their kids to take a traditional path. I was hoping that you could expand a bit on what you meant by that and talk about how college has woven into your lives, and you mentioned Claire already.
MILVA: Yeah, so I was really talking about myself there.
My son went to Berkeley College for Music for two years and then he quit, which is I think pretty typical; actually—they have a high dropout rate. It’s less high than it used to be, but I had all these emotions about that because I didn’t want him to quit!
So, I had to sort of look at myself and say, ‘Hey, there’s a sort of irony here. You raised him to do what he wanted to do, and now that he’s doing it, you’re bumming out!’ I had to examine that and look at that and I think that’s part of the process, at least for me, and I think for other unschooling parents, is you do have to look at yourself a lot because you know, what you were talking about before with trying to have your kid do what you want them to do. Because we have those feelings as parents, so we have to look at them and we have to nurture self-awareness, too, I think, as part of the process.
But he quit and he said, “I’m just gonna go and be a musician.” And that’s what he did and I’m really proud of him and it was the right decision for him, but it is hard. And I’ve noticed this in homeschooling, right as the kids get to be teenagers, parents are really nervous because, ‘What is my kid going to do?’
I think, overall, all parents are nervous about that because it’s this really intense time where you’re transitioning to this different space. Your kids are growing up and everybody is taking a different role here and you’re not the homeschooling parent anymore. Your kids are making these decisions and, for better or for worse, they are going to make their own decisions.
And I do feel strongly that it doesn’t have to be college. My oldest daughter didn’t go to college. She is actually going to college now, at the age of 32. She decided to go back, and that’s great. And Eric dropped out and Claire is in college and my youngest—when I wrote that essay, Claire was applying for college, and so she’s in college and she completely loves it, and Abby is going to college but she’s created a situation where, because she took community college classes when she was a teenager, she’s going to graduate pretty early. She’s actually going to graduate the same year as her sister. She’s doing that because she’s like, “Well, I kind of want to get this out of the way because I might need it later.”
So, they all made different decisions and there are so many paths. And that’s one of the things when we homeschool and unschool our kids, we raise them to think out of the box. They are not in high school where their guidance counselors are talking to them about where they are applying. They make a lot of different choices and I think all parents have to deal with these kinds of feelings but for homeschooling parents I feel like it can be a little more intense because there is this pressure on us and we have people looking at us and thinking, “Oh, you think you can do a better job?” And then if your kid doesn’t want to go to college, it’s like, “Oh gee.”
When they ask about did your kid get in, I think I wrote about that in the essay, that’s what people say. The say, “So, did your kid get into college?” They’re not saying, “What is your child doing? What are your kids doing?” or “What do they love?” but “Did they get into college?” [laughter] If they get into college, then you’re okay, you did a good job. So, it’s a lot of societal messages that we’re all dealing with.
And I think I wrote about this in the essay too, but that college is such a product now. They are marketing themselves to these kids in this really kind of crazy way. It’s really interesting because Claire, who is in college, did a study abroad last semester, and she’s become an advisor for her school’s study abroad program and I happened to read something that she wrote about her experience abroad and I thought it was really interesting. One of the things that she noticed about studying abroad is that there is so much less handholding then there is in her experience as an American college student. And I thought, ‘Wow, so even with college in our culture we’re doing maybe more handholding than in other places.’ I just thought that was interesting that she picked up on that. And to her, she was fine with it and she liked it, actually.
I find that, in general, my kids, when they are put into situations—especially when they were teenagers—they didn’t necessarily like to out themselves as teenagers because then people would treat them differently and they didn’t want that. They didn’t want to be treated differently just because they were younger. They were there because they wanted to participate.
I guess my point is that—you’re in Canada, so I don’t know what the culture is, if high school kids in Canada are pressured as much as they are in the United States—but there is a huge amount of pressure to go to college. And it’s also extremely expensive and I think it can tie a person down for a long time. Because if you just do what you’re supposed to do and you go into college and then you graduate with all this debt, suddenly your life is going to be a lot different than if you were 22 and you didn’t have to pay back $100,000 in loans. It’s just going to change, literally, the course of peoples’ lives, the choices that you’re able to make in your 20’s are going to be completely different if you’re tied down with debt than if you’re not. So that’s I think a big piece, too.
And in some ways when people talk about college giving people opportunities and freedom, but there’s a lot of ways in which it can really limit a person and tie a person down. I keep thinking, so many people of my generation went and did things like join the peace corps and did all this travel in their 20’s but now I don’t think those options are as feasible because when people are graduating they have to go get jobs so that they can pay their loans—and not necessarily jobs that they love.
To me it’s like, what do we want for our kids? What kind of lives do we want them to be able to lead? And also, the question that they have to answer themselves is, Who do I want to be? How do I want to be in the world? These are human questions that everybody has to answer.
And so, when we unschool, they can look at college in the context of those kinds of questions. It’s not like, “Oh, I need to go to college because I need to get a job.” They’re looking at it in the context of, “How do I want to live my life?” and “How do I want to be in the world?” And I think that’s a better way to look at college.
PAM: Umhmm. And I think that they have grown up with the tools through unschooling to understand themselves. We talked about that self-awareness, that self-knowledge that allows them to make those choices. And the other thing is, when they know they have the power of those choices—like your eldest daughter choosing to go to college now. This isn’t an expectation at an age. We’ve gotten rid of that age requirement. We don’t do things by age but we make choices by, exactly as you mentioned, the person who we want to be, how we want to live in the world and the things we want to do. It is a much better foundation on which to base your choices.
MILVA: I’ve also seen unschooled adults of my kids’ generation change career paths just seamlessly because they are not thinking about their lives in a box. One friend of my son’s who he grew up with was a professional ballet dancer and then when he was in his late 20’s he changed careers and became and EMT and last I talked to him he was probably going to study to become a nurse. And I’ve known other young adults who have done similar things. So to them it’s sort of like if they want to change course then they change course. It doesn’t seem like a big insurmountable, “Oh my God, what do I do now?” Again, it’s the way they’ve always lived their lives.
PAM: Yeah, it’s not a failure to change course.
PAM: Yeah! It’s just a choice.
MILVA: Absolutely. And I’ve written an essay about this too, the whole thing with quitting. Just because someone quits it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t meaning and value in whatever they did for the time they were doing it.
PAM: Yeah, that’s huge. You’re learning all the time and at any point you may step in a different direction just because that’s where you are now, that’s who you are now. I always go back to the fact that I studied ballet for like 13 years growing up. For many, many hours most evenings after school, etc., and I did not become a professional dancer. But none of that was lost. So much that I learned about myself and just everything—there was nothing lost in that.
MILVA: Yeah, I think that it’s just sort of this tendency that many of us seem to have of being product oriented.
MILVA: And more sort of honoring the process.
PAM: That’s a great way to put it. Process over product.
And our last question.
You have co-written a fiction book that came out this year called Unschoolers. And I’ve started reading it and so far I’m having a lot of fun with it! I was wondering what inspired you guys to take that project on?
MILVA: Well I wrote it with Sophia Sayigh who is a very close friend and colleague.
We started a non-profit together, Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, which is the state where we homeschooled. And we homeschooled our kids together and we sat down one day and said, “You know, we should write a book together.” And it was actually Sophia’s idea, she said, “I think it should be fiction.” And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting!”
One of the questions that we would always hear was, “Well what do you do all day? What do homeschoolers do all day?” And it’s such a hard question to answer and so we thought this is sort of a way to show that. And also, there is so little representation of homeschoolers and unschoolers in books and movies and usually when they do show up it’s just some stereotype. So, those were some of the motivations.
And it was really representative of how it was when we homeschooled. And also, it’s so very different now. So, it’s almost like an historical record in some ways, even though it’s fiction. Sort of like, this was how it was for one moment in time. I feel like when I started homeschooling it was in sort of an interesting time. It was right sort of after all the legal battles. I think the generation before, at least in the United States, was dealing with some legal battles and so a lot of people were underground.
By the time I started homeschooling, the legal stuff was pretty much done but homeschoolers hadn’t grown so much that we weren’t seen as a market the way we are now. I feel like we’ve become a market and people will market to us. And that just wasn’t there then. So, it was a time when there weren’t any legal battles so we could go out during the day and we could do things together with this small number of families that were there, but we really were making our own community and we were making our own stuff. I mean, our own theater groups, our own book groups, we would get together and read and there was really nothing to sign your kid up for.
Although there were people who would go to the local nature sanctuary and say, “Will you offer a class during the day?” And now, they just put it in their catalogue because they’ve figured out, “Oh yeah, we can do this now.” So, it’s not like it never happened but it happened because there were people in the community who went and approached the museum and said, “Can you do something here in the day?”
It was an interesting time. It was like this little pocket of maybe a decade where there weren’t all these options, these activities, these products, and yet we were able to be out in the open and build this space. I think maybe in some areas that aren’t as urban as where I was it might still be like that. Because I think that the fact that I live in an urban area and there are so many people homeschooling and there are so many places popping up to cater to them, I think where that is less available it might still be more like what we wrote about in the book.
But anyway, it was really fun to do, it was a fun book to write, and I hope that people enjoy it!
PAM: Yeah, thank you! I’ll definitely put a link to it in the show notes as well.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Milva. I really appreciate it and it was a lot of fun!
MILVA: Thank you. It was a delight and I really enjoyed it a lot.
PAM: It was! And before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
MILVA: So my blog is apotlucklife.com and there is also you can learn about Unschoolers, well both my books are on the blog but there’s also unschoolersbook.com and you can connect right to me through either of those.
PAM: Excellent. I’ll definitely put both of those in the show notes as well.
Thank you very much and have a great day, Milva!
Milva: Thanks, Pam!