PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Xander MacSwan. Hi, Xander!
XANDER: Hi Pam. It’s such a delight to be here.
PAM: Yay! I’m so excited to chat with you.
Just as a quick introduction, I first came across Xander through an episode he did with Blake Boles for the Off-Trail Learning podcast. I really love what he had to share, and I wanted to talk more with him about his experience growing up unschooling. I was thrilled when he agreed to chat with me!
So, to get us started Xander …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
XANDER: Yeah, that’d be my pleasure.
I was unschooled growing up for most of my life. I did go to public school during the elementary school years. I dropped out in the 5th grade and my transition was a little bit unusual from what I usually see in the unschooling community and that is that my parents are both professors in the University of Maryland’s College of Education. My mom was really involved in looking at studies on human learning and child brain development and it became very apparent from that perspective that the best thing that they could do for their kids, me and my two siblings, would be to pull us out of school.
So, for me, it was a decision that came from my parents.
PAM: How were you feeling about school at the time?
XANDER: I was sort of mixed or neutral about it. I think I did well in school. Though I have a lot to say on the structures and systems in school, I think there are some types of thinking that can succeed within the systems that school sets. I think that I was able to pass on tests and perform in that way, so I had a sense of acceptance within school. I was told that I was good. For me it was a positive experience in that sense, but I definitely don’t think that I was learning or growing in a truly meaningful way.
PAM: That’s such a great point.
XANDER: I think that unschooling shift definitely made a huge difference for the better in my life, even though I was getting good grades in school and school was telling me I was doing well.
PAM: It’s so interesting to hear. In my situation, I did fine in school and it wasn’t until later when I had kids and started actually thinking about the system. But it was because my son wasn’t doing well. That was the trigger for me to start looking and to start questioning things.
It’s interesting that it was specifically your mom’s work in education that was the trigger for her to start questioning things. I do know of a few unschooling parents who are at colleges and universities in the education department, like professors of education, who are choosing to unschool their own children. That’s really interesting.
XANDER: I think there was a mix, too, that as a kid we would take family vacations or miss days or sometimes a week of school and we’d just go adventuring.
My parents really quickly saw the difference in me and my siblings when we were away from school or at school, largely just how happy we were. The sense of delight and awe that we would have. And it really lined up for them with the research they were doing, that those moments when we were fully engaged with being where we were and soaking in the experience of something new was when we were learning and growing. So, it made a lot of sense to them to make that the primary focus of our youth and our education.
PAM: Did you notice a big difference once you left school? Was it just back to those vacation days or whatever those days were you spent hanging out with your parents? Did you just dive right into that or was there more of a transition?
XANDER: Yes and no. I would say there was a transition, especially in the last few years of my schooling. I was starting to take it more and more seriously, so I wouldn’t go as often on days off on family vacations because it became really important to me to have my teachers look at me and say I was doing well and getting good grades, which I think is so common.
I would stay home and work hard on homework and go to school and try really hard to succeed in a way where I could be acknowledged. So, in our last few years I got more and more into the swing of where I think school could start to really disserve the human mind, which is, for me, when learning becomes a really forced process and one that’s intention isn’t to grow but instead to perform—proving yourself or be seen as having accomplishments under a very specific set of criteria.
PAM: How did you find that transition because you had bought into that definition of learning, to be seen as accomplishing and doing well within that system, and learning looks very different outside of school.
I can imagine at first it was like, “I’m not really learning anything. I’m having fun!” But after while, starting to worry about whether or not you were learning. Was that something you went through?
XANDER: Yes, I think so. I think it was offset largely because I did have a lot of trust from my parents since my parents were so confident that my life was going to be better if I unschooled, I believed in that.
I did definitely go through, to some degree, the classical deschooling process. I spent a quite a bit of time just turned off at home, watching TV, playing video games. Sort of going into this deep recovery mode that to me is what the deschooling process is.
PAM: Yeah, as you say that does lead perfectly into the next question!
One of the common worries for newer unschooling parents is around whether or not to limit the time their children spend watching TV or specifically playing video games. As you alluded to, there’s a difference between deschooling and choosing gaming as a passion, though at first it might be really hard to distinguish between them, so I was hoping you could talk about the difference?
XANDER: Yes definitely.
Just to go over a little bit in case anyone listening is new to deschooling or unschooling the idea is with deschooling there’s a period of time after a kid leaves school, seems to me to range from six months up to on the high end maybe two years, where that kid is recovering from the mental state that school often puts kids into which is one of repetitive activity in very low creative engagement.
That kind of experience, drawn over the length of time that it does in school, can be a little traumatic. For a lot of kids there’s this long period of time where they’re going into recovery and you can almost just think of it as resting. Like their brain needs time to rearrange itself and wake up to the possibility of being present and engaged as the independent and free driving force in your own life.
For me, what that looked like was I went home, I would lay on the couch all day and either watch TV or play video games. I think what was happening for me was I was getting some minimal source of stimulation but the main focus or intention was on a subconscious level was to rest. I had to give myself time to recover. There’s a big difference between the way I engaged with media in that state, and the way I engage with media afterwards.
What typically happens is during this deschooling process, even when someone is engaging with TV or a movie, there’s a little bit of a glazed look to them like they’re just passive. And that can be really scary for unschooling parents who are new, to see their kids come out of school and be in this state that really doesn’t look like they’re getting much out of the unschooling process because they aren’t moving in a tangible way.
But then, inevitably, there’s this incredibly, beautiful moment in every story I’ve heard where one morning the kid wakes up and comes into the kitchen and says, “Mom, I really want to learn how to cook. Can you show me how to make pancakes?” or “Mom, I really want to read this book.”
There’s this explosion where the recovery hits a critical mass and a kid is able to re engage with creative development and intellectualism.
PAM: I really love that because it’s so true!
When the parents have chosen unschooling and their kids come home from school they’re all excited. They’re like, “We can do all these things!”
On one level, deschooling is a little easier to understand if your child has had more traumatic experiences at school. They need to recover from that.
But you’re absolutely right that there is that whole system that we really internalize of how we learn and how we’re told what to do. We’ve always been told what to do and kept busy, and that cocooning, to be able to relax and release all that programming, for lack of a better word, and to regather your agency.
One day they wake up and they want to do something, something has struck their interest and they’re ready to do that. It can be a scary time when they cocoon just when parents think that they have released them to the world.
XANDER: Totally, because humans are such creative and adventurous creatures. Just like you said, there’s a lot to the subtle ways that school can start to inhibit or take that away from kids both through things like limiting creative engagement and, also like you were saying, on a social level by not having a lot of choice or being told that you’re only accepted and worthy if you perform in a very specific kind of way.
A lot of kids have different ways of coping with that and there’s just so much there that can create little bits of painful experiences that ultimately lead to a story that, “I’m not creative, I’m not worthy, I’m failing.” So, it takes a lot for the brain to recover from that and go back into a space of being able to jump into creative engagement. It happens because brains are amazing, but it takes time.
PAM: Then that gets prolonged too, or can be, when parents become vocal or even their energy—like you said, children are so perceptive that when it feels disapproving—those are still the same kinds of messages that they’re trying to recover from. Sometimes we can end up extending that period.
What do they say? “You don’t pull up a plant to see if it’s growing.”
If we keep trying to test like, “You sure you don’t want to go play? You sure you don’t want to go and do this?” They can tell that this is a judgment or an expectation and that we’re not very comfortable with the choices they’re making at that moment, Then there’s that as well that they need to work through.
I will add a little bit of a note on the work I’m doing in my life right now around emotional illness where a lot of the language I’m using and the concepts I’m using are in the frame of trauma. I just want to make that transparent.
I love that idea and I think that, to me, one of the most valuable parts of unschooling is the unconditional positive regard and acceptance that a parent can give to a kid. Just that sense of trusting, that it’s okay to be myself and it’s okay to do what feels good and take care of myself. I think that’s such a huge thing to be able give a young and developing mind. It’s a precious thing and it’s hard to do that as a parent, wanting to contribute to your kid as best you can but it seems like a really impactful way to contribute is to trust a kid’s process and give that unconditional love and support.
PAM: Yeah, especially during the deschooling time, just focusing on building that relationship and trust. That trust lies at the root of everything and I love that you brought that up because it really is so important. When they feel that strength and foundation and trust from you, it’s from there that they feel energized to step out and be able to follow.
I was curious how your passion for gaming developed and I was hoping you would share a bit about how that unfolded.
XANDER: Yeah, we can get into the fun stuff—the gaming! There’s a bit to it.
For me, there are two big things that made me go, “Wow!” when I discovered gaming. One part of it was influenced from family. My cousins on my mom’s side were really big video gamers. They are between five and ten years older than me and, in my eyes, they were the coolest people that could walk the earth!
When they would visit, we would play together on our computers, whether it was Warcraft 3 or sometimes my cousin would let me play Ratchet & Clank on his PS2. So, there was this social element that these amazing people were showing me this really beautiful and artistic world that I could dive into and it was initially this social experience of getting to play.
At first, I thought of it as a board game that was just so three-dimensional. There was so much complexity and depth that I was diving into and I was collaboratively engaging with these people that I really admired. So that was a huge component for me and that continued to be an emphasis on how I engaged with gaming throughout my life, with that social component.
The other piece of it I want to elaborate more on is a lot of that growth process, especially right around the age where I left school, I think maybe age ten through 15 or 16, is this intense period of trial and error of seeing what it looks like to go into this strange circumstance and how that reacts. To someone of that age in particular, video games are this incredible opportunity because they offer this expansive set of possibilities that you could explore.
A lot of these games—I don’t know how many listeners have played video games before so I will go a little bit basic—but a lot of games there’s an avatar in the game representing you and there is a powerful state of immersion where while you are playing the game, in your head, you’re not necessarily thinking that you are looking at a screen making dots fly across, you are that character.
Often, there can be a similar experience if you’re reading a really good book because you kind of become that character. There is a similar growth and for me when I was a kid, reading stories, a lot of it was, “Oh my gosh! What that would feel like to be this character in this book on this adventure!” The feeling of this growth and feeling of the archetype and seeing what happens.
Video games introduce this whole new element to that where not only are you experiencing this incredible story from a first-person perspective, you are also making the choices about where the story goes. You get to choose for yourself what the most creative thing you can think of to do and you get to see what the results of that are. I want to clarify that there is sometimes more to it.
So, let’s say I’m in a game and it’s some kind of combat game. It’s not necessarily that I am playing with the possibility of fighting some guy on the street and seeing how that turns out for me and then applying that to fighting someone in real life. I think, more meaningfully, it’s seeing which parts of myself I want to dive into and explore, which parts of myself I want to grow, which aspects of that archetype of a hero and which parts of their story and pain I can really relate with and how that all feels.
I think that supports, especially, emotional growth. Understanding what it means to be a human being, to be living all of these stories through all of these eyes in rapid succession.
PAM: Especially replaying the same game. I know my son would talk about doing something different—different way of playthroughs and making different choices like taking on different personas, trying them on seeing what happens to them through the same kind of story but seeing how it plays out differently.
PAM: It’s a wonderful way to just explore. Like you were talking about exploring within the game and exploring all the different perspectives that you can play through the different player’s perspectives, your playthrough with a different mindset. It’s even like exploring that mindset for yourself. “I want to play this like, ‘if I thought I was going to be a superhero, what choices would I make here?’ ‘If I thought I wanted to become the villain, what choices would I make?’”
It’s just so in-depth!
XANDER: It’s so powerful and I really want to reiterate that, especially in a good game, one of the things that me and my brother liked doing, who also was into video games, was to go through a story as the hero and experience the conflict from that perspective and be trying to make these morally righteous choices and savoring it when it helped the world.
Then we would finish the game and go back through it from the villain’s perspective or play as the bad guy. In a good game, it’ll really be apparent that you’ll have the same sense of immersion as that villain, but you’ll be experiencing all of the pain the villain is in that leads to these harmful choices that the villain is making. It’s a really broad understanding of conflict as a whole.
PAM: I love that because a well-drawn, well-created villain believes he’s the hero of his story.
As you said, it’s very complex, there’s all these things going on and there’s such a way to realize that our perspective isn’t the only one. What a way to explore that even in our conversations and engagements with other people, that they have different perspectives. That brings it home so clearly, doesn’t it?
XANDER: Yeah, I think one of the really powerful things about video games is being able to take what is usually a linear storyline and pull it apart to this hyper complex sphere of conflicts and sub-stories and look at it from all different angles and get to just really experience that story as an example of what it means to be human.
It’s just so cool!
PAM: Some of those worlds are so huge and the stories are so complex that the way they weave together … I just loved it when the boys would pass by and give me an update on a story! What twists and turns had happened and who was doing what now and it’s always so fascinating to listen to.
There are some games that don’t do it quite as well but that’s another huge aspect to learn. You start to understand what it is that they didn’t do so well, that makes it less immersive, or makes the choices seem unrealistic. It’s just a whole language, a whole world that you learn so much about even just on its own.
XANDER: It brings up for me a really important piece, going back to the difference of engaging with specifically video games either as a deschooling process or as a passion-driven choice.
One of the ways I see that happen is that creative switch can turn on when you start to view whatever media you’re consuming as art and think about its creation. That same thing can happen for TV for you. Instead of just blindly soaking in what you’re viewing, you’re looking at it as this intricate, sometimes masterpiece, sometimes terrible example, of the creation of an expression of artistry.
If you think of video games as three-dimensional books with a huge sphere, of stories with narratives weaving together from the perspective of the participants of the story. But then there’s also the story of the creators of the game itself. And I think it’s just one more level at which you can analyze the story.
It’s so cool to get to see people who are coming from this passion-driven unschooling mentality and diving into it as an art form as a way of expressing their creative self and try their own attempt at weaving these complex stories from multiple perspectives. It’s really fun to watch.
PAM: Like you said, there are just so many aspects to the whole thing. From the art—we’ll have long conversations about the music and how that music evokes atmosphere, how certain themes of music just spark and put you right back into the situation in the moment in that game where that song appeared.
XANDER: I have a really funny moment. I play some video games off and on in my adult life, but I haven’t been as serious about it as when I was a teenager. Yesterday, I was sitting in the living room. I live in this eclectic house with a few housemates. One of my housemates was goofing around with the recorder, the flute instrument, played this sound that sounded exactly like from one of the games I had played as a teenager—the intro note, to the combat music that plays—which is so heavily drilled into me, that as soon as I hear that note I get ready for action like someone’s about to try and fight me even though I don’t recognize what the threat is in the game world. So, yesterday, when I heard that sound, that deep memory was stimulated for me, I hopped up in my seat a little bit and was terrified! I had to get the heck out of there!
It’s all this amazing art form. I really want to talk a little bit about the sheer beauty of games. I remember so many moments. I personally loved fantasy games and there were moments where I would be in this immersive world where I would be walking down this trail looking for the next adventure to go on and I would crest a hill and see this incredible sunset with waterfalls and meadows. It was amazing to me to capture that sense of very real awe.
It’s so similar to the sense that I get when I go on a beautiful hike as an adult and to have that stimulated so regularly as a kid even though it was in that digital context. It was so fun, and I think not only that it settled into me a passion for discovery and for looking for those overlooks in life and finding those moments of awe because it was such a beautiful experience and it really becomes a deep and satisfying thing. It’s so cool to me that, through video games, that can be really accessible to any kid who can venture into their computer.
PAM: That’s a great point. The exploration factor, the discovery, the what’s over the next hill, around the next corner? What’s going to show up? It’s so interesting.
To go back to the art, the beauty of so many games. I would just go sit and watch, to just see. I would watch quite a few of the fantasy games where you’re out in a cool world but even ones like inside a spaceship—just the detail! I watched Fallout 4 for a while. Let’s just go read all the posters from ages ago! You turn on the radio and the old music that was there… there’s a lot of care that goes into a lot of the games.
Even some of the indie games—they don’t have the budget for all that but it’s still beautiful even its own style. It’s very stylistic. They still have their touches. You almost feel like you could get to know the designer and the creators as you play because you see what was important to them. You see what they focused on to bring out. It’s always so interesting.
XANDER: It’s very true that you kind of build a relationship with the game designer. For me and my brother, we loved Bethesda games. Bethesda hasn’t released a new title in a while. Whenever they do, we get so excited knowing that these storytellers that we resonate with are creating again.
PAM: That’s awesome.
The other thing I wanted to touch on because, in my experience, diving into any passion, which totally includes a passion for video games, can be a wonderful way to learn so much about ourselves. That understanding applies everywhere in our lives. We touched on it a bit in the emotional resonance and navigating points of view and perspective and relationships, but everything from, “How do I deal with when I get frustrated, tired, hungry?” All these everyday aspects of ourselves—it doesn’t matter necessarily what the filter is, you experience all those parts of being human, like you were talking about, through video games as well, don’t you?
I think one of the really cool things about it is it gives a way to tangibly measure different scenarios. One example I can give is, one of the games I used to play was shooter games like Call of Duty and I did an experiment one time as a kid where I would listen to really hard and fast rap music turned up loud. I noticed as I watched myself, I would play super aggressively in the game. I would run around all crazy, causing explosions, shooting things. Then I played another game and I switched to this really soothing, peaceful Jack Johnson or something and I played super conservatively. I didn’t notice the difference until I went back and watched replays of the games but it was cool to have this way where I am expressing my subconscious through my subtle actions within a game and then to be able to watch that as an outside perspective. It was super cool.
Like you were also saying, being able to explore different ways of making choices in one of those immersive games and archetypes you can try on. For me, as I got in to a lot of the fantasy games, I just so fell in love with the idea of being an adventuring, exploring hero who went around looking for ways to help people and contribute to the world. For me that was the really big takeaway for a lot of the games I played.
I wasn’t consciously thinking of it as a real-life video game, but when I was 18 I went on this long adventure. I went traveling to Thailand for a few months and I would go to little farms and help local farmers and volunteer here and there. In my own way it was an expression of that love I had for seeing this new and beautiful place and looking for the people there who could use any help I could offer. And contributing to this space and appreciating the beauty of that experience and process.
PAM: That’s so cool! I love how you noticed that later, the similarities between those two things. That’s a really interesting connection and it leads very nicely into the next question.
I was hoping you would share some examples of the things you have learned or experienced through gaming that continue to be relevant in your life now? What threads you see now as you look back, the connections to gaming to where you are now?
XANDER: One of the big ones for me is something that we’ve already talked about and that’s conflict and perspective. Today, I work as a mediator and I work with conflict and emotional wellness and do restorative justice work.
I think a lot of that was the same consciousness as being able to look into this really delicate connection between two humans and see both perspectives and value the needs expressed by the actions of each person. It’s so similar to what I got to engage with as a kid, seeing stories play out from two different perspectives and getting to put myself in the shoes of both the villain and the hero.
So, that was a really huge one. Also, I think the love for adventure and independence. I noticed I was so happy in games where I got to carry almost nothing with me. I was so fascinated with the concept that this person could have enough food for a few days. If I break down what’s happening in reality as an adventure going forward, this person had a backpack with some stuff—a few possessions, a little bit of food, and they just go. If I ignore the parts about fighting goblins, that core component of this person looking for adventure, not needing anything but themselves and what they have and going and finding the biggest, meaningful, sense of purpose and contributing to the world that they can with whatever they can bring—was so cool.
I went on this long adventure as I was coming into adulthood and now I really love minimalism—it’s mostly a way of engaging with environmentalism. I love trying to see how much I can contribute to the world with as little as I have. So, it’s one of the subtle things that came for me and that love for exploration and adventure and looking for ways to help people.
In my life, I ended up going on a little bit of an unconventional route, which actually is conventional for unschoolers! I skipped college and I work in an unusual job and I spend slightly more time volunteering than I spend working professionally. A lot of that comes from the part of myself that I got to express through video games, of being really committed to helping people and having the most important thing be a sense of purpose and contribution.
PAM: I love that. It makes a lot of sense. That’s awesome, Xander!
As our last question, as a grown unschooler, what piece of advice would you like to share with unschooling parents who are just starting out on this journey? I know we talked earlier about the cocoon phase, if that happens.
XANDER: I think it’s probably the biggest learning curve is having heard from our cultural paradigm that as a parent you’re solely responsible for your kid to be okay, and if they aren’t behaving like a kid on TV behaves, then you’re a failure as a parent.
A really big part of unschooling is slowing down and learning to trust in your kid and the relationship that you have with your kid. To let that kid blossom in exactly the way that they want to and they’re meant to.
I think the most powerful thing any parent can do for a kid, in my opinion, is to be there to stand as this smiling support and witness and watch the kid grow into their perfect expression of who they want to be in the world.
That can be really hard to do as a parent. That’s a huge request, to me. I haven’t heard research or stories that even come close to having as much of an impact in a kid finding happiness and meaningful engagement in their life.
PAM: I love that. I love the word ‘witness’ rather than ‘direct.’
That’s a great way to put it, to be there in that positive, trusting, supportive way. Be a witness to their lives and encouragement and acceptance of who they are. That’s that huge piece, especially when you come from school. There’s this model that everybody is supposed to get to: doing well, listening well, and doing what you’re told to.
To give them the space and time to find out who they are—that was great.
XANDER: One of the projects I work on now is I volunteer in prisons helping inmates to get to know themselves and come into a greater sense of emotional understanding. It’s a huge part of what we’re doing there—giving this human the space to express themselves, be accepted, and learn to trust that they are safe in that room, that they are loved, and they belong. They deserve those things no matter what.
If you can give that to someone while they’re a kid before they make a mistake, I think, as humans, to have a sense of safety in our body is so dependent on having a sense of belonging and having a sense of family. I think to let a kid know that they are accepted and that they are loved no matter what, in such a tangible way as really being there to support them and them making their own choices, that can do so much to set a kid free.
PAM: I love that! I got goosebumps! That is so true and that’s wonderful.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Xander. I really appreciate it. I loved diving into gaming a bit with you!
XANDER: Totally! So fun.
PAM: Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
XANDER: If you’d like to connect with me more you can reach me through my email address which is xmacswan at gmail.com. If you’re in Portland, Oregon and want to see the work I’m doing or engage with me, you can totally reach out. My business website is rosecitynvc.org.
PAM: Thank you so much, Xander. It was lovely to chat with you!
XANDER: You too, Pam. Have a great one.