PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Ann Rousseau. Hi Ann!
PAM: Did I say that right? Your last name?
ANN: Yes. Yes.
PAM: (laughs) Now, an earlier guest on the podcast, Kelly Callahan, connected me to Ann, and thank you very much Kelly. That’s awesome. Because it’s been my pleasure to explore Ann’s online presence, and I’m really thrilled that I get a chance to chat with her in person today. Yay!
PAM: So, to get us started, Ann …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
ANN: I am a mom to three boys with my partner Tim Rousseau. We had three home births, and the three home births—that was a leap to go into the home birth world with the first. And once we went there, we were never going back. I was always going to have a home birth.
And that led into attachment parenting very easily, which led very easily into unschooling. Though, to be fair, I’m sure there are people in my life who have no idea what unschooling is or that I am participating in such a thing. (laughs)
PAM: (laughs) I know, because the rest of the world is kind of just, you know, homeschooling. That’s as much as we need to share, right?
ANN: Exactly. Right. And that also is a life lesson for me, of: I really don’t need to overshare with people who aren’t interested.
ANN: It’s huge.
PAM: Yeah. That really, really is. It’s—I remember at first, you wanted everybody to understand. You wanted everybody—certainly in the extended family—to approve.
PAM: You wanted them to know that what you were doing is right. It wasn’t until years later that I realized it was more me looking for approval, right? Until I got to the point where, you know what, I’m confident and happy with our lifestyle and I’m not going to change it no matter what. And you get to that point where you just own it and you don’t need to explain it or share it. You just be it. You just kind of live it. Right?
ANN: Yeah. Isn’t that a lovely place to be?
PAM: Yeah. (laughs)
ANN: In all aspects of our life. We’re just living it. We don’t have to explain it. There is a level of mastery, even if mastery may not be the word. It’s a level of comfort and security. And here I am. It’s me. Doing this. And I’ve decided it’s okay for me.
PAM: And I love your point about there’s so many different journeys we take, right? I mean, unschooling is one, if that’s our choice. But I mean, as I get more and more into writing, now that my kids are older, I am recognizing those same stages in my journey with writing. Journey with marketing, like selling my books and things. It’s—I mean, they’re different of course, because they’re through that different window—but the general patterns of the journey are very similar. So, that’s fascinating. We’ll touch on that later, I think.
ANN: Okay. I have something to say about that.
PAM: Oh! Go for it.
ANN: Well maybe I’ll just say it briefly and we’ll come back around to it.
PAM: Yeah, yeah.
ANN: One of these things coming up for me as a parent of older kids, not just the little ones, and it’s a question of worthiness. And it comes up for teenagers. And it comes up for adults; maturing adults. What is worthiness? Can I ask for what I feel that I am worth? Am I worth being a member of this world? Right?
And so all of these things start to come up, these issues around worthiness, and can I ask for what I really want. And when I look back, I put together a whole slide show of just memories with the boys. And even now, gosh, it makes me cry to think about that slide show … (pauses)
ANN: (with emotion breaking in her voice) It’s so beautiful.
I mean, I was just looking at this life that they’ve had, this life of worthiness, of “it’s okay to be a kid.” It’s okay to be covered in mud from head to toe and completely naked and run around in your bare feet. And to be on a computer with your friends and skyping at the same time and facetiming in. Sitting on a couch with boys and iPads and iPods, and then being in the middle of the ocean. You know, there’s this amazing wonderful life, and we’re worth it. Whew!
PAM: That’s such a great word for it. That value. Every moment, every choice. Whatever’s important to us has value. Like, with unschooling, with our kids, that message that they get every single day, like full stop. I got goosebumps again.
PAM: It’s one of the reasons why I just love to continue talking about unschooling and diving into it myself, because there’s just that value of living life. Not achievement, not all those external measures. And that is something that, like when we were talking about the different stages. That value, that worthiness.
We go through it when we first start unschooling, I think so much, because we’re so used to measures, right? We’re so used to being graded. We’re so used to comparing ourselves to anyone else. That’s the first layer of worthiness, I think, when you first start unschooling. Like, there’s so many layers to peel away underneath all these ideas, isn’t there?
ANN: There’s so many. So many. Even when my midwives were leaving us with our first baby. I was sort of like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, am I going to do it right? Like, I just need the rules.”
PAM: (laughs) Yeah, yeah!
ANN: And my dear midwife Ellie said, “You make the rules yourself. You are the authority in this situation.” She wanted it to come away from her, to come away from anything else. She gave me this—she bestowed me motherhood in that moment, and said, “This is yours. And you get to decide how this deal is going down.” (laughs)
ANN: And it becomes such a relationship inside a family, that the family decides together so many ways that this deal is going down. Woo! Because, no one person in the family steers the ship completely. Everybody has a say, even if it’s a passive-aggressive say. Everybody has a say in how the family’s going to go.
So, that’s pretty interesting too, because I didn’t have my way with everything, how everything was going to go down. But that also is a beautiful learning, to what is it like to live together? What is it like to slog along together, or walk at the pace of the slowest one the family?
PAM: Doesn’t it feel like you, as a person, like as I imagine that feeling, you’re just bigger. It just encompasses you, me, like encompasses everyone in the family, and it’s like all of our needs are just so valuable. And figuring out—I don’t feel like I’m giving up when I’m walking slow. When I’m walking as slow as the slowest person, it doesn’t feel like I’ve given up something, or I’ve—I don’t know, what’s the right word?
ANN: Well, that you’re sacrificing your pace.
PAM: Sacrificing! There you go. That’s a great word. Yup. Not sacrificing for it. There’s beauty there. All it means is I’m shifting how I’m looking at the situation. “Oh! Okay. We’re going to go a lot slower. I’m going to see different things now.” And you come to appreciate whatever, wherever you find yourself, right?
And that is the real flexibility and the strength of being able to shift like that. As the mother. I’m just speaking because as a mother, there’s this incredible strength and flexibility in softening and getting bigger, to encompass and hold the space for everyone.
PAM: Mmm-hmm, yeah.
ANN: (in a whisper) I don’t always do that. (laughs)
PAM: (laughs) Well, I mean, how many times do we say, we’re not perfect. How do you think you learn these things? Because you try other ways and they don’t work as well.
PAM: That’s one of the things too—it was from an attachment parenting book that I read, Attachment across the Lifecourse. We did a book episode on it. And he talked about how 50 percent, almost, of our interactions don’t go the way we wanted or the way we expected. And the whole point is the coming back to it. Right? It’s the reconnecting. That’s what builds so much trust and connection in the relationship. Because when we make a misstep, we still come back. We come back to it. We don’t hold grudges—that’s our work.
ANN: That’s our work, is the reconnecting.
And making the space for all of those things which may feel like mistakes, or they may feel just rotten—mistake or not, they just don’t feel great—but then the reconnecting, especially when it doesn’t feel great, is especially even better! You know, when you’re able to reconnect in a time when it seemed impossible, then that reconnection is deeply strengthening for a family, for relationships. Yeah.
PAM: That’s awesome. I should probably go back to our questions. (laughs)
You talked about how you went from attachment parenting into unschooling. If you could just give us just a little bit of history. Did you hear about unschooling from an attachment parenting group? Or how did you first hear about it?
ANN: I think I first heard about unschooling—and I had a judgement about it right away. I was like, “What do you mean unschooling?” I didn’t understand, and I’m trying to remember—I think Sandra Dodd was my first peek into unschooling and I got her book, The Big Book of Unschooling.
ANN: And that was when I really started to understand the philosophy—understand really what was going on, that it was so much bigger than school. I wish we could take school out of the picture. It’s just this huge experience of unlimited learning. How can you take learning and make it personal and individual and unique and absolutely unlimited? And then it feels like, “Well that just sounds like a good life.”
PAM: (laughs) I love that, yeah. Because that’s where you get to, right? A good life.
That’s what we want. And I think that’s what everyone wants, no matter what choices they’re making. They’re making it because they’re hoping for a good life, or they’re hoping for happiness. But unschooling offers this window into it at a very early age, I feel like. You don’t have to wait, you don’t have to—we spend so much time talking about deschooling. How great is it for my kids not to have ever go through deschooling?
PAM: Yeah… (laughs)
ANN: They have to go through de-momming. De-Ann-Rousseau-ing. I’m sure I’ve done something to them. (laughter)
At some point. But we’ll leave that for their generation.
My husband is a furniture maker and he was asked to teach in Australia when my oldest was five. And so we were going to be in Australia for ended up being a semester in school, when he would have been in kindergarten. And I already knew that I wanted to homeschool. That’s what I was calling it. That’s what I was thinking. And I didn’t quite know how to tell people. But the fact that we were travelling that year was so easy, and it made it so simple to say, “Okay, this is what we’re doing. That’s why I’m not enrolling him in kindergarten,” like my other friends are doing with their children at the same time. And so that was my window in, even though I really never had any intention of sending my children to school, if it was my choice.
So, we went to Australia, and traveled and had a great time and met homeschoolers there, who, some of them were unschoolers as well. And that was mind-blowing. And Australia’s a lot more rigid about their schooling. They’re a lot more socialized around it, where it seems very important to many people that kids go to school.
And so, these homeschoolers were real renegades over there. They were wild and powerful. You know, when you have to push that hard against something, then you become very powerful. They were very powerful and inspiring. And I came home, and that was sort of it for me. I was just on the ball, and looking at all kinds of things. In the beginning there was a bit more of me working through some of my deschooling, being more schooly. And that started to fall away the more I read about unschooling, I got on some forums, I sort of soaked it all in as much as I could, and kept opening and opening and opening.
My oldest just has an incredible mind—sort of like an engineering sort of mind—and really loves figuring things out. So, he was a really great kid for me to watch things happen without me having to do anything. Just stringing things up and tying things around and making things and digging holes and doing experiments. He really had a lot of energy that really showed me that wow, a lot is going on if you just open the door.
PAM: Yeah. You know I think that’s one—for me anyway—that was a huge piece of understanding unschooling, along with all the reading I was doing, was watching conversations in forums and email lists and stuff like that. But then watching my kids, seeing them in action.
And yeah, the different personalities too, right? Like, the time to realize the ones that are more thinkers versus the ones that are more hands on. But over, you know, a couple of months, you can see the result of all that thinking they were doing, like through their conversations or just through what they are choosing to do next. ‘Ohhhh, so to go from here to here, you were thinking about x, y, z, probably.’ You get a good idea to see how they go about it.
And that helped so much to see in action what I was reading. It was important for me to understand the theory and the philosophy and what the more experienced unschoolers were saying was going to happen, and how their kids learned and stuff. But then to see it in action, and to have my own examples—that’s how it started to solidify for me.
ANN: Yeah. I can tell you how far I’ve come. One of the first things that I remember doing in an active forum—maybe you would have been part of this. Sandra had this chat room—I can’t remember what it was—and 15, 20 people tops would come in and chat for an hour, just like instant messenger kind of chatting. I came in for the first time and I was like, I was one of those people who came in and said, “Yeah, but what about brushing their teeth? Kids have to brush their teeth, right??” (laughs)
PAM: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ANN: And everyone was so kind to me, and they were like, “Well, let’s pick this apart.” Nobody gave me the ‘shake their head’ or whatever. It was just like, “Okay, let’s take a look at this so you can have a chance to think about your thinking.” So philosophical. So heady, some of these things. And it was like, “Well, you know, do you believe that if a child at an apple, would their teeth be cleaner after? Could your child eat an apple instead of brushing their teeth?” Especially young kids who are not that great at brushing their teeth. It’s like, “Ooooo, an apple might be better.” “And could they swish with something? Could they rub their teeth with a washcloth?” It’s like, “Wow, let’s pick this apart and see how creative we can get to solve a problem.” And I thought, “I love these people. I always want to think like this for every problem that comes up in my life.” And it just really swung open this light in my mind of, “Wow, there’s never one way to solve a problem.”
PAM: Oh, I love that. It’s such a great example.
And that’s why it was so important, for my journey anyway, to continue doing that reading and participating. Because my mind grew so much. And as you said, realizing the creativity and the fact that there is more than one way—from that, that let me be less directed in my kids, and then I saw them doing it different ways and it working out for them. Like, I would never have done that in that situation, but it worked beautifully for them. It’s like, “Ohhhhhhh.” (laughs)
ANN: Yeah. Yeah.
And I have this background being a dancer. And when you’re practicing improvisational dance, or improvisational anything—music, acting—you’re not looking for the same way that anyone else would find their way to solve a problem. You’re looking for new, innovative, unique and individual solutions, from A to B. And that is the goal. That’s the preciousness of the situation, is that it will not look the same as the person next to you. And that’s what you do it for. And I thought, “Well I love that about life. Aren’t we meant to be here to do it just our way, in just our expressiveness? Why would I want my child to solve 2 + 2 = 4 exactly the way that I do it?”
There are actually more ways to play around with how you get to that answer. It’s not just cut and dry. I love the word “tricky math” these days. (laughs)
ANN: It’s like, for me sometimes math changes the way I think about a subject, the way I look at the numbers. And this is maybe just an aside, but I was thinking of my own worthiness piece of, ‘What rate do I want to charge for something? In my life, what’s my worthiness?’ And then I was like, ‘Well, I’m not comfortable asking this rate. It makes me squirm.’ But if I do a little tricky math, and I get the rate, and I change the time, and I make an equation that works for me, then all of a sudden I found the solution for myself where I’m getting my rate but I’m asking for something that sounds less, for less time. I’m getting tricky—really, really tricky here—with my math.
ANN: I’m trying to explain to you that using all of these ways to come to the answer that feels right.
ANN: Right? And math is always like, “No there’s a right answer.” How you get there also matters. There’s feeling to it.
PAM: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I love that. (laughs)
I think we have touched on this a little bit, but I want to dive in.
As we’re deschooling, one of the things—well, and beyond, because as we mentioned earlier, this goes on for life—but anyway, it can be especially hard to sit with discomfort and fear to learn what we can learn from it, and what we need to move through it. And there is this big, big chasm between that moment when we know we don’t want to do something and then figuring out what we want to do instead. There’s this time inaction very often when we have a fear, we’re scared, and sitting with that can be really challenging. Because change is hard. I’m thinking, you know, whether it’s parenting things or just re-understanding new paradigm shifts—I mean there’s so many paradigm shifts as we start to learn about the unschooling lifestyle. So I was hoping you could talk a little bit about what you found helpful for yourself during those times?
ANN: For me, initially, I have a sort of personality that wants to solve problems really quickly. I don’t like that uncertain time, or I haven’t in the past. So I would brainstorm really quickly and say, “Well, we could do this, we could do this, or we could do this, we could do this. And what do you want to choose?” Kind of like that.
Or like, somebody would be having a hard time, say, putting their shoes on. Let’s just say that. It’d be like, “Well, you could take these shoes that are just slip on, or you could take these, or you could not wear your shoes and let’s go.” Like, I had this quickness about me that is overwhelming when you’re a child that’s just sort of in the moment. And I thought that my solving problems and having multiple—even though it wasn’t every solution, I would have multiple solutions to a problem—and then I would want to just skip over that uncertain part.
And then, the more I unschooled and the more I parented and the more mature I got, I started to understand that there is value in this space of uncertainty, that allows those feelings to just arise and be there. Be present in that uncertainty, discomfort, pain a lot of times, sadness a lot of times. And let those feelings have a place. There was so much of me wanting to push them aside because they were unpleasant, for myself and for my children.
So, especially since losing my hair, because of alopecia, in the past two years—I got to experience just very personally, “Oh, here’s change again. This is change. I don’t like it. Oh yeah. I hate this.” But there’s nothing I could do about it. I knew my hair was going to fall out. This has happened before. So, I had the opportunity to get really creative with it, and to—well, my creativity was like, “Hey, let’s make a documentary film about it.”
And that gave me some real inspiration to look at, to really just look at it like, “What is this? Could this be beneficial for someone else see me go through loss and change?” And then, it gave me a way to look at it differently.
So, as change comes up now for me, I feel myself being more willing now, as an older person (I’m not that old but I’m older than I was) to see what is the wisdom of feeling the feelings. Especially the unpleasant feelings. And when you really feel the unpleasant feelings, then when the sweet one comes in, it’s like, ‘Ohhhh that tastes so gooooood!’ So, it’s just a real appreciation for all the variation for me. And hopefully I am transmitting that somehow to my children.
PAM: Yeah, I think kids pick up a lot of that. A lot of the energy. They can feel our unspoken words so often. I mean, and all kids can. I know with unschooling kids—what’s beautiful is that they feel more open and free to say something. Kids can come up and just say, “Hey, do you need a little bit of time? Or do you need a little space? Or do you need a hug?” Or anything like that.
Which may not happen in other families, but I do think kids can pick up this underlying sense of what’s going on with us, even during those times. So yeah, I do think that’s one thing that’s been really valuable for my kids growing up, is problems don’t seem insurmountable. As in, I know when my kids have come to me with when they’re feeling uncomfortable with something or they’re upset about something, and they have no clue how they’re going to move forward with it—but there’s always the underlying knowledge that there is that other side. That they will get through it somehow. They just don’t know how yet.
PAM: You know what I mean? And I think that’s something that’s really valuable. And I think a lot of that is because they’ve seen us take that on. And when they’re younger and we’re helping them process it, we are holding that space for them. If we don’t break down and join them in this pit of despair. We validate it and we know it and we understand it and we can empathize with them, but we’re also this rock in that we know there’s another side and we help them through it. And they go through that enough times as children that that’s just what they know, right? That’s their knowledge of how they can get something even if they don’t know how yet.
Like you say, I’m older too, and I still come across these situations where I have no idea where this is going to go. But I know it’s going to go somewhere.
ANN: As a young mother—and I just had one at the time—I think Noah would have been a toddler, so say he was a year and a half, or two. And I had this cat food, which is where I always had it before I had kids, on this toddler shelf. This shelf that was toddler height.
PAM: Yeah, yeah.
ANN: But I wasn’t going to move that cat food, because why would the toddler have to throw the cat food all over the floor?
So, Noah threw the cat food all over the floor, and I was like, I couldn’t even believe it. I was like, “This is such a mess, I can’t believe it.” I was crazed. And my solution was, “I am going to pick every single little tiny piece of cat food up and put it back in the dish.” And I was going to be calm about it, even though I was angry. And so that’s what I did. I was like, “Wow I’m really learning something. Look, Noah, look how we put the cat food back in the dish.” So we sort of did that together. And I put it back in the same spot. Who’s the dummy?
I put the dish in the same spot. So, Noah was like, “That was fun, let’s do that again.” But we were trying to get out the door somewhere at the same time. And he threw the cat food all over the floor, and this point I was just like, “I can’t believe how angry I am!” I could not get over my anger in that moment. And that was the beginning of me really learning about mothering, him seeing anger, me learning like, you don’t do that to yourself. You don’t put the cat food back in the same spot if you don’t want to clean it up again. You know? (laughs)
So, for me, this has been this huge learning experience right along side my children. And my children are so much wiser than I am. They, even in that moment, if they come across that they’d be like, “Well, I wouldn’t do that. It doesn’t make any sense. Of course, I wouldn’t do that.” (laughs) They would find another spot for the cat food. Yeah.
PAM: That’s such a revelatory moment, though, isn’t it? We’re back to: there’s more than one way to do things.
PAM: Right? Right back to that. Not just, “Okay, this is where the cat food is. This is where I’ve always kept the cat food so of course this is where the cat food goes.” (laughter)
ANN: That’s where I was. I’ve come a long way from that day. Yeah.
PAM: I love that. I love that.
ANN: And now, with other people, it’s so easy for me to say, “Well there’s lots of solutions.” I pretend like I was never that person in my mind. “There’s SO many places you could put the cat food.”
PAM: Yeah. And you know, I see that with my kids, with their friends, as they got older. Maybe I’m picking them up from wherever they are, and there’s a few of them hanging out. Or I hear a conversation when they’re at our house or something. But I hear my kids being that person. Being able to take, “Well, what did you want to do? And what did you want to do? And how about we do this?” And being able to find that path that meets everybody’s needs, as closely as you can, but somewhere where everybody can either say, “Yeah I’m good with that,” or, “You know what, no, I’ll go off and do something else.” But that ability to see so many different options and that’s something, that’s a skill that they bring forward with them, that’s useful and helpful forever.
And having a lot of time and space around living gives you the opportunities to use your mind to create a lot of different solutions. One of the things that I’m so grateful, and my husband talks about this all the time, is how we have avoided the morning stress routine that so many of our friends have because kids have to be to school so early.
So, we’ll have, in a three month period of time, we’ll have one or two mornings where we’ve got to get up, get some lunches made, and get somewhere early. And it’s stressful. And it’s not fun. And we all look at each other like, “Whew! What would it take away from us to have to do that every single day?” Yeah. And I looked at my son this morning, waking him up. It was my birthday yesterday, and I had a birthday party, and we had a lot of fun.
PAM: Oh! Happy Birthday!
ANN: Thank you. And he went to bed late, for him, and he was really tired this morning, and he just slept in. And I just looked him this morning and I thought, “Thank god I don’t have to wake you up. That you just get to have that human experience of sleeping until you wake up on your own.” What a childhood, just that. To have many, many experiences of sleeping until you wake up on your own. It’s big.
PAM: Yeah. I know. I’ve never thought of that, as in, that comparison. I always think about, how great that they can do what works for their body. Right? What works for them and learn that. Like taking that knowledge with them. But yeah, what a gift. I never thought of it in those terms. It really, really is, isn’t it?
ANN: It is a gift. Yeah. It’s a kind of gift that you can not buy, of offering someone a life that has less stressors. Yeah. More space. It’s sort of like sometimes we talk about our life being a vacation. Which probably just has a lot to do with the fact that we don’t have a lot of money, so, going to Hawaii is out of the question for now.
ANN: So, “look at our life as our vacation! Isn’t it nice?” But sometimes it feels that way. Sometimes it feels like what a luxury to be able to see you right now. To have lunch with you right now. To sit on the couch right now with you. To walk outside. To say, “Hey, let’s go lay out under the stars right now.” There’s so much space and flexibility by choosing this lifestyle.
PAM: And I was just going to pick up on that. What I thought of while you were talking was, because you know when people talk about, “Oh, but you know, they need to be able to wake up. You have to train them to wake up and follow this, because life isn’t easy, and they have to learn these things growing up.”
But that’s something that we truly experience. Like, life has enough things that go wrong that we truly don’t need to create these stressors or these stressful moments or schedules for them to follow. It’s like, “They don’t follow a schedule growing up, they’ll never be able to do it,” I mean, it’s just so blatantly wrong. When you see your kids in action, because you see them wanting to get up for something. Or you see them wanting to stay up late to celebrate a birthday. There are so many real-life reasons that you’re going to be doing all these things that you don’t need to put a framework on top of a child just to train them. You know what I mean?
PAM: And that’s something that most people just don’t get. They really truly feel like you need to train yourself to do these things. But there are so many other reasons that life provides, just for doing them, isn’t there?
ANN: There are, yeah, so many reasons.
I think of, for myself, when I first had kids, I would wake up in the morning and sing the Mister Rogers song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor.” And part of that was because I was tired, I didn’t know how to be a mother, I didn’t know who I was. My identity changed completely. And I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was a little depressed. So, I would wake up and I would sing that to myself, like, “This is a good thing. Mister Rogers was always good to me. This is a good thing to sing.”
And all these years later—so now 13, 12, 10 years later—it’s taken me all this time to really wake up and be like, embody that. “Wow! It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood! It’s a beautiful day. Where are my neighbors? Where am I in space and time? What’s going on? What’s the season going on?” And to really take that in and be excited about it. And I don’t know why I hadn’t experienced that before in my life, but I don’t think it helped that I didn’t really have a choice when I woke up, or what I was going to do for my day. And now, more than ever, I feel like I’ve got all these choices in front of me. And I sure hope that my children are able to feel that in their life, of, “Oh, what does this day have for me? This is a good day.”
PAM: Do you know what? Yeah. And we used to talk about, you know, when they were younger, we’d get up and we’d be like, “What are we going to do today?” You know, “What adventures do you want to go on?” Such that it really surprised me—I think I’ve mentioned on the podcast before—but my daughter when she turned 18, she got a tattoo. A small tattoo. And it said, “Find Adventure.”
PAM: And you know, it was like, “Oh! That’s just how you approach your life now.” (laughs)
ANN: So sweet. Yes.
PAM: Yeah. It was a thing for her. And obviously, moving forward. Anyway, I should get to the next question, yay!
PAM: You have three boys, as you’ve mentioned.
I mentioned up top that it was Kelly Callahan who mentioned you to me. And in her little note that she sent me, which was beautiful, she described your home as “unschooling magic.” And I’d love to hear how you approach your days with an eye to cultivating that thriving magical unschooling atmosphere.
ANN: I think the primary magic that Kelly might have been talking about is—we have this thing that we call The Digging Garden, that started off for me as The Children’s Garden and it was going to be a sweet faerie garden.
And I think I had one year of it being like here are some scarlet runner beans and some marigolds and some potatoes and tomatoes, and it was a cute children’s garden. And then the very next year it was the biggest hole that my son Noah could dig.
And it has become called The Digging Garden. We realized he needs a place to dig. This is what this kid needs. All the kids that come over to our house are like, “What IS that? That’s amazing.” And he’s inspiring, and they join in, and it’s become a bunker at one point. At one point there was a teepee there. At one point it was a giant hole. At one point he dug a big square, put a tarp in, and filled it with water and made a swimming pool. I mean, this would be like sort of inspired by Noah, but everybody joins in. At one point it was a construction site with roads going all around, up and down. And then there would be experiments with that area. Like, one time we figured out how to dig a rocket stove into the side of it. Made a little cob structure in it, at one point. So, it has become something different every year. And that—I’ve never really met anyone with a dirt digging garden, I think, in my life.
But it’s been like an outdoor—I mean it’s like a giant sandbox but it’s dirt. And that sort of has spilled over into every area of our life, of, “How can we do what we want here? How can we explore here? How can we get really messy here, and then clean it up? And what happens if we heat this up? And what happens if we add water to this?” At one point, I bought a 50 pound bag of baking soda and gallons of vinegar, just because that was what was interesting at that time. One time we wanted to know if we could walk across cornstarch, so I bought, I think, 15 pounds of cornstarch and put them in a tub, and we experimented with that. And then experimented with what happens with that when you just leave it out. It gets really, really stinky and moldy. (laughter)
ANN: My husband is incredibly creative minded—he’s very, very capable maker, fixer, doer, creator. And so, he’s been really instrumental in getting the boys working with wood, welding, playing with fire, using all kinds of materials. That real partnership between the two of us is a real boost to the boys, having each of our strengths.
PAM: Mm-hmm. Oh that sounds lovely. When you were talking about—and you used the word ‘explore’—you know, I was thinking as she described the “unschooling magic” it sounded like such freedom to explore, right? To just explore, to play.
PAM: To figure things out. Just like, “there’s your space.” And then, like you said, you take that experience and you see how fun that is, how connecting that is, and started bringing it to the rest of your lives too, just that sense of, “Let’s just try this, let’s just explore. Gee, I wonder what happens?”
ANN: Yeah, yeah.
PAM: Just that whole way to approach your days, right?
ANN: Mm-hmm. “I wonder what would happen.”
We did this thing with some friends of ours where we wanted to have an adventure, so we said, “Okay, we’re going to get in the car, in the minivan.” So, we filled the minivan, and we’re like, “Everybody gets to choose right, left, or straight at every intersection. And let’s see where we get to.” And that has been a really fun way to explore our area, our state, you know, just to be like, “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Let’s see what happens.”
And it’s that same mentality that you’re talking about, is, there’s a lot worth exploring and spending time with, and it really matters how you approach that. And sometimes it’s fun to know exactly where you’re going, and make a plan, and get there on time. And sometimes it’s fun to meander, and to find things you’ve never found before. And that can be a lot of learning, is meandering. Yeah.
PAM: Yeah, we talk about that a lot on the podcast. Just being open to seeing where things go. And like you said, there are times for different approaches, right? You know something’s open, you want to go there, you know you’ve got that time structured to your day. We get up early and make our lunches and off we go. But, it’s just as valuable, those other moments are just as valuable, right? The open, the curious, let’s just see where this takes us. And so often it becomes just as valuable and just as fun as all those times we planned out, you know?
PAM: It’s not, “Oh we’re doing this because we have nothing else to do.” No! This is as valuable too! Just to hang out and see what happens, as it is to have a plan and go do x, y, z.
ANN: Yeah. Yeah, what a great thing to understand about life in general.
PAM: Yeah, I know, I know. And, reminding yourself about that, because sometimes we get caught up, you know, in the plans that we want.
PAM: And we want them to go faster. (laughs)
ANN: (laughs) Yes!
I was curious, what has surprised you most about how unschooling has unfolded for you guys?
ANN: I think for me, at this point in my journey, what I have been surprised about the most was how much I had to let go and then how much I had to also insert back in. Once I let go, there was also places that it was okay for me to get—I was almost afraid at a certain point to mess it up and insert myself too much. And what’s surprised me at this point is how I have inserted myself with my children—as partners with my children—and it’s sort of like I stepped way, way, way back, and then as I come back in I can do it with more partnership, or equality, or understanding, of, “Okay, now I really see you. I really see that you’ve got this goal, and I can come in and help you with this.”
My oldest son—I don’t know if he’s dyslexic, so we never would have had a diagnosis at all—but he has what I would think is dyslexia. Certainly, my brother did and my father did, and it runs in my family. And reading just was not coming easy to him. It just wasn’t coming easy. And here he was 11, and then 12, and it just wasn’t coming for him. And I had sort of, was like, “I’m hands off. I don’t know. I’m hands off.” And then he came to me and he was like, “I really want to try and figure this out.” And we found this program that was brilliant. I don’t know what they did, but I had never heard of anything like that before. They used these pictographs that represented sounds, and it just helped him decode in a way that was smooth and easy and comprehensible. And it’s something that I would have been, in the early years, like, “You’re going to have to do this, and blahblahblah, this is my idea.” And I had dropped all of that and I was like, “Okay, somehow, some way, by the time he’s 18, he’s going to read.” It was one of my big fears around unschooling.
And then, as we both approached the problem together, and I was able to research and find this program, and then he was able to put his mind and desire into doing that, then we came together in partnership, and it just started sort of magically unfolding for him. And that was one of my huge fears, was, “How are we going to get something to happen like that, if it doesn’t seem like it’s happening naturally or easily?” And it helped me look at reading with the other kids and realize that it doesn’t have to be absolutely completely hands off. If you look at what they are wanting and then supplement that with what you know, as a partnership, not as a dictator. And so, with the other boys I’ve been able to look at their style of wanting to learn to read differently, and support them in this easy and loving way, where always before it was me just being afraid. Like, “I don’t know if this is ever going to happen, arrrrrrggghhh, what do you mean you don’t remember what MM is?!?” (laughter)
You know, it was just so much fear on my part. And so, for me to come in at it like, I don’t need to be afraid. I need to be open to seeing what is right in front of me. What is the truth here, really? And the truth here, really, is that we can come together and be partners and solve a lot of problems and meet a lot of goals together. And keep fear aside. Put it on the table.
PAM: I love that. And you know, that ties back to that question we were talking about earlier too, right, about fears. So often when we’re fearful of something, we pull back from it, right?
PAM: Like you were saying.
And especially if we think, when we’re seeing things—as we do at the beginning—as hands-off, right? Because we need to get to that point because at first we thought hands-on, we should be directing everything.
So, to stop that, we pull back, right? We don’t know what we’re replacing that with yet. We’re like, “Okay, I know I’m not doing that. I know I’m not going to be directing them, and putting them through my paces to meet my expectations.”
I think that’s also a time when we’re learning a lot about unschooling and we’re more watching our kids than directing them. And I think what starts to develop there—because we react when they come to us, and we help them, and we support them—but I think what’s building in there is trust…
ANN: Aw, yeah.
PAM: …between us, right?
PAM: And with that trust, then we realize that’s when we can come back, right? Because when they trust us fully and completely, that’s when we can be partners.
ANN: Yes, I don’t know, this is hitting me, like this is a big, big, big deal.
ANN: And it’s not just in unschooling but in close relationships.
ANN: You know? So, there’s a huge coming around of trusting. Trusting. Yeah.
PAM: Yeah, and then, when you’re partners, then you’re just working with them. You’re just trying to help them meet their goals. And if it’s, “You know, I really want to figure out how to read if we can try and find something,” you know what I mean, if we can find a way. It doesn’t have to be some “thing.” Sometimes I know with my kids it was, you know, stages where we spent more time playing reading kinds of games and noticing reading words. It was just a time when we paid more attention to it in our lives, right?
PAM: But there are other things where there’s more other kinds of formal supports. You know, outside help, whatever it is. But, again, it’s completely different because it’s not us imposing it. It’s us saying, “Hey, I found this. There’s this possibility if you want to pursue it,” and we bring the knowledge that we have as much as we know about it, and then we can explore it with them, and have these conversations to see if it connects, if they’re engaged, if they want to keep going. And them approaching it and using it the way they want to, right? Like you said, he was so engaged with it and enjoying it. And maybe he didn’t and then you moved on to something else, but we’re never taking agency away from them, or control. But then more hands on, helping.
ANN: Right. Yeah.
Before, for me, it was like I was inserting my expectations, even though I didn’t want to. That was just my sort of mode of operation or old family pattern of, ‘How do you become a mother? How do you do this? You insert expectations and then show them how they’re not meeting those expectations.’ (laughs)
Which feels horrible in relationship. Nobody likes that. And nobody really likes being told what to do, to be honest. When somebody—even when I’m like, “Oh I don’t feel so good,” and then one of my kids even, or my husband is like, “Well, you know, you could do this or this or this.” I’m kind of like, “I just want to feel bad for a second. I don’t want to know how to fix this.”
PAM: Yeah, yeah, I just want to share that. I don’t need directions. I’ve gotten to a point sometimes with my husband or whatever, it’s like, “You know, I want to share something, but I don’t need help fixing it. I’ll fix it after.”
ANN: That’s really good.
PAM: Can you just listen? And he’s like, “Sure, go for it.”
ANN: Really good.
PAM: But it takes a while to get to that point, to realize that that’s something that happens and that you don’t like it, so it’s realizing what we want out of the moment. Because that’s part of connecting, too, with another person, right?
With my kids sometimes I’ll be like, “Well you could do this.” [They’ll say] “I don’t want to hear that right now.” And that’s something that when, if we’re out and about and more conventional parents hear that, they think that is a kid “talking back” to their parent or whatever. You know, and that’s something bad. But no. Because then you see where they are, right? When they’re sharing what they want and don’t want, or need and don’t need, in that moment, that’s more great information for us to help them in that moment. It’s not about control.
ANN: Yeah, and to go right into problem solving takes away that space that I was talking about before of letting some of the feelings arise inside of a space of discomfort, of unknowing, uncertainty. Of just that open space of questioning, it’s so valuable.
And I know myself as a mother it’s so easy for me in my fear to take that space away, say, “I don’t ever want you to feel that uncertainty. You want to know what some solutions are? Or how do you want me to help?” But like you said, this is brilliant. If I would just go in and say, “Do you want me to listen, or do you want me to help you problem solve right now? Which is most useful for you?” Is beautiful.
PAM: Yeah. That is such a great point about that space, because, like you were talking about how you don’t want your kid, your child, to feel sad, upset. You don’t want them in that space, right? And you don’t want to leave them there if they’re trying to get out. But there’s so much value in learning about being in that space. Because they’re going to be there. So, to be able to support their experience of it while they’re younger and you’re there to help them process through it, because it’s going to happen. It happens to—it’s life. There are going to be these moments, and to be able to be there to support them through it, and just to sit with them. Like often support is just sitting beside them.
ANN: Yeah, and you can feel those feelings. And just be there in that moment of, “Wow. This hurts.” To watch someone hurting, and there’s nothing I can do. That hurts. And just let it rise up and do what it does, which usually it sort of floats away eventually.
PAM: I mean even my kids know, they’ll be like, “I’m just going to sleep on it, because I know it’s going to look better in the morning.” But you know, they’re 12 and 13 telling me this. I’m like, “Yeah, you know, that’s been my experience too.” (laughter)
ANN: Yeah, yeah.
PAM: Ahh, that’s very cool.
You mentioned the documentary a little bit earlier, which is awesome. You created it with Nicole Littrell, and it’s called Mop Cap : An Alopecia Story, which is about your experience with alopecia and self-acceptance. I saw the trailers on your website, which I will show in the show notes for people, and I was especially struck by these words:
“I don’t think bald people must be publicly bald to prove a point. But for those of us who are called to do so, it is a kind of love activism. Loving yourself is an act of beauty, and it’s contagious.”
Now those words connected deeply with me, and reminded me of how it felt, and continues to feel, going about living our unschooling lives, like out in public, just being out there. I would love to hear how you see your alopecia and unschooling journeys weaving together.
ANN: I think as I decided to do something with alopecia this round—so I have this long history with alopecia, being a child with alopecia, and then having an adulthood of passable hair for many years.
I think the unschooling for me, because I had been immersed in that for the past many years—I say 13 years but that’s not true. My oldest is 13 right now, but I think unschooling started really strongly when he was seven years old. So, it’s been really six years that we’ve been really immersed in it, and me immersed in the philosophy around it. And it’s looking what feels like a problem and finding creative solutions to it. And so for me to do the documentary was this creative solution.
It was really for me a project expressing my own unschooling. Like, if I was the student, what would I do with this? I would make a documentary film. And I got to do it. And it really was enriching and informing every aspect of me in this new creative project. And I feel like it informs every creative project that I take on since then, of, okay, there are a lot of ways to do this.
Just because I like to dance doesn’t mean that I have to dance on stage in front of an audience. That sort of thing. Of letting myself see things in different ways. And, well, how does film come into it? And that changes things. I think it’s just a real richness around everything that comes up in our lives.
And so, this has become a family endeavor now. So even when any kind of thing comes up inside of the family, we’re all now looking at it from a really different perspective. Of okay, there’s the conventional way that you might look at this, but we have this other perspective as a family. And we can look at it from another perspective, not from convention, not from how our families did it, and not from how our friends do it. So unschooling really has become something large, it really is a life philosophy. It’s so much larger than just an educational model.
PAM: It changes how you approach absolutely everything, doesn’t it?
ANN: Yeah, yeah. It does.
PAM: Yeah. You see so many more aspects to a situation, and then the creativity piece. Like so often I’ll get emails and people sharing a problem, and it’s fun now to—because I’ve been doing it for so many years, and it’s just our natural way of looking at life—like, well, you know, “Try this, this, this, this!”
I think that’s one of the big shifts too, is we think as parents we need to solve the problem. Whether it’s something that we’re fearful about, or something that’s upsetting our child, or whatever, we still feel like we have the responsibility to solve it. Now, I don’t want that to come across as, “No, we have no responsibility! La la la la la, whatever happens, happens.” No! But it’s that much bigger perspective that you can bring to it, that creative piece. It’s thinking outside of the box. And so often it’s like, “Well, what does your child say? What do they think?” Because one thing I’ve learned is my children always have great ideas, and they were the one that first taught me to start thinking outside the box because they came up with what, at first, we think are crazy kid ideas, but so often they made so much sense and we actually ended up doing those things.
That was a huge lesson for me when I was deschooling. Children are capable of thought and intelligence and ideas and just great conversation with you to try and figure out a path forward. That was part of the piece that we can live together and do this together. And when things came up, it was us all talking, like you said. Us all figuring it out together. It’s that new way of looking at life, isn’t it? (laughs)
And adding to what you’re saying, I realize that the family has this sort of a family mind, too. And so, this family mind, when given the opportunity—and the opportunity to know each other as well as we do, the way we spend time together—is that that family mind comes in and solves problems in a way that just one parent or two parents together cannot solve the problem in the same way.
Just the other day my son Alden was saying, “You know mom, you have to understand that you and me, we have a very deep center, so people can come and go, and it doesn’t disturb our center.” And I was like, “Okay, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, but yes.” And then he was like, “But Maddie and Noah and Dad, they have like a shell that needs protecting, that people can’t just walk through that space. They’ve got to have more.” And it’s like sort of a personal space issue, and it’s sort of like, ‘how much time alone do you need’ issue.
But he was able to pinpoint it at ten years old in a way that was just beautiful and right on and made so much sense. And to hear it coming from him, I could just understand the whole bigger perspective. I just appreciated that so much and I realized how often we dismiss our children, definitely in society, but how we can dismiss them as, “Oh he wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about like personal space issues.” He knows exactly what we were talking about! And in a more beautiful and concise and poetic way. So it’s like opening those doors of communication and saying, “Hey could we all be problem solvers.”
I mean, haven’t all of us had this moment when the two year old has the best solution to a problem? “Well let’s just eat ice cream!” Yes!! (laughter)
That’s right! That’s what we need to do.
PAM: And you do it once and you’re like, there’s a shift. And then all of a sudden people are talking more, communicating more, and that whole ‘whatever’ it was disappeared. Do these things, people, and just see what happens.
Doing something once, trying something once doesn’t mean that people are going to ask for it forever and ever. Doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to do the same thing forever and ever. That’s what playing and creativity and just being open is. “Let’s try this!” Like your unschooling magic. Let’s just try this and see what happens, and then everybody’s gotten a little bit more experience to bring next time, right?
For me it’s a lot about curiosity. And when you let curiosity come in, then you let play come in. And you let inspiration come in. And it’s sort of like, depending on how you feel about it, you’re letting the divine come in, when you open yourself to curiosity, when you open yourself to play. You don’t know where the good ideas are going to come from. And if you’re not sure where there’s good ideas, then you can open yourself and be like, “It could be here. It could be here. It could be under this rock. It could be in your shoe. I don’t know where the good ideas are, but let’s keep looking.”
PAM: Yeah, yeah.
ANN: That really is a great way to be with children.
PAM: Yeah. Oh. Curiosity has saved my butt like forever. (laughs)
ANN: Yeah. And I think that’s what I was thinking about when you first asked me to be on the podcast. I was like, my unschooling life is all about curiosity. That’s what it is.
PAM: Yeah, and for me, being curious about unschooling is what has made me so fascinated by it. I think that’s why I still love talking about it. I still love hearing about it. I love diving into it, because I’m just curious to see how it unfolds in so many people’s lives. Because it’s different everywhere. Because it’s life, right? When you get back to it.
ANN: And there’s no one way.
PAM: Yeah, exactly. And kids are all different.
One thing I love, that has always helped me with my relationships and connections with my children, is that piece where once I understand that my way is completely valid—the way I see things is completely valid and is my way, but it’s not the only way. Once I got to that point, I could be curious about how they saw things. I would always know what I would do in that certain circumstance or whatever, but it’s not me anymore, right? We’re this big space. We’re all trying to engage and live our lives weaving together, and I’m always curious about how they see things. And I learn so much by hearing how they see things. And they see different things. And it opens my mind more. And it’s just a beautiful cycle.
And the way someone else sees something doesn’t threaten your own way of seeing it, right? When we can step away from the fear, then it’s only to enhance everything. Enhance the way we are seeing it and add another picture and another facet to something that we can’t quite see our way all the way around. We really don’t know what the truth is, but if we see someone else’s picture of it, then it enhances the way that we see it.
PAM: Yeah, what a great way to describe it. I love that. Yeah. That’s beautiful, Ann.
Alright, last question.
Right now, what is your favorite thing about your unschooling lifestyle with your family?
ANN: Right now, my favorite thing about my unschooling lifestyle with my family is being able to enjoy summer in Maine absolutely fully. We wait all year to be able to walk barefoot outside again. Even though we walk barefoot in the snow sometimes. We have an above-ground pool that’s an awful lot of fun, and right now there are water balloons of different varying temperatures in the pool that we’ve been experimenting with this morning, and different sizes. So it’s still, for me, it’s the play.
It’s a lot of outdoor play and it’s a lot of physical, hands-on … but then Alden was looking at me this morning and he had this giant balloon and he said, “Mom, I’ve got this giant balloon full of air, but if I had a smaller balloon it would weigh the same, wouldn’t it?” Like, he was making these—things were happening and he was just blowing up balloons, right? So that’s always so fun for me, to be like, “Yeah, right? Because is the air going to weigh differently if it’s contained in a really big space or in a really small space? Let’s think about that and let’s keep those things going.” And I can hardly keep up with him sometimes.
PAM: I know, right?
ANN: Yeah. Yeah.
PAM: That is awesome.
I want to thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Ann. It was so much fun, thank you, thank you!
ANN: That was so much fun. I could do this for hours.
PAM: I know! So could I. (laughter)
Now, before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
PAM: Wonderful! And I will absolutely put all that stuff in the show notes. Thanks so much!
ANN: Great. Thank you.
PAM: Bye everybody!