PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from LivingJoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Jessica Hughes. Hi, Jessica!
PAM: I recently came across Jessica’s series of posts on Steemit, about her family’s unschooling journey and I immediately powered right through them. It was such an interesting and fun read Jessica, so I was thrilled when you agreed to come on the podcast to talk about your experience. To get us started …
Can you tell us a bit about you and your family?
JESSICA: Well, my husband and I have three children. Our youngest is a girl, Lily Rose. She’s eleven. And then we have a sixteen-year-old boy, Joseph. And our son Nicholas is eighteen—I can’t even believe it!
We’ve had kind of a different style of family life than a lot of people do. Our jobs have taken us all over the country—we do research for mineral title. So, depending on what courthouse we need to be at, for about twelve years, we might have to pick up and move after six months, with three days’ notice.
JESSICA: So, homeschooling was always an option that we went with, mainly because it was hard to think of putting the kids in a school and then not knowing what would happen, and have to pull them out. I’ve regretted it sometimes, but also they’ve had such cool experiences. We’ve been, and seen, so many wild things. Every time we moved we tried to stop at neat stuff along the route, on our way to our new post (or whatever you want to call it).
But now, a lot of courthouse stuff has gone online in recent years. And so about six years ago we purchased a house in Pennsylvania that needs to be restored and we’ve had to leave a few times and had a little bit of issues with it. But now we’re living in the restoration project and working remotely so we’re settled, but we have a lot to do!
PAM: I find, as soon as one thing kind of looks like it’s almost finishing up, there’s always another project that I want to start!
JESSICA: Yeah, definitely.
Can you tell us about how you actually discovered unschooling, and what your family’s move to unschooling looked like then?
JESSICA: It was through Facebook. I had some friends who would mention unschooling and I started just reading some posts from Sandra Dodd’s Radical Unschooling Info Facebook group. I didn’t immediately move to that. I’m a big reader and I actually—I was almost a Luddite. I wasn’t big on computers or technology or anything.
When the kids were really little we had a lot of head butting about gaming and being on the computer—“computer time.” I really felt like, outside time is superior to inside time. Reading is superior to TV watching, of course! And the more classic the novel, the better.
My son Nicholas, when he was four, I had got him reading by that point because I was just determined! Like, the sooner they read the better! We read H.G. Wells The Time Machine, which used to be a feather in my cap and now I think, “Oh, that poor kid!” Like, I like it and all, but it’s a bit of a slog for a four-year-old.
We were having trouble sticking with a curriculum. We kept trying new things that we felt they would like better. But all of them centred around, basically, teaching. Teaching them this, teaching them that. We were having such problems with—I don’t even want to say “rebellion.” It was more like they were just unhappy. They were so unhappy. My middle child had gotten to the point where I was legitimately becoming concerned for his safety.
And my husband and I; we had very traditional “children should be seen and not heard” upbringings. We let the kids talk back, argue with us about things or whatever. But in the end, it was always just, our way. Always. And I started reading more on unschooling because I was looking for a way to give them more of a sense that they were involved in their own learning. I didn’t want them to feel like it was just stuff that was spoon fed to them. At first it seemed like everyone was like, unicorns. Everyone had this perfect life, they had all unschooled from the very beginning. And none of those things could possibly work for my family. But Micah and I talked about it and we decided to just try. Things started making sense.
Sandra had some articles that approached things from an economic perspective- the idea of diminished returns and things like that. And I thought, “That makes sense to me. That makes sense.” And if it applies to all these other human behaviours why would it not apply in learning?
And I remember for myself, how much I loved to learn before I was put in school and how much I loathed being forced to learn things that I felt were useless or didn’t apply to my life at that time. When internet came around and I could search for things myself I just became a knowledge junkie again. I loved it. And I thought, “Why do I think I would be this way, but my children would not?”
So, Micah and I agreed we would give it six months and slowly start saying ‘yes’ more. And stop forcing a daily homeschooling regimen. We gave them a summer break which they had never really had before because we only home schooled three days a week anyway. And so, we gave them a summer break and then we just never went back. So, it wasn’t like, “Okay you never have to do school again.” We just said, “Let’s take a break, and all your friends are on break so you can have a break too.” And we just stepped back to see how it went.
At the end of the six months—I mean, probably six weeks in—the difference was already so incredible. We could never have turned back after that. We were so much closer to the kids already and they were so much happier and calmer. They weren’t stressed. They weren’t like little adults who were worried about paying the bills. And that’s what they were like before. I mean, not that they were really worried about paying the bills but you see adults with stress about things. And they weren’t like that anymore. And that was a big, big bonus for us.
PAM: Wow. I got goosebumps when you were talking about that. Six weeks, and you saw such a huge difference, like the weight lifting off them really is what that was right?
JESSICA: Yeah. It was. It really was. There were times that my middle child—who is probably the most like me—there were times that he would kind of give me this suspicious look. Like he’d say, “Can I stay up late, on the computer, tonight with my friends?” And I’d say, “Yeah sure, go ahead.” And he’d give me this look like, “Really?” It wasn’t until we had been at it for several months that I actually really talked to them about, we really are trying to do differently.
And I apologised for some things. I know that you’re not supposed to talk too much with your kids but I did feel that I had things to apologise for, and I did. I felt that that created a lot of healing for us. My boys were older—they were nine and eleven or twelve when we first started, so they were old enough to understand when I said, “I think I made these mistakes and here’s why. That’s not an excuse, but we’re trying to do differently. And give us some feedback, we’re happy for that.”
PAM: What did you mean by not talk to them too much? You mean about the process?
JESSICA: Yeah. I know in the group a lot of times, you’ll get a parent who will post and they’ll say “Well, I explained to them that this is what we’re doing and I explained this is why and I explained all this.” And, a lot of times you want to say, “Well, don’t explain too much!” Of course, it’s age dependent. We didn’t start when they were four, you know, explaining, “This is the process!”
PAM: No, that is such a good point. They’re busy living their lives, right? They’re learning, they’re doing things. We can see those things and it’s because we are—as a parent—we’re looking for those things. When we’re choosing an unschooling lifestyle we’re like, “Oh my goodness, are they still going to keep learning?” All the things that we’re worried about. Not to put those on them, I think that’s a good point.
PAM: They don’t have to understand unschooling. They don’t have to understand how it works. Conversations come up, maybe as they get older they’ve gotten messages from friends around them that go to school or from TV shows and movies. “Am I really learning? Am I getting away with something?” Those kinds of conversations come up naturally as those things come up in our lives, but as you said your kids were older too and they could see something had changed over the last few months.
PAM: Things were different! So yes, it’s great to have that conversation just like “I know you noticed this!”
JESSICA: We didn’t just give up or anything!
PAM: I guess that’s another thing too, that’s a really good point.
When you do that shift kids can sometimes feel like “What? All of a sudden they don’t care if I’m staying up late?” Cause before, it used to be a big deal. “They don’t care now if I do this. They’re saying ‘yes’ all the time.” As you were saying “Yes, you can do this, you can do that”—so that they don’t feel “maybe our parents don’t care about is anymore” or “they’ve given up on us” or whatever. But you’re also engaging more with them and you’re happier with them. Like “Yes! Let me help you do that” etc. It’s a whole different atmosphere, right?
JESSICA: And that was something that—like you said—organically, conversations come up. I wanted to be really clear. And my older son, maybe because he had had the longest with me as far as me pounding it into him. Like, “We need to do this or else we’re going to be failures. Or starve to death!” And it took until maybe six weeks in, he came down and he asked me, “Can I put Excel on my computer? I want to make myself a school schedule.” And I just said, “Of course, absolutely. And if there’s anything I can do…”
He learned several languages because, just, friends of his spoke other languages and he wanted to communicate in their language. I was like, “We could get you Rosetta stone or we can download this app.” It was definitely conversing more with them, hearing about what they did. And of course, I had not heard hardly anything about what they did previously because they knew that I didn’t want to hear it. And that’s the sad truth. I didn’t want to hear about what they did on a computer. I regret that. You have read all of mine so you know that I try to be clear that I was definitely not a perfect parent. And it’s been really important to me to share my journey because I want people to know that it’s never too late. It really isn’t. It is never too late.
My own mother and I did not have a very good relationship. Out of fear, she was very judgemental and I didn’t know it was out of fear. She loved me very much and she did not want me to make certain mistakes that she felt she had made and it was not until I was in my mid-twenties that she saw me with my son and saw me, sort of, being okay, and she was able to let go of that fear. And now we have a wonderful relationship. So I just want other parents to know that it’s never too late to really embrace who your children are and not spend your time panicking about who you need to make them be. It’s been amazing, it really has.
PAM: I will definitely share in the show notes; links to your journey, your series of articles. And that’s why I was so excited to have you on because, absolutely—when we discover it, it doesn’t matter what age! You know, even if our children are young adults, are adults, if we can rediscover a way to have a better relationship with another person, with our children—go for it!
JESSICA: Yeah, absolutely.
PAM: Especially when they’re older and can understand. To talk about that shift a little bit. To apologise for before. And not as a way to denigrate ourselves but just to say, “I know different now. I found something different and look, it works better! I did what I knew then, but better is now.”
JESSICA: And I think it helped my relationship with my mother as well, because it’s humbling to realise that you’ve made mistakes and probably some of those mistakes I made, from a child’s perspective would have been horrific. I don’t even want to think about them. It doesn’t mean I didn’t love him. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t love them and want the best for them. And it helped me to see my mother really was just a young, afraid mother who wanted the best for me and didn’t have a framework to make different choices. She didn’t have those options provided to her.
And so for my husband and I, we’ve talked about this. We know we’re not—even today—perfect parents but we feel like we have given the next generation a few children who will be even better parents than we were because they have more options and they have a better framework than we did. I think that’s the best a parent can hope for really.
PAM: Yeah, exactly. They’ll be going into the whole process themselves on a different space. At a better level than where we started, right?
PAM: I too, knew nothing of this whole world when I first had kids! Speaking of kids …
I would love to hear what yours are getting up to because I love getting a little snapshot of unschooling kids and their interests.
JESSICA: Lily Rose is the youngest and she just loves to draw and she’s very imaginative. She has a couple of sketch books and she draws ‘OC’s which are original characters. She has developed something herself which is sort of like a fox with many tails, and wings. She’s just so super creative. She makes up these really cool stories. It started on Minecraft. She used to build these crazy things on Minecraft. She wouldn’t just build a castle; she’d have this whole lore about hundreds of years of what’s gone on in this castle. So she is drawing and she is currently looking at tablets where you can draw directly onto the tablet, because she does like doing graphic arts because so much of her interaction is online. But right now she’s doing hand drawn stuff which is very good. I mean, I think so. I’m her mom! Objectively, she’s very good.
Then our middle son, Joseph, he was really the one I worried the longest about because when we did move to unschooling he was the kid that really did, only be on the computer, all the time, for so long! And I hadn’t let go of that idea that “Well, I’m going to let them make their choice but then they’re going to choose what I think is best!” And it took me a while to get over that but actually he spent so much time on Roblox that he decided that he wanted to learn to code in the Roblox language. So he does. It’s Lua. And he created a game that he did himself and it was actually featured by Roblox. They put him on their Twitch stream and interviewed him.
JESSICA: Through that—he’s sixteen, and he’s met several really successful developers, some of whom are working for other corporations that are places that would be excellent connections for when he’s ready to actually move into the working world. And really, that’s kind of a silly thing to say because he’s already taking contract work doing things. Like, he built the Maze Generator that generates mazes in three dimensions for someone’s game.
And I just have to laugh because this is a kid who screamed bloody murder over doing ten simple single digit subtraction problems when he was like, six years old. Because he just didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t like he couldn’t, he just didn’t want to. And maybe six weeks ago he comes downstairs and he’s like “Mom, I’m trying to make these snowmen get into this formation and I need them to get from this formation to that formation and I need you to help me with a Trigonometry problem. I’m like, “Let’s look up Kahn Academy, I don’t know what to tell you. The trigonometry thing is beyond me!” So, he just puts out a call on his Discord channel to find somebody that does know it—the trigonometry—and they teach it to him. Now he says he doesn’t want to do game design, he wants to go to school with strictly computer science and coding because he likes the math of it. He really enjoys that aspect of it, which is just so funny to me. And I know that if I had just spent the last ten years forcing him to do worksheets, he would not be that kid. He wouldn’t. There’s no way.
I’m a huge forensic files fan. When I work, I always have to have something going in the background so I just blow through Netflix and Hulu and all that stuff. And my son, my oldest, has decided that he’s going to go to school for physics and chemistry. Because he wants to do something in the Forensics field, like ballistics analysis or blood spatter analysis. Things like that.
And right now, he just went down to Atlanta. He paid for his own flight and we gave him some money because we just wanted to, and Grandma sent him money. For the most part he’s become very independent. He wants to pay his own way. He flew down to visit his girlfriend and he’s there for a week. He’s so unbelievably independent that he was going to take a bus from Phillipsburg, which is only like twenty minutes from us. He had this whole route planned out and I said, “You’re going to be travelling for twenty-seven hours each way. That’s crazy. Have you even looked at the prices of flights?” And he says, “Yeah, but I’d have to fly out of Pittsburgh and that’s a really long drive.” I’m like, “It’s two hours, I’ll drive you to Pittsburgh!” He’s like, “Well I didn’t want to make you have to drive me, I wanted to do it myself.” I was like, “I know you’re eighteen but you’re still my first baby, okay? I will take you to the airport.”
He’s super helpful. When I let go of forcing them to do these specific chores it was unbelievable how helpful they became, all on their own. I’m not going to say immediately, like the next day or anything. We’re close. They do things for us because they care about us, not because they have to. And that just means so much, it really does.
PAM: It’s a shift. It’s something you can’t expect because you don’t realise it’s going to happen when you first start. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about it, but it’s just so different, it’s hard to imagine right?
PAM: Unicorns, exactly! “You had special kids!”
JESSICA: Exactly, absolutely.
PAM: Unicorns, I’m going to remember that now! “You all have unicorns!”
PAM: That leads really nicely into our next question. And this was something I grabbed out of your series as well, and it connected with me. I thought it was a great point.
When newer unschooling parents ask what to do about these everyday struggles. You know, trying to get our kids to do something, or help us here, etc. Often, the advice when you go to unschooling circles is basically to just stop struggling. Stop fighting with them. And that can be a really hard concept to grasp at first, right? Like, “What do you mean just stop?” So how did you work through that?
JESSICA: Well, there’s two types of parents really. There’s the parents who want their children to do those things because they want their children to be chore slaves. There are parents who just think that their kids owe them that. Like, “We give you food and shelter and you owe us.” I’m a part of the Liberty Community and I see a lot of people—there’s this whole segment of the Liberty Community that believes children are property and you supply them and its almost contractual. “If I give you food and stuff then you’re going to do exactly what I say every day of your life, every minute of that day, until you can go pay for your own food.” And those parents are probably never going to stop struggling because those parents are not really doing it out of a desire to help their children. They’re not acting out of fear, they’re acting out of selfishness I would say.
And then there are parents who—and I would like to class myself here—who were really just raised to believe that if you do not train a child like a dog to do as they’re told and to be responsible, from the time they can understand the language, then they will wind up living in your basement until they’re old and grey and they will fail at life. And you will be that horrible parent that everyone in town points to and says, “Oh look at how her kid turned out.” And that’s terrifying. Yes, the humiliation of that is terrifying. Also, the idea that your child will not thrive is terrifying.
And so, for me, and I don’t know that this will work for everyone, but for me, because what I really wanted was, I needed to redefine success. For me, success became having a happy child. I recognised that I didn’t find my career until I was twenty-seven years old. I love what I do. I would never have found it through traditional schooling, and it was definitely not what my mother wanted me to do. I hit a lot of road blocks in life but at twenty-seven I finally started, sort of, getting it together eventually. And I was okay.
And so, if today my son doesn’t clean his room, what is the worst that’s going to happen? If he doesn’t clean his room the worst that’s going to happen is his room is going to be a mess again tomorrow still. But if I fight with him about it, which I wrote about—one day my son just losing it and screaming at me, how much I humiliated him—and if I do that, then I risk permanent damage to his spirit and to our relationship. And that’s far worse than having a messy room tomorrow. And that’s just all there is to it.
I think what people don’t want to hear when unschoolers tell them to stop struggling, is the underlying point which is—give up on believing that you can make your child clean his room today. Because you can’t. I mean, maybe you can, but do you really want to pay the price for doing that? You don’t, and that’s what they’re saying. You don’t want to pay the price in relationship that it’s going to cost you to force that on your kid. And it had a lot to do with recognising that it was not going to be the end of the world.
This was not the day that an extra cookie was going to give my kid diabetes. Or a messy room was going to be the day that he turned into a slob for the rest of his life. It’s just not going to happen in this moment. In this moment, I’m going to choose our relationship. And it’s not easy and it doesn’t work every time, it really doesn’t. Even now, there are times, especially my middle because we’re so alike we butt heads. But the choice that you really want to try to make is; today I’m going to choose the relationship.
PAM: I love the way you phrase that. And it’s part of the process I think, of learning how ingrained control is, right? Us thinking that not only that can we control another person but that we should control. Like what you were talking about, “What will people think?”
It’s that control and that fear of the future.
PAM: That was such a big piece for me too, and I loved how you talked about what you do is to think about what’s the worst that can happen. That was a big thing for me too. Even when I saw their choices, what they were choosing to do. Not just in the chore arena, but it absolutely worked there. What is the worst that’s going to happen? You know, what’s the worst that’s going to happen now? In this moment. And tomorrow. And why do I think this moment, like you said, is how it’s going to be forever?
JESSICA: Right. Something that I’ve read and I don’t know if this is apocryphal or true but something that I had read a long time ago in some article that George Washington didn’t have any real formal schooling until he was eleven years old. And then between the ages of eleven and thirteen, he mastered Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, he went on to become a surveyor, he was the equivalent of a millionaire by the time he was an adult at eighteen, nineteen years old.
And when people hear that they think, “Wow, he must’ve been a genius.” You read his contemporaries, they talk about how incredibly average he really was in the intelligence department. And I used to remind myself of that as though it were true, because it might be, I don’t know. I would tell myself, “Everything I needed to know for my job, I learned with Google in about two days!” And, I’m very successful at my job. It was math that I had learned in probably seventh grade, that I didn’t remember any more—why in the world would I? But when I needed it, I went to Google and I found out how to do it and that was what I did.
And I thought, “So what if Joe does nothing but play Roblox twenty-four hours a day?” Not that he ever did, obviously. But even if he did, if that’s all he did, for the next ten years. I also realised at some point that—and it probably wasn’t until I started to play some of their games with them—I realised that games aren’t fun. I mean, winning a game is fun. Succeeding at the game is fun. But getting there is often gruelling and there is a lot of opportunity cost associated with it.
You could be sitting on your butt watching a funny show, having that entertainment fed to you, but instead you’re working to accomplish a goal. And I realised that right now a lot of people will say, “You’ve got to teach them to work for what they want. So, you can’t buy them a computer, you should make them earn a computer. You can’t buy them that cookie, you should make them earn that cookie.” And I realised, as I was buying them computers and all of this stuff, and not saving for retirement because we figure, “Ah, we’ve got time for that, they won’t be young forever!” I realised they work very hard for those goals. And I started to remind myself that right now their goal might be to save the Princess. And they will work sixty hours on some games, to save that Princess.
Someday their goal will be to maybe have a wife and some kids. Maybe their goal will be to buy a house that’s not my basement! And when they have that goal, they will work for that goal as well. And it came to fruition. Nicholas has met this young lady. I’m not saying that they’re going to get married or anything. He met her, and he started to look at his life and say, “If I ever do want to have a wife, I’m certainly not going to move her into the bedroom at Mom’s house. I need to decide on some kind of career path. What do I like? I really like forensics, I really like mysteries.”
He researched, he found out that the best thing he could major in would be chemistry and physics, to have those kinds of fields open to him. And now that’s what he’s doing. He’s saving money for college, he’s going to community college. He’s seen that “If I take the core classes here, it’ll be less expensive and then I can transfer them to a University.” And I didn’t have to make him do any of those things. I never even suggested any of them to him. He came to me and said, “This is what I’m thinking.” Because his goals changed and he absolutely had learned to work for goals, on video games.
PAM: I love that point Jessica, that’s exactly it.
That’s why we talk about following their interests so much, is because we want to help them figure out how to accomplish their goals. And even helping them, over the years, figure out what their goals are.
Because they’re going to try some and it’s like, “You know what, that’s not worth the effort for me.” To help them find and pursue the goals and the accomplishments. Like you said, it doesn’t matter whether the accomplishment that they’re seeking is through a game because that’s helping them gain experience with setting a goal and determinedly pursuing it. Like you said, even if it takes sixty hours, ‘I’ve chosen that goal, I accomplished that goal.’ Whether it’s in a virtual world or in the real world, it’s still the experience of doing that. They did it in the real world; that was sixty real hours!
JESSICA: Yes, and it’s funny because isn’t that the exact logic that schools tell children when they say “Why in the world would I need all of this algebra, all of these formulae, and all of these equations? Why do I need to learn this?” “Well, it helps you learn how to think. You’re going to use these. It’s going to help you learn how to think. It’s going to train you to be able to apply in the real world.” Well I don’t know anything more important to apply in the real world than to pursue a goal determinedly.
JESSICA: All of the things that you need for that, are available to you, if you are determined.
PAM: Yes, that critical thinking piece. Sure, you can pick up critical thinking skills through the math, well that’s what they’re trying to accomplish, but you can be critically thinking about your day. They have to do it that way because they don’t have a lot of choices in their lives, right? So we need to say, “Well we’ll try to develop the skill this way” but it’s not the only way to develop critical thinking skills.
JESSICA: If they thought about it critically they would know that.
PAM: Well, within that environment it probably is one of the few ways.
PAM: Well, that’s really interesting. I love that Jessica. Next question.
Can you share some of the ways you’ve helped your husband move away from conventional parenting? So as you guys were making this shift, especially those first six months, those first few weeks, there was one point you made that I thought was super great which was “Sometimes it helps to remember to treat our spouses with as much care as we do our children,” wasn’t it?
JESSICA: Yeah, we’ve definitely initially butted heads. I think maybe because, and this is not to be sexist or reinforce sexual stereotypes, but he is a man, and he’s Southern, he’s from Houston. And I think that men are raised to believe that they should be respected, and particularly by their children. And of course, we grew up in homes where you were physically punished if you talked back or disagreed or made the wrong face. We were taught to really suppress our emotions and I think that to some extent—and I think this is sad but honest, and I think that it’s important to be honest as parents—that there’s a part of us that almost relishes finally having control.
And of course, we see that in all kinds of people, and peoples, who have been oppressed and rise up to become oppressors. And I think that pattern often holds true for ourselves; we spend our entire childhood being oppressed, not being allowed to express emotion or anything. You know, when we grow up, we just want to be respected. We just want to be the one in charge. And we want to be given the same deference that we were forced to give at some point.
And it’s sad because of course we all leave those homes thinking, “I’m going to be a better parent and never do that to my children.” But it happens—you don’t know any differently, you don’t have a different framework. And so, we did initially butt heads because I was a bit more forgiving of things like, not just talking back but doing so in a disrespectful way. Rudeness. Not that I wouldn’t say, “Okay, you’re being rude. You don’t have to talk that way” or “You don’t have to scream at people.” But he would become angry in response. And I have as well, but even in his calmer moments he might not see the rationale for why he shouldn’t be angry, if that makes sense.
And so, we talked about it privately a lot. We talked about our own childhoods because we have an inner child that was wounded. It’s healing through the unschooling journey and through the closeness we’ve had with our own children. It’s almost like mothering and fathering ourselves, to an extent, as well. But what I did to the best of my ability, not perfectly of course, was I tried to head things off at the pass. If I saw that someone was becoming upset and maybe was going to say something they regretted, I would intervene and make things right myself.
You know, there’s a dirty dish in the living room that somebody didn’t take out of the living room and they should have. I’ll just grab the dirty dish, you know? I’m not going to see people damage their relationship over a bowl sitting on a table. And I would also point out things like, if one of the kids was helpful to me during the day—because my husband worked out of the house a lot at that time and he wouldn’t see it and he would come home and say, “Their shoes are in the doorway” or something—I would be sure to make him aware of the things they had done to be helpful and also to just share with him in quiet moments the changes that I saw, ask him about the changes he saw, talk about how good it felt to see them so happy. And he would feel that way too.
And kind of basking in that feeling of love that we had for the kids and knowing and sharing about the changes we had made and the patience we had extended to allow those changes to happen; helped him to see it. Rather than me saying, “You’re wrong, don’t do it this way” or even, “We agreed we were going to do this.” It was far more helpful to say, “Gosh, did you see how Joe came down and wanted to watch a movie with us?” Like, that’s so great you know? And those moments were triumphs for us as parents.
I did do a lot of cleaning up after the kids or stopping them from doing something I knew would upset their dad. Talking to them privately and sharing with them, “Look, you have to understand that we come from a different life than you do. Try to be patient with us too.” And of course they’re older kids. Not with Lily who was tiny but particularly my older son. “Try to be patient with us too. We are trying, but we’re not going to be perfect.”
PAM: I loved that piece because it sounded so similar to our year of transition at that time. Because I did the same thing, to try and help with the transition. So yeah, if I saw something that might be a flash point, I would do it you know? I would do it. I’d grab the dirty dish. I’d try to set up the environment so when they were going to engage I’d be like, “Hey, do you want to play this with Dad?” or “Hey, if you want to hang out with them tonight, why don’t you ask if they want to watch a movie?”
And the exact same thing—talking to him and pointing out the different things, the new things, like “we had fun doing this,” and sharing maybe something that they did during the day. Because it’s a new way of looking at things, right? And especially when they’re out during the day, they’re not looking with that new lens. They’re still in that conventional mindset, that world. Going home was like coming into this whole new land where we look at things through a totally different lens!
So, I’d talk to him about that and like you said, talking to the kids explaining his perspective. I would do those things and mention—not all the time—“Oh, I grabbed that dish” or whatever, explaining his background and that kind of stuff. And mine as well, where these habits, thoughts, perspectives came from and developed. They could understand that. Age appropriately, absolutely. My kids were older too. My oldest was like, ten, when we began unschooling so the oldest two were ten and eight those first few months too.
And then it goes to their sibling relationships too. When there were difficulties between siblings, I’d be separately talking to them and say “Oh, you know, they were trying to accomplish this,” or “I think they got upset about that,” and back and forth. It was just a whole transition of us all learning a new way to be together. And, especially for the adults, a new way of looking at the things that we were doing as a family. And seeing the things the kids were doing. So yeah, I loved that bit because that was a big part of our transition too.
JESSICA: One of the things that we remind each other of, or not so much anymore because it’s settled in more, but we would have to remind one another like “You get mad, right? Don’t you get angry? Aren’t you ever unreasonable?” And it seems so bizarre that as a culture, traditional American parenting, at least in my experience, our expectation is that a child will be more in control of their emotions and behaviours than an adult will.
JESSICA: And either you’re saying you believe they’re capable of higher maturity than you are, or you’re just being a hypocrite. And how can a child not see that you’re a hypocrite? When you can scream and yell and stomp when you’re angry, and maybe if a child is lucky in traditional American parenting get an apology later. But the child will never be able to do that. That just seems so bizarre to me. When I finally looked at it that way like, “What are we thinking?” Like, “Oh I have to get to eighteen and once I hit eighteen I’m allowed to be a jerk! As a child I have to be really controlled.”
PAM: Yeah, it’s the power paradigm right? The adults have the power and we can get away with this stuff. And you don’t—you’re under our power, under our control. And like you said before, when you look back and you say, “Oh, I wouldn’t be a parent like that” but when you hit eighteen, now you have that power to not have others control you. And it’s been winding you up for those eighteen years and now it’s like “Woo! I finally have the power to do this stuff, control myself really; to be in control and not have other people try and control me.”
JESSICA: Yeah. That’s interesting.
PAM: We were talking a little earlier about fear and fear of the future, and I love this quote from part 8 of your Unschooling Journey series.
You wrote: “If I had to guess, I’d say 99.9999% of the fear I experienced as a parent comes from focussing on the adult I want to create instead of the child I have.”
I wanted to talk a little bit about shifting away from that fear. And how you did that. And continue to do that! Because we all get stuck in that, “Is today going to be how it looks forever?” It’s like we forget anybody learns!
JESSICA: Right. Yeah. It really is difficult. I mean, I still get afraid. I do. It has to be like a conscious choice not to react, not to be reactionary when fear arises. I guess it really came down to redefining success for me. My mum will say she’s “stupid.” She’s uneducated; she’s far from stupid. She just went to school with a bunch of nuns who smacked her around for getting things wrong instead of teaching her.
She recognised that I had a certain level of intelligence early on and she decided what was right for me obviously, her being a poor woman with little education, that I could be rich lawyer or a doctor or someday. And when she got that in her head there was nothing else that would have made her happy.
And the number of dreams! I mean, I have wanted to be everything under the sun. I’m just one of those people—I want to be everything. It’s probably why I read so much. I get to be everything that way. Nothing I chose, other than being a doctor or a lawyer, would have made her happy because it would not have assuaged her fears. So I came from that background.
And maybe part of what made me able to, was seeing my own journey, how I really struggled financially for years. When my boys were very little, there was a time when we lived in a trailer that had, like, a four-foot hole in the floor with a piece of plywood thrown over it. We cooked on a fire outside because the stove didn’t work! And that was just what we could afford at the time through various personal things that had gone on. This was when they were babies. So, I have lived really rough. We’ve had it hard. And I still made it.
And I’ve not only made it, but through that journey I’ve found a job I love, a job that paid me more starting to train each day than I was making in two weeks at that time. It’s allowed us to move all over the place and see awesome sights and meet awesome people. The kids and us have been close. We’ve been very close physically. There have been times when we’ve lived in two hotel rooms with five dogs! And we’ve had to make do with things. But we’ve also lived in this really cool house in Boise with an in ground pool built under the side of a mountain! We’ve gotten to do these cool things because I stumbled into this particular career path.
And so, I can’t look at my kids and say “Unless you do A, B, C, you will never succeed.” Because I did everything wrong. I threw away a college scholarship with partying because I had never been able to make a decision for myself in my life before that moment. And I look back and I see that I made a lot of mistakes because I was so controlled as a child. And what I want, is instead of my children to turn eighteen and go escape my control and make all of these mistakes, I want them to make all the mistakes they could possibly conceive of right now while they’re still in my care and I can help them. And then I want them to become adults who feel like they have had a childhood. That they don’t have to live one between the ages of twenty and forty.
And I think that a lot of people today do feel that way because it’s like, from the moment a child is born people are planning what school they’re going to go to; what nursery school they’re going to start in; “how are we going to socialise them?”; “how are we going to give them advantages in life?”; start teaching them to be an adult from the minute they come from the womb. And it just seems ironic that, in this country we built such a wealthy nation relative to where we were. We were able to take children out of coal mines and off street corners, and out of factories—and we just stuck them in new factories, to teach them to be adult tax payers as soon as possible. And I don’t want that. I want children who get to be children.
Don’t get me wrong; children in coal mines didn’t have the option of an X-Box or a coal mine. They had the option of the coal mine or starvation. We don’t live in that world. My kids don’t have to work 24/7 to work toward being a better adult. That’s how I let go of the fear I think; just recognising that this is the time to be a child. Gosh, let them be kids. And then maybe they won’t live this second childhood from the ages of twenty to forty. And I think I’m seeing that bear out with Nicholas, my oldest who is incredibly mature, and really has it together and makes good, sound decisions.
PAM: Because they got experience doing that, right?
Going back to that critical thinking, and analysing, and making choices—they’ve had experience doing that. Like you said, making the mistakes and stuff. And, we can go back to the whole definition of, what’s a mistake? It’s not a mistake in the moment; it’s a choice in the moment. It’s only a mistake when you’re looking back. So, it’s kind of irrelevant. It’s just a label for an action, it’s a label for a choice. And all it says is, “I probably won’t make that choice again.”
JESSICA: That’s a great point.
PAM: “I’ve learned something. Ah, I see what happened there! Next time I’m going to go that way.”
JESSICA: I’m going to use that; I like that one.
PAM: I love the way you talk about it being really about redefining success.
JESSICA: Sure, yeah.
PAM: For me when you were talking about it, it’s not looking to the future, but kind of success in the moment. And it’s making the choices in the moment, right? And those are our best choices. And when we say “best choice,” it’s not literally I chose the best thing. But, ‘I did my critical thinking and this was the choice that came out of it.’
For me, that’s how I define a best choice. Whether two days later or two weeks later I go “Huh” and I step in a different direction that doesn’t matter, but in that particular moment that was success for me because that was my choice. And that’s what I learned out of it.
PAM: Yeah. So, that’s one of the ways I could take that fear of the future and expanding taking this choice and thinking that they were going to do that forever—the fear of how it might turn out for them—and just bringing it into the moment and staying in the moment with it, helped me lose the fear because I wasn’t projecting. Projecting! That’s the word that I was trying to remember! I wasn’t projecting it into the future.
And I love that you were talking about, even looking back and coal mines—and that isn’t the world that we’re in. That’s another thing. We can be wishing for past, and there is so much stuff that can just get swirling in our heads, right? So, when we bring it into the moment and just say “Where are we right now?” and just help with that critical thinking piece as much as they’re interested in.
We can maybe add our experience, we can listen to them sharing what they’re thinking and everything, but supporting them in making their choice because that’s when they’re going to learn the most out of it right? In that moment, what they think is the best choice may be something completely different—like, we may not make the same choice if it was us in that position—but it makes the most sense to them. So why not help them try that because that’s where they’re going to learn most because that’s what they thought. If we just tell them what we think is the best choice for them, then really whatever happens is about our choice. It’s not about theirs right?
JESSICA: Yeah, and I think they internalise that and so the choice never feels as good to them.
When Nicholas started learning German and Japanese and Italian, I thought about how that wasn’t in that Brookvale curriculum that cost $3000 for that one year! I would never have thought to teach him those things or even to make them available had I not just let him make his own choices.
I remember once taking him out when we lived in Boise—there was this ridiculously overpriced restaurant, Chandlers, that was just so good. And I feel like occasionally a really nice restaurant like that is civilising—so I would take the kids. Sometimes we would go out as a family to get an elegant meal. And I took Nicholas once, I think for his birthday, and just the two of us—just a mother son trip out. And I pointed out to him that the servers in that place probably make three or four hundred dollars a night in tips, because of how expensive the meals are and how good they are at their job. People look down on something like being a server. Well, at least the school I came from, you were either in college preparatory courses or you were in vocational technical courses—and those were ‘the dumb kids who were never going anywhere.’
And I bet a lot of those kids make more money than half the kids I was in college prep classes with. There’s this culture that says, “You’re going to college or you’re too stupid to make money.” And that’s ridiculous. Mechanics, carpenters, people who work with their hands, beauticians, aestheticians. I’ve got this friend who went to beauty school and a year out of it while I was still living in a trailer, she was being flown all over the world representing Bed Head products.
I think what’s important for them, like we talked about earlier, is to have that determination and drive to accomplish a goal. You can be a server at a restaurant, you can be the best server and make more money than your mother does, easily, if you want to be good at things. I think that’s a big part of what unschooling has helped/done for adults who were unschooled. Because the choice is theirs, they do really want to be good at what they do. Nobody wants to be good at something someone else chose for them.
PAM: Yeah, exactly! You want to be good at what you choose yourself. Intrinsically. You chose it because of something whether it’s part of accomplishing a goal, whether it’s just something you love to do, whatever. If you’ve chosen it, there’s that intrinsic motivation to be good at it.
JESSICA: Yeah, absolutely.
I’ve tried to instill the idea that yes, there are economic realities. You will not live at the level live in in this house if you decide that your course of work is to be a cashier for the rest of your life. Especially not if you decide to have a wife and children. That’s not going to happen, you won’t be able to live at this particular level of stuff. But maybe stuff isn’t what’s important to you. Maybe what’s important to you is that your job requires relatively little from you and you get to come home and invest all of your time in your family. Maybe that’s more important to you. Maybe you want to do something out of your home, because you get to be home with your kids all the time, even if you make a lot less money. What you want is what’s important. And be educated about it.
PAM: The critical thinking skills, right? When you’ve been making your own choices and learning for years, learning from them, figuring things out, trying things out, you’re not going to assume or think things like, ‘I’m going to do minimal work and make a tonne of money!’ We’re speaking about how things relate to each other. You have a reasonable idea of how the world works.
JESSICA: And I think you have a better idea.
My best friend is a college professor and the kids that come through that school, you just would not believe. And I’m not talking about her remedial first year English class. These are kids who are sophomores in college, taking an elective English course, who have no concept of what is going on. These are kids who were told, “If you go to college, you will get a piece of paper and it will mean you make more money.” And they believed it.
I feel we have failed an entire generation of school children, desperately. These kids are coming out and are going into these already over-saturated fields. They’re going into debt because the debt is so easy to obtain if you want to go to school with it. They’re graduating with a piece of paper that means nothing. All it’s useful for going on a YouTube video and saying, “I have a Bachelor’s in this and I am working at MacDonald’s.”
Just having a Bachelor’s in anything does not mean having an automatic pay cheque, and these kids are in school and their guidance counsellors are going, “Well, what college are you going to?”—that expectation. I did not have realistic expectations when I went to college and probably I should never have gone. I wasted two years in college that I didn’t need to spend. My job doesn’t require a college degree. It’s starting to now, but I’m kind of grandfathered in because I’ve been doing it so long. There are lots of jobs that don’t require a college degree. There are a lot more that shouldn’t, even though they do.
PAM: I was going to say, yeah, at this point they’re slapping “needs a college degree” on so many things, or “want a college degree.” But there really is so many different ways to gain that experience and knowledge as well.
Like you said with Nicholas, your older son, choosing that—that’s a whole world of difference, right? How he’s going to show up and engage there because he’s chosen it. He’s done his analysis. He has a plan. And when he gets there, what if he gets there and his plans change? But that’s more learning! He’s gone there, he’s had some experience and it’s like, “This is not doing what I thought it was going to do.” Or, “This is great!” Or, “This isn’t the greatest but it’s the stepping stone for my longer-term goal.”
That’s the whole critical thinking piece, right? Understanding ourselves—that’s the other value you get rather than just being told, “Take this step, this step, this step.” They’re understanding themselves, they’re understanding goals that they have chosen, they’re figuring out ways to mesh them and come up with a plan on how they might get there.
It’s a whole world difference, isn’t it?
JESSICA: It really is. Think about the fact that you don’t even have to know what your major is, to go to college. You just go. You just go like it’s thirteenth grade. And while you’re there you’ll figure out what you want to do with your life. And at some point, three years in with five years ahead of you or with five years to graduate, you’ll say, “Well, I guess I could major in English Lit.” Which is what what my best friend, who’s an English Lit professor, did. Well, what can you do with that? She’d be the first to tell you, you can teach; that’s it. That’s all you can do. Tutor maybe, or tutoring online, or have a blog—things like that.
But if you’re not going to college to be an engineer or to be a doctor or something, the diplomas are… everybody’s got them. Everybody has them. They mean almost nothing any more. It’s sad. And I did the exact same thing. I went to college, I thought of like five different majors. Like, “Well maybe I’ll major in Criminal Psychology, maybe I’ll major in English, maybe I’ll major in Criminal Law, maybe I will be a lawyer. Maybe I’ll be a writer.” I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And the state paid $9000 and some, dollars, for me to spend that first year in Rutgers. Thank you for the scholarship. I was not a dumb kid. I was a relatively worldly, knowledgeable, eighteen-year-old compared to a lot of my peers.
Certainly, some of them were more successful but probably mostly because they followed the plan. I don’t know, when you define success, how happy they are. I know kids who went to Princeton on full rides who are realtors now. That redefining of success—I want my children to be happy. I want them to be happy people. I want them to be happy now. I want them to be happy in the future, with whatever choices they make. I can’t guarantee their happiness ever, if I’m the one who makes the choices for them. Because I don’t know what’s best for them. I never can.
PAM: By allowing them to make their own choices and to see what happens, they’re discovering how to find their happiness—to find what makes them happy. That’s going to be the best that we can do to help them continue. They now have experience in figuring out how to be happy. And that’s what they take with them.
Okay, our last question here. I think we’ve been hit with this through this entire conversation, but if there’s anything else you’d like to add to it about how unschooling has helped your family heal.
JESSICA: We’re easier on the kids and we’re easier on ourselves. We’re easier on our parents. We just don’t have the stress that we used to. Being in control sounds like it’s going to be awesome, when you’re a little kid and don’t have any control and then you grow up and you’re like, “Wow, I finally have control,” and wield it. But it’s really not.
Being in control means also being responsible for everything that happens. And that’s something I’ve had a lot of trouble letting go of. I can be a little… a lot controlling or trying to control a lot of things. It has helped me to let go in so many areas of my life where it felt like I had to make things the right way.
It’s really hard to explain the level of anxiety I used to feel—and still do from time to time. There were years where I felt nothing but anxiety. My whole life was a tight chest and panic. I had a four-year-old and I was terrified that I was doing everything wrong, and they were never going to be happy, and I was never going to be able to make them the adult that I needed them to be—which was an adult who would never miss a bill, who would always have a really good paying job, who would have a nice house, who would have all of the things that I had lacked as a child and was afraid I was not going to be able to give my own children.
Just recognising that so little is really in your control, legitimately. It’s just not. You can try to control it really, really hard but you can’t. Seeing that that’s okay, that it’s alright—and not just that it’s okay but that it’s beautiful—it really is beautiful. I cannot describe it any other way. Our family is so happy the way things are.
I do want to say, not always. My daughter—we didn’t talk a lot about Lily—she is just a passionate, amazing young woman. She is going through early puberty and it’s been very hard for her. She sees her brothers as successful. She sees them as having things all together. And even though she is five years younger than Joe, and seven years younger than Nick, she feels this urgency to have it together, know what she’s going to be and what she’s going to do. It’s so funny, because she was raised in unschooling. She’s never had the expectations put on her that the boys did and so I want to share that sometimes those things are intrinsic to a child. It is her temperament to worry about whether she’s doing things right.
Last week, my middle son Jo who is the least affectionate and the least close to all of us—he spent about an hour, that I know he could have spent online with his friends—sitting in the kitchen and sharing with his sister how lovely her artwork is, how she should set up a Tumblr and she could do this, that, or the other. Where she can go on Roblox to maybe sell some of her artwork to developers. Just really encouraging her.
And the boys encourage each other. My older son went in and cleaned my younger son’s room while my younger son was gone. And he wasn’t thrilled about it, but he did it. There’s so much love and so little competition in our house compared to six years ago, seven years ago that it’s like magic.
It’s like we have unicorns now.
PAM: That’s beautiful. It heals the relationships, right? I love how you mentioned that the competitiveness is gone. I think that once you stop dealing in power, you don’t have to try and grab as much power as you can from your siblings or in your interactions with your parents. Because now we’re all just helping each other accomplish what we’re each trying to accomplish.
So, it’s no more about, “Well, if you accomplish that you’re going to look better than me, so you’re going to have more power because you’re more accomplished.” All that just falls by the wayside, doesn’t it? Everybody’s lives are real. Like you said before, your daughter’s having a tough time. That’s the reality. It’s not a happiness that’s like, “Laa, laa, la-la!”
It’s the deeper happiness of—this is real life and we’re engaging in real life and relationships with each other that aren’t competitive or power-based but are real. Yes, we help out and sometimes we help out when we kind of want to be doing something else but we’re still choosing in that moment that this is the person we want to be. I want to be the person that helps out this way. Rather than always just choosing this. It is so hard to explain at first. It looks like unicorns, again!
Because it’s not perfect. It is real life. Real life has problems. We come up against obstacles. We slip and do things that we shouldn’t. Everybody does. But there’s this underlying fabric that is so much stronger and softer than what used to underlie our family. What used to underlie our family was a lot of prickliness and irritability and competitiveness and anger. So much anger. That, for the most part, is gone. We may get angry with one another sometimes, but it’s not a Thing that’s just there all the time, simmering amongst us. And it used to be.
PAM: It’s an incident. It’s a part of life. It’s something and now it’s something that can get talked about and worked through. Maybe not in that moment. Maybe it will sit for a little bit. But we’re engaged with each other.
PAM: Well thanks so much for taking the time to speak to me Jessica. It was such a fun conversation; thank you.
JESSICA: Thank you so much. It was so fun to talk to you and it was an honour really. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done that has allowed mothers like me to make the changes in our family, in our own way of dealing with life. It’s been an amazing journey and I’m appreciative.
PAM: Thank you so much, that’s beautiful.
And before we go, I will share links for people of your blog series. But where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
JESSICA: I don’t have a whole lot of an online presence, but I do write. I do blog on Steemit. So I’m on Steemit, I’m just jrhughes at steemit.com.
PAM: That’s awesome. Thanks so much, Jessica, have a wonderful day.
JESSICA: Thank you, you too, Pam.