PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from LivingJoyfully.ca and today I am here with Courtney Barker. Hi, Courtney!
PAM: I recently came across Courtney’s blog, The Untamed, and I really enjoyed reading some of her thoughts and insights around unschooling. So, it was also fun to discover recently that we live relatively close to one another!
PAM: In the unschooling world, an hour a way is practically next-door neighbors, I think.
PAM: I’m excited to learn more about your experiences. To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
We are family of five. I am Courtney and my husband is Dave, and we have three kids; an eight-year-old son Teddy, and a six-year-old son Hugo—he turns seven in a couple of weeks—and three-year-old daughter Camilla.
As a bit of background about us, we are Australian, but we have lived quite a nomadic life since we have had children. We left Australia when our oldest was twelve weeks old and we moved to Northern Zambia—quite a remote part of Zambia—for four years. Then we were in Chile for four years after that. Then we have been in Canada now for just under a year. I always call us unofficial–world-schoolers.
PAM: That is interesting to have gotten that bug once you started having kids. Usually it is the other way. You do lots of traveling and then you settle down.
COURTNEY: It was not intentional at all—well, the first move was. My husband was consulting before we had children and he was traveling a lot, and once we found out we were having a baby, he really wanted to be around a lot more for that. So, he took a job in Central Africa to make that happen. Then we were thinking we would be there for a couple of years and go back to Australia but often these things progress and so here we are in Canada.
PAM: That is really cool. What a great reason, right?
PAM: So from there …
What did your families move to unschooling look like? How did you discover that and how did you decide to walk that path?
COURTNEY: I think that happened quite organically for us as well. We followed a similar script to a lot of families.
We were living in Chile and our boys came of school age and everyone around us was sending their children to school. I kept our eldest son back a little bit; we kind of knew in our heart that he was not ready for school. It got to the point where he was kindergarten age, just before first grade, and we kind of just crossed our fingers and thought we will see how it goes.
We did not know anyone who homeschooled; definitely never heard of unschooling. So, we just did what everybody did and hoped it would be okay. For our eldest, it was not okay, and he really struggled at school. It was a really miserable experience for him.
I think I was helping out a bit at school. I was helping out a lot in the classroom to support him and we were really working with the school to try and get his needs accommodated and to make it a positive experience for everybody. It got to the point where we could really see that the school were coming from a perspective where they were not really happy to shift at all and they were really hoping that all of the shift would happen from our son. They wanted him to be somebody that he was not.
We came to that realization and so we started thinking, you know, this is not really working, and our son came home one night and he said to us that he was so sick of getting in trouble at school and he felt like it would be better if he never existed. So, he did not go back to school obviously after that. It is heartbreaking to hear your five-year-old say something like that. We did not know what we were doing but we were not doing school with him anymore.
We kept him home and during this whole process our second son was at school as well. He is a very different child and was swimming along just fine, so we kind of started this process thinking, ‘Well, we will homeschool Teddy and we will keep our other children in school and we will reassess in a year,’ and all of those kinds of things.
But then we saw Teddy blossoming without really paying attention to Hugo and thinking was this really a positive experience for him. I mean, he was fine, but was he really fine? We started seeing that a lot of the things he loved, like Pókemon cards and things like that, were suddenly being banned at school and there was a lot of ‘no’ going on there. Especially around boys we know, a lot of no, no, no.
We went to his parent teacher interviews maybe six months after we had Teddy out of school. We were talking to this teacher who was this sweet young teacher and she was talking about his strengths and weaknesses and she showed me some books that Hugo could read. He was not reading, and I knew that he was not able to do those things, but he was very good at numbers. She said to me, “Oh, and he can recognize his numbers up to twenty,” and I knew he could do so much more than that. I have never been focused on academics, but I just realized this woman does not know my child. Like he has been in your classroom for nine months and she does not know who he is. I can see that he was a child that could just swing by and maybe go unnoticed. My husband, who is a little bit more skeptical of the whole unschooling or homeschooling thing, walked out of the parent teacher interview and told me, “He is not going back.”
So, he sensed that as well. Then from there obviously we have progressed now to radical unschooling and that with some further steps, our daughter has not and will not go to school.
It has been a wholly positive experience for my family for sure.
PAM: Yes, like you said, it is a pretty similar story isn’t it because I connected with like half a dozen things right there. Like helping out at school, helping teachers. Trying to help them understand your child and where they are coming from. The realization that it’s not about that. They are nice teachers for the most part, most of the teachers were very nice, but I remember once I did a presentation at one of the teacher’s meetings on spirited children because that was kind of the term back then—and maybe still now, I do not know.
I gave it and the feedback from the teachers was, “That was great, it makes a lot of sense. We can’t do that in our classroom.” You know, “We don’t have time to be able to do that.” It made sense, but it was not a fit.
Now, at that time, I did not know about homeschooling at all so we tried another school which is yet another story. Yet, leaving that school, it was the realization that he had been there for months and I had been in a meeting having conversations and they still did not know him. It was small teacher-student ratio, all that kind of stuff, in a private school, it was better but they still did not know him and what made him shine. I still saw him shining at home and being this kid that was doing so many interesting things but they could not see that part of him because they could only ever meet the child that was trying to fit in to that classroom, right?
COURTNEY: Yes. And I think I started to get this sense I was really active in school and with my child, really trying to do everything that could to make it work. I noticed that when I was there, in the classroom, in the playground, with my son that actually things were fine and I realized for him just having confidence of somebody being there on his team.
But the feedback that he was getting from everyone around him was that he was a problem and difficult and too much effort. That there was something wrong with him and he was feeling bad about himself.
The change in him to being home and to being around people who really did have his best interest at heart. That it is not too much effort to make these accommodations for him if that was what he needed. Yes, and just the shift in him was so incredible and happened so quickly.
PAM: Yes, I know exactly. You are talking about your second child, Hugo, right?
COURTNEY: Hugo, right.
PAM: When I had discovered homeschooling and we asked the kids if they wanted to stay home like yes, it was specifically motivated for my eldest at the time but all three of them said, yes, please” and it was my daughter, my second child who was seemingly doing just fine in school. Fitting in just fine, getting along with teachers, teachers loved her, etcetera. She was the most excited and happy about not going.
So yes, it was that understanding that even if it looks like things are fine, there can still be so much going on under the surface, right?
COURTNEY: Yes, absolutely. For Hugo as well.
He is just absolutely done so well at home and it has been a really positive experience for him. He is such a social kid and he needs a lot of social interaction and I worried that he might miss his friends at school. I did not realize how social you can be as homeschoolers and how much more we could fill that requirement that he had by being at home. More so that he was probably getting at school, you know with these snip-its of time to have free play and so that side of things I think has been a bit of a shock for me as well that he can get what he needs in that aspect a lot more at home than he could at school.
PAM: Yes, that is such a great point too because when they are looking for that kind of engagement, and intense prolonged engagement, they can get it at home—they can get it with us, they can get it with their siblings. It does not always have to be other people, right?
At school it has to be other kids because that is their only option; in the short windows that they are allowed to. So, it can seem like they are craving engagement all the time but it is because they are never getting it.
COURTNEY: That is exactly right. Or they cannot play the games in the way that they want to.
PAM: Yes, that is a really great thought.
It is really true because when they are really, and some kids want to be going out all the time. This is the beauty of unschooling, that it can be what the individual child wants and needs. We truly don’t know what that is when we are only seeing them evenings and weekends when they are in school. We don’t know because so much of their needs are in reaction to having been in school during those hours. But what their root fundamental needs as a person are is what we get to discover when we bring them home, right?
And I think even when you look at sibling relationships as well, I think when your children are in school they see each other for the worst part of the day, you know in the morning rush and then in the afternoon when everyone is just kind of had enough. Watching a really positive relationship grow when they are seeing each other for larger chunks of the day when they are, you know, their best selves it is really beautiful to watch as well.
PAM: Oh yes, that is such a great point to. I love that. It is true; they did not have time to engage with each other before and as you said, certainly not in their best hours.
When people first hear about unschooling, about not following curriculum, not doing worksheets it can be so hard to imagine what that can even look like in a day, right? It is a totally foreign concept; we are not doing school but no idea what it is going to look like instead. Especially when it comes to learning because we all define learning as going to school and learning in a classroom as a teacher. So what did that mind shift around learning look like for you?
COURTNEY: I think that we actually never followed a very structured homeschool setup, which I know some people shift into if they have decided to homeschool from the beginning or if they have shifted out of school into homeschooling.
Because my son was in such a negative place, I think that when he came home it was a little bit about decompressing for us and just making sure that he felt okay. I think also, because he was so young, that academics were kind of at the back of my mind anyway. That was not an area that had ever been a concern with him and I just figured it would be fun for us to keep playing for a while and that then we might pickup with that stuff a little bit later.
I think that following that path I started to really notice just how much he was learning on his own when I was not even trying. You know, when it was just about having fun. Just being together. Just seeing how much he was learning by himself I never felt the need to kind of go down a curriculum route. Then when curiosity kind of got the better of me and I had a look at what he should be learning for his age group and I realized that we had covered all of that and more just through living our lives for sort of that young age group I just felt really comfortable just putting that a side.
I do not want you to think that there was never a time where I was like, “Let’s sit down and practice writing,” or whatever, because I certainly did those things, and it was always met with, “No, I am not doing that.” I realized I did not want to bring that battleground into my house. You know that was the battleground that he struggled with at school and we did not need that in our home.
Also, I think that every time I really tried to push something like that it was a big stop sign to his learning. It meant that he would never pick up a pen on his own for two weeks after that. When I just sat back and just let it take its course by itself, he just naturally came to those things, sometimes. Sometimes it is really useful to write things down or sometimes it is really useful to find something out in a book. Or, it is really nice to sit and listen to a story or whatever those things might be. I just realized that my efforts to try and push forward his learning were actually a hindrance not a help.
So, I was better able to put those things to side.
PAM: I think that such a huge observation about when we are trying to help them—help them with writing—they can tell the difference that encouragement is weighted with something. It is encouragement because it is something we want them to do, not something they want to do. I think what that does, is really take the choice away from them. Now they feel like, ‘If I do this, I am doing to satisfy her, I am not doing it because of wanting to learn how to do it.’
COURTNEY: Yes, it is an obligation it must be boring and should not be something I want to do myself.
PAM: Yes, it just totally takes it out of their hands. As you said we learn that through the experience.
PAM: Having done it and seeing the reaction. It is just about being open and observant to seeing. Especially that first year or two when you are intensely deschooling a lot of these ideas.
I remember for my eldest, he actually had a writing thing from school, he had a writing incident with a teacher and he refused to write at school. So, when we came home that was totally off the table and it was probably about a year later when he finally had a reason to want to pick up and write. Because a year later was finally not about doing something somebody else wanted him to do but now he could find his own real reasons for it.
I remember him laughing and saying, “I don’t think I’ve picked up a pencil in a year.” I was at the point where I could go, “Cool!”
COURTNEY: It is really interesting that you said that. I think my oldest went through phase like that as well. I don’t think I saw him write anything with a pen for maybe six moths. Sure, he was like typing things, but not writing. Maybe he was drawing some things, but he was not writing any words, and then he had a reason to write something and he wanted to write a card to one of his friends.
The last time I had seen him write his letters were big—lots were back to front, you know the huge letters that children write when they are kind of learning to write and learning to put things together. His writing was suddenly small and neat and in a straight line and his letters were faced the right way and it certainly was not because of practice.
But he had been doing lots of other things with his hands that I am sure were developing fine motor skills. He had been seeing the way that letters were being written and different places. Something was contributing.
It is drilled in to us that in order for our children to get better at something that they need to be practicing that specific skill everyday. But actually, there are lots of things that can contribute to learning. It does not always look like the way we think it has to for somebody to get better at something.
PAM: Yes. I love that point.
I have talked a bit about that before too—with my daughter, when she took a break from photography. But she was doing other things related, she was looking through magazines, websites, reading this, that, and the other thing. She was surprised six months later, she was, “Hey, I’m better at this, even though I have not literally done it for six months.”
But you are still learning and growing and making connections. That is one of the big pieces of deschooling—seeing the bigger picture, recognizing the learning that is happening. Giving them the space so that you can start to see those things happening and open up your definition of what learning looks like.
That is such a great point. It is not about rote practice of anything. There is that rote practice of worksheets over and over again—no, it is when the moment comes and the connection comes and the need comes. But yes you have to give it the time to start to see those things coming together. Those six months for him to have gone from this to this without any practice in between. Now you can see where some of the connections were to get them from that point to that point. But yes, they need that space and time for us to see that.
COURTNEY: Yes, I think that writing is a really black and white way to see an improvement. I could see big letters then I could see smaller letters. It was amazing, ‘How did that happen?’
But, there are lots of learning where there is not a concrete example of that learning and it is still going on in the background and it is still happening.
I think, as adults, when we want our children to be practicing something, it is because we want them to be demonstrating their learning to us for our benefit—so that we know that it’s happening. It is such a stop sign, because we are making it about us then. It is about our own insecurities. Children will show us what they are learning, in time, when the moment is right.
PAM: They will, they will. My favorite way is just through conversation, and just through watching them make choices. It is totally not about us—opening up our ability to listen and just pay attention to them.
COURTNEY: We do not need our children telling us what a verb is if we can see them speaking and using language appropriately all the time.
PAM: Exactly, exactly. You see it in action.
But yes, you have to be paying attention. It goes back to what you were saying about satisfying our needs, in doing it for us. Because if we are looking for it to look like “this”—we may not see it because it looks a little bit different. We may not notice it, and then the fear starts to kick in and then you go through that whole cycle too.
But when you are paying attention and just seeing them in action, it’s beautiful.
COURTNEY: It really is amazing.
PAM: It is, it is. That leads so nicely to our next question Courtney …
What has been one of your most surprising discoveries about life with children so far?
COURTNEY: You know, I think that it’s quite different to what we have just been talking about. I think that children are so raw and they put themselves out there. When I was a new mum and I had two little babies and I started to recognize that my kids were really telling me how they were feeling through their behavior.
It was this light bulb moment for me where it was like, ‘Oh, they are not just trying to push my buttons because it is fun,’ or, ‘They are not being naughty,’ or any of those like judgmental kind of frames of mind that you can come at child behavior from.
I think that I really started to see a big shift in my thinking toward adults as well. When I am out and about and if you see somebody being rude or angry or somebody being really over the top or inappropriate when in a social situation. I think in the past I would have thought of that behavior in a really different way and I think that my mind set now is, ‘Oh, I wonder what is going on with them?’ Like, ‘I wonder if they have had a bad day or if they are feeling anxious,’ or whatever it might be.
It is such a helpful way to be coming at human behavior from. I did not learn that really until later in life, that if we can come at people and their behavior from a point of view where we want to support them rather than condemn them, that that is so much more helpful with interactions with everybody.
My children really taught me that.
PAM: Yes! I definitely I learned that through my kids as well.
I started by giving them that grace and understanding. I was really encouraged as I came to unschooling to see things from their point of view.
The one piece I love, and probably people are getting sick of me talking about it on the podcast, is the difference of putting yourself in your child’s situation and seeing the situation through your child’s eyes. Because if I am just putting myself in their situation, I am bringing my likes, dislikes, my strengths and weakness—I am bringing all those to it.
COURTNEY: Life experience, yes.
PAM: Yes, yes, that is irrelevant because it is not me in that situation. But to see the situation through their eyes is a completely different thing and oh, the understanding and light bulb moments about your child when you can do that.
It is like, ‘Oh, that’s why they are acting this way, reacting this way, wanting to do this.’ Because you are seeing it from their needs, from their interest, and so you can see why their choices make sense, even though you might never make that same choice.
COURTNEY: Yes, and being able to apply that more broadly in you life as well is such an amazing thing. I think it really strengthens my relationships in so many different areas, not only with my children.
PAM: Exactly because now, when you are out and about in the world you are seeing things from other people’s perspectives and you realize how much bigger the world is. Rather than just this defined set of acceptable whatever, but that people come at every moment just with who they uniquely are. And their actions and choices are about where they are in that moment. Not about us or anybody else.
Anyway, I love that.
Speaking of emotions, you have a great blog post about handling big emotions, I really enjoyed that one and I will link to it in the show notes. As you said in there, being in touch with and able to lean into our emotions, are hallmark traits of emotional well-being, resilience, and healthy relationships. Yet many of us grew up being shushed and shamed for having those big emotions especially the negative ones. So, it can be really hard for us to figure out how to support our children through these moments as we come to unschooling. I was wondering if you could share some ideas around that?
COURTNEY: Yes, sure.
I think that big emotions can be really overwhelming. They can be scary to watch and they can be really confronting. Children often feel with their whole bodies and they can be really loud. All those things we probably do not let ourselves do as an adult when we are feeling overwhelmed by emotions.
So, I think it can be really natural for parents to follow one of two kind of paths, which is to either sush and shame, like you said, to get the emotion to stop, or to try and solve it—to try and fix it and to come up with answers. They are both very different approaches but they are both trying to achieve the same thing, which is to stop the process. I think that neither of them are particularly helpful.
It is kind of in the front of my mind because one of my children had some big emotions last night which were a little bit unexpected and I think that is the way it often comes. When your child feels really strongly about something and is really overwhelmed by something that kind of seems like it is a bit out of the blue and it can take you by surprise sometimes.
I think that it is really useful to think of it as not about that one thing that they are seeming to get upset about or angry about. There is a lot of baggage that they have just brought into that situation and often that moment is kind of the straw that breaks the camel’s back and it all comes out.
I think if you think about it like that, it is impossible in that moment to try and figure out everything that is going on in their mind that has made them upset and to fix it or solve it—and that is not your role in that moment. It is tough, and it takes practice, but I found it really helpful just to try, try not to say much. That you are along for the ride and you child is in control of where they take their emotions.
A lot of people call it like holding space for them, offering some empathetic words like, “that sounds really hard” but your main role is to show them that you are there and that you are calm and that you are waiting for them to come out the other side.
I think that sometimes your children can spiral into some pretty dark places with big emotions and that can be confronting as well but I think that is a really important part of the process because nobody likes to feel out of control and sometimes that is the catalyst that a child needs to kind of take a step back and be open to learning some tools so that the next time they do not go to that place.
It means they are learning the tools that they need to process their emotions and they are coming to it on their terms and not getting there because you are pushing them in that direction. Then I think that is something—like all learning—that is going to stick with them.
Understanding their own emotions and what that feels like and where that moment is where they need to give themselves some space or take some breaths or whatever works for them. That is something that they are going to learn and take with them long-term.
Whereas, if they need you to be there to fix it or if they need you to be there to tell them what they should be doing through the process, that is something that maybe they will not be able to do by themselves necessarily later on.
PAM: Yes. That was wonderful and that learning and the conversation that we are talking about, what might help like you are saying breathing, taking a break those kinds of things. Those are the kinds of things that you are chatting about later.
Like you said, not in that moment, right?
COURTNEY: Yes, when they are there, nobody should be told to calm down or to take breaths or whatever it is when they are like really in it. The time to like have a chat about that is definitely in the calm that follows sometime later. You can say, “I notice you had a really hard time before …” and have a conversation about why that was and what was going on with them and maybe they will be open to sharing a little bit more of the background to the emotions.
You can have a chat about, “I notice you got really angry, I wonder if next time if you gave yourself some space it might help, and would you like me to remind you next time if you feel yourself getting angry again.”
PAM: Brainstorming ideas with them. “What would you like me to do if I see that might be building up for you?” It is an actual conversation and sharing tips and, like you said, maybe not in the first conversation, but over time.
We are having these conversations all the time. They might share, and they will gain some insights into themselves and be able to share and bring those into the conversations. “Oh, I noticed that this happened…”
And your other really great point was that so often, the straw that breaks the camel’s back is not the “one thing.” Maybe you’re wondering why the heck are they so upset because that has happened three times in the last three weeks.
COURTNEY: Exactly. Or, if it is apparent, I tell them, “Why are you getting upset that you spilt your drink?” or whatever it is. It seems quite trivial, but that is not really what they are upset about.
PAM: Yes, and it does not mean that their upset is wrong or worthless. No, it is much more likely that a bunch of things have been going wrong or have been bothering them or there is one thing that has been simmering for days or hours or whatever—this one thing was just too much in the end.
So yes, if you always try and focus on trying to fix the one thing that you see, you are not going to be helping them long-term in figuring that out—because in any other normal circumstance, they would have no problem with that one thing.
COURTNEY: I think as well though that it is a process. I think that sometimes people—parents—might come at these situations and do everything right and really hold space for their child and to really be supporting them through their process and their child keeps on getting really overwhelmed by emotions. It can be easy to think that this is not working.
PAM: So often people think that it’s not working—how do you define working? That your child never gets upset? We still get upset. Not being upset is not a goal or a target that is useful. So, if they didn’t recover within five minutes I am doing it wrong and I need to find another way?
It may just be they need you to be there as often as they need you to be there.
Then in your conversations later, as you are processing, maybe you’ll be asking, “Is there something different I can do to help?” “How you are feeling?” And, “It’s okay that it takes lots of times.”
In those situations, I always think the only person whose reaction I can control is my own. So, when I can walk away from a situation—even if it’s stressful and it’s overwhelming to watch your child really deal with some big stuff—I think if I can walk away from that and be really proud of how I supported them and how I was able to keep my own emotions in check during that process, that I can always come away from it feeling really positive.
Because I feel like when you go to one of those, when you meet those emotions with less than desirable kind of response, it very rarely helps and you walk away feeling like you did not help and also feeling bad that you could have dealt with it better. I feel like that is a really great incentive to just do your own internal work to get through those moments.
PAM: I remember times you know standing there, as you said, being there with them and processing in my mind to get through my reaction without bringing it out. Looking back, I realize in those moments, if I brought more to it I was making it about me—I was making it about how their emotions were impacting me. But this moment is about them. It is a big enough moment, in that moment, that it doesn’t need to be about anyone else at that time, right?
COURTNEY: Yes, that is for sure.
You shared on your blog as well that one of your children is neuroatypical and that is a really common question—will unschooling work for my atypical child? Because so often parents have found—like we both found—that conventional school is not working well for our child and we are worried that that might happen with unschooling as well, right? We are trying just to get a sense when first hear about it whether or not this might work or whether it is going to have the same kinds of issues. I was hoping you could share a bit about what your experience has been with unschooling and atypical kids.
COURTNEY: Yes, I think it’s really interesting what you were saying before, because I think it is relevant here as well, when we talk about something working or not working.
What we mean here, and I think that sometimes if someone was to try unschooling and to say it did not work for my child, in my mind I’m thinking that what they are saying is, “I did not like the choices that my child was making.” And that, “It did not look how I thought it I wanted it to.”
I think that if you are coming at the process with a really open mind and seeing your role and really supporting your child to go down whatever path of learning it is that they want to go down, and to really being their partner in that rather than dictating that or having any preconceived idea of what successful unschooling is going to look like, then I think that there is no way that it cannot work, really.
I think that when you step way from unschooling into radical unschooling or whole life unschooling, and you tie-in respectful parenting with all that together, I think that there is often concern around disability or neuroatypicality; about what that will look like and if it will look different.
I still think that is somebody coming at it thinking that there is a really set script for what unschooling should look like or what respectful parenting should look like and that script has been written from a neurotypical child—and it is just not how it is at all. I mean I have go three children, two neurotypical children and one neuroatypical child and they are all different ages and they are all different people and they all need different things from me.
So what respect looks like, and what supporting then looks like, looks different for each of them and it is about being really in touch with your child and understanding when they need your help and when they do not. When you need to help them for health and safety reasons and when you do not, and really letting them be the guide. It has been so successful. I would say it is probably the most positive thing you could do with your neuroatypical child is really empowering them and respecting them and trusting them.
That is at the heart of unschooling and respectful parenting.
PAM: Yes I love that, that is really beautiful.
That when you think about unschooling and how the idea, as you were saying, is to support that child—that unique child. At that point, how neurotypical or not or how whatever, none of it is irrelevant in that it all matters because that makes up that unique individual.
Unschooling is about supporting them. If it’s physical maybe it includes lots of medical appointments. Maybe it includes whatever their focus is, however they process, however they learn, however, whatever. It is about supporting and helping that individual child.
I will often say unschooling will work for every child. Now, it may not work for every family. It will now work for every parent, because that may not be the way you are comfortable raising your children, or your children learning, or whatever, so it may not work for every family.
If parents choose that lifestyle, I think it can work for every child. It is not about not having routines or schedules, it is about helping a child figure out how he likes to move through his days.
COURTNEY: Respect works for everybody.
PAM: There you go.
Gee, what I take so long to say. Respect works for everybody—you nailed it. Exactly.
It works for everybody and you support them the way that they need and want support. Period.
I think another really important realization on the unschooling journey is that things are going to go sideways. At first, when you are reading about unschooling, it kind of sounds like this utopia. Like we are all doing what we want and we are all going to respect each other and la, la, la, la.
COURTNEY: And the kids are learning intensely all day.
PAM: But it is life, right? With all its ups and downs, twists and turns and I think we touched on this earlier.
The further we are in our journey the more we come to recognize the valuable learning and self-awareness that often grows out of the mess of things going wrong. It is seeing from somebody else’s perspective and so much so that at this point I rarely label any if ever, any of our choices as wrong. Because they were the best choice we could make in that moment with what we knew in that moment. That is where hindsight is 20/20. But life is definitely full of missteps so how do you handle those?
COURTNEY: In the day-to-day, we are all human. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone comes around situations in ways that, like you said, with hindsight they realize maybe they should not have. We all have days where we have not had enough sleep or our blood sugar is low or we do not want to be anywhere.
PAM: It’s how we learn.
COURTNEY: Cooking for our children or whatever it is that makes you just be in a mindset that is not dealing with things as positively as you maybe can sometimes. I think that our children see that, and they see that we are human, and they also see how we look to remedy those situations as well.
It is okay to go up to your child later and to be like, “Hey, I was thinking about what I said before and I realize that I was really unfair and that maybe that could have hurt your feelings and I am really sorry.” Or apologizing in the moment: “Oh look, I’m sorry. I want to start again.” I wanted to sound really fascinated and I’m not. I think that kids pick up on that and they take that into their own lives as well because they are going to do the same things. They are human too and it is helping them. You are modeling the tools that may help them to make amends when things do not go as they planned.
I think, as well, they are really empathetic towards us. On the weekend we went to this beach and my husband was unpacking the back of the car and he was a bit flustered and the kids were kind of demanding their goggles and all their equipment because they wanted to get in the water, and he is trying to get everything out, and my oldest son went up to him and said, “Oh, dad, where is the sunscreen?” And my husband just kind of gave it to him in quite a gruff way.
And I saw him walk away laughing and I was like, “How is the unpacking going?” and he was like, “Dad is really stressing out. I think that maybe we should go and help him.” I realized that he could see the signs that he was getting overwhelmed, and I have seen him do similar things to me as well sometimes. They start coming at those situations like, “Oh, how can I help you?” because they see us respond to them in that way when they are getting overwhelmed.
“How can I help you in this situation? You are seeming like you are getting a bit stressed.” When I see moments like that when one of us are not handling situations as well as we would like to, when I see our kids coming in to help, I realize that is because they have seen us model that behavior as well, and that is the best feeling ever, I think. That they are going to take those skills into their life.
PAM: Yes, that is such a big piece! Understanding themselves, just understanding human beings, right? And when we come, and we are open about when things go wrong, and eventually you can laugh about that. It is a process.
COURTNEY: Yes, and I think it’s coming full circle to what we were talking about before, which is you start to see things from other people’s perspectives.
You know my son in that moment, he was not making it about him. Like, suddenly taking it on board and thinking, ‘Oh, my dad was so mean, I was just asking for the sunscreen.’ He was coming at that thinking, ‘Oh, what is going on with you, you seem really overwhelmed, you usually do not react like that and how can I help?’ I think that that it is really useful.
PAM: At least conventionally, so many adults do not think children are capable of that skill.
COURTNEY: Yes, you hear them saying that children are so self-involved, and I just do not see that at all. I see my children really being empathetic to each other and to their friends and really trying to see things from other people’s perspectives as well as their own.
We do not give children enough credit I think or maybe the opportunity.
PAM: Both of those. I mean, they have to have the opportunity to be able to do that, the space. I think a big part of that, when we think that as adults we have to be perfect, we are adults we are supposed to do things right, and we kind of hide when things do not go so well, or, we are embarrassed if we did something that we feel bad about later so we don’t say anything.
PAM: So, we don’t apologize, we don’t have the discussion. It’s going to be weird having the discussion with them and expecting them to open up if we are not honest as well—to their level, as much as they are interested in. We are having conversations all the time, for years. Eventually things come up and connect and there is a moment.
It’s not like we have to rush into these things. They learn that they do not need to hide and be perfect to not get in trouble. I think that empathy is such a huge piece and it develops by seeing it in action with other people.
COURTNEY: Yes. And it’s really interesting as well, because for my eldest son, who is so in touch with other people’s feelings that he is so considerate of me, so helpful, I feel like he can sense if I am out of balance, and his dad as well. And he was the child at school that the feedback I was getting was that he did not have enough empathy for the children around him. I feel like that is that that is so amazing that a couple of years and being around people who are showing you empathy can do to help take all of that on board.
PAM: That is beautiful. Alright, our last question Courtney.
What is your favorite thing about your unschooling lifestyle right now?
COURTNEY: My favorite thing would be time. You know, the time that we have together as a family, obviously. But just how flexible we can be to just living in the moment. If we are somewhere and we are having a great time and we stay, or if we are somewhere and it is not what we expected, then we leave.
I think that we are not on anyone’s schedule but our own and that just gives our children so much opportunity to live in the moment. I am learning a lot through them, that I don’t need to worry so much about things that I think about. ‘Oh, if we stay longer the traffic is going to be bad,’ or whatever it is. It just letting go a little bit and so I think that the flexibility in our lives, we have the ability to be spontaneous and just the time that we have with each other.
PAM: I remember where I learned that piece about worrying about the traffic if we, it was going to the Science Centre in Toronto.
COURTNEY: That is about the only place that is really close to me.
PAM: I would be thinking, ‘Oh, we should go soon so we can miss the traffic.’ But I was the only one stressed in the traffic!
PAM: They taught me to—or, I learned from them—we have fun in the car. We are singing or having conversations or they are doing something. Depending on their age and what people are into, it was never a really huge deal if we had to spend a bit more time in the car driving home.
COURTNEY: I could remember reading in one blog article about somebody I cannot remember now and she is talking about her experience of homeschooling and unschooling five now grandchildren and she talks about one of the biggest parts of their learning experience being carschooling. Then her explanation in brackets you’ll see. I thought that was great, you do have the best conversations in the car.
PAM: Some of the best connecting moments, right? You are just kind of side by side, things just come up, or they don’t. You are just sharing whatever is going on; you are all a witness to that. Whether it is a shared song or maybe you’re listening to an audiobook. It is stuff that weaves into your lives—that can weave in months and years later because you have that shared experience.
COURTNEY: Definitely. And it’s lucky because you spend a lot of time in the car as an unschooler.
PAM: Because people an hour away are your next-door neighbor. It is really true!
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Courtney. I had so much fun!
COURTNEY: Yes, it was lovely.
PAM: And before we go, let people know where they can connect with you online. Tell them about your blog!
COURTNEY: Oh yes, okay so my blog The Untamed is theuntamed.net and on Facebook and Instagram we are at The Untamed Family. On Instagram I share some pictures from our day and things that we are doing, and on Facebook I share bits and pieces of what other people have written that I find useful and I share my own blog posts.
So, I try and write something each week. It does not always happen but it is a place to go to if inspiration strikes.
PAM: That is awesome, thank you so much have a wonderful day.
COURTNEY: Yes, you too.