PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Amanda Sharma. Hi, Amanda!
AMANDA: Hi, Pam!
PAM: Hello. I came across Amanda online a while ago and I really enjoyed reading her articles about unschooling on Medium, and various other websites around the web. And I’ll definitely link to those in the show notes. She has a really interesting perspective because she grew up unschooling and now she unschools her own children. I’m really happy she agreed to chat with me! To get us started Amanda …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
AMANDA: Sure, absolutely. So, I’m Amanda. I live in Washington State, out on the Olympic Peninsula. We have a mountain in the middle of nowhere, little tiny one street town. I grew up here in Washington, like Pam said, unschooling.
My mom started unschooling and—let’s see—I think it became legal in Washington State in 1985. And she started about two years after that, so I’m about as old as—well, now you know how old I am! I’m about as old as you can be in this state and have been legally homeschooled.
And I’m now the parent to three kids who are eight, six, and three and a half, and they’ve always been unschooled.
PAM: That’s amazing. I love that little tidbit about yourself there.
I’d love to hear a little bit about growing up; what your family’s move to unschooling looked like.
AMANDA: Yeah, sure.
So, my mom was sort of right at the beginning when it became legal. My parents certainly didn’t start out their parenting journey expecting at all to home school or even really knowing anything about homeschooling.
I have an older brother who’s a year older than I, and originally they put him in public school in kindergarten. And that was a very negative experience, both for him and for my mother. You know, public school is created for square-shaped children and my brother was a very round-shaped peg. Kindergarten at public school was like trying to fit a round-shaped peg into a square-shaped hole, and it just didn’t work for him emotionally or academically. And my mother felt like the school was kind of taking over raising her child and she didn’t like that feeling. But she felt like she didn’t really have any other choice. She didn’t know anything about homeschooling at the time.
The following year he was in first grade and it was my turn to enter kindergarten. My parents then chose to put us into a private school, thinking that would be at least better than public school. And that was better but still not great. My brother was still struggling and my mom still missed us and felt that she wasn’t having enough say in the raising of her kids. And also felt that she was now paying all this money for private school and she was still spending evenings helping him with all the things he was having trouble with in school.
I think it was sometime in the spring of that year that we met a homeschooling family and it was kind of a light bulb moment for my mom that, ‘Wow, this exists! You can school your kids at home!’ And she felt like she was already doing that anyway with my brother. So, she picked this mom’s brain and went straight out and bought a curriculum and jumped in with both feet.
For that year it was I think, intended that it was just going to be a temporary thing because my father’s job had gone on strike and so they couldn’t afford the private school that year and so they thought, “Well, we’ll try it this year and see how this works.” And we never went back to school, because it worked quite well for all involved. Kindergarten at a private school was my only school experience in my lifetime and we unschooled thereafter.
We started out doing more traditional homeschooling. I think that lasted maybe a year before my mom discovered John Holt’s book Teach Your Own which was kind of the bible of the early homeschooling movement. I think that was written in 1981 and I was born in 1982. Now you really know how old I am! And so, I would say, after that first year or so we very quickly moved towards unschooling.
Granted, in those times there wasn’t quite the same camps around different kinds of homeschooling that there are today. Being just educated at home was radical enough at that time. You were still asked questions in the grocery store because you were out and about at two o’clock in the afternoon.
I very much see my mom as being a sort of pioneer of her time, because it takes a lot of guts and confidence, I feel, to swim against the crowd. Keeping in mind that they didn’t have unschooling podcasts and forums to pop in and ask questions, and all of the resources that we have today. She had to stand up against a lot of questions and a lot of people wondering what she was doing but she certainly never seemed to falter about it, in my eyes.
She describes her journey to unschooling as being very confident that what she was doing was right for her kids. So about second grade I feel like, about a year in, after receiving the normal slew of questions about how we would be socialised, she and two other mothers joined together and began a home school co-op which was also very much a new thing of its time. I mean, these days I think we have dozens of them in our town but in those days we didn’t. It was the first one in the area. And that grew to about thirty kids or so, and that was very much the community that I grew up in. It was a very, very strong community until high school or so. We met once a week for a whole day and that provided very much a lot of our social interaction. Those moms traded kids back and forth all over the place. These days we have something called “play dates” where everyone gets together. In those days they just traded kids. I remember going over to my unschooled friends’ house and coming back, like four days later because it would turn into “Can we stay another night? Can we stay another night?”
There was a lot of peer to peer teaching in that way, up and down age levels. So, we would always be learning whatever our friends were learning at their houses and also they would learn whatever we were learning at our house because if you were spending the night at a friend’s house when it was time to, you know, “do school,” then we would all do it together. So that was a really good experience, I feel. Yeah.
And as we became teenagers I feel like there was sort of a natural transition into my mom more and more handing over the role of providing materials and the direction, but us definitely being very much in charge of our own learning. At that point she saw that we had learned to learn, and developed interests that perpetuated learning, and so she very much stayed out of it and allowed us the freedom to do so.
I think she handed me my high school diploma when I was—I don’t even know how old I was, I’d have to ask my mom how old I was—I was in my pyjamas, I remember that. And she handed me this piece of paper and she said, “Here’s your diploma, if you care, and I’m giving this specifically in your pyjamas because you did most of your schooling in your pyjamas. You should graduate in your pyjamas.” And I remember her telling me, “You should not see this piece of paper as an end to learning though. Just tuck it away somewhere, don’t think of yourself as having graduated because you should never graduate. Learning is a lifelong pursuit.”
And at the time all of my schooled friends were having these big graduation parties and getting their photos done and I kind of felt a little jealous of that. But now, as an adult looking back, I feel like that is probably the most valuable piece of advice I was ever given.
PAM: That’s so cool, I really love that. So much awesomeness packed in there! I bet she created that paper for you because she saw you seeing that going on all around you, right?
PAM: And you were wondering about that, so she was giving you that, but she wanted to impart that understanding that that paper wasn’t life, right? It really wasn’t.
AMANDA: Yeah. Right.
PAM: Because so many kids and families around, graduating from high school, the impression is, ‘I’m done learning. Now I’m ready to live in the adult world.’
As soon as we think we know something, then we stop investigating. Then we stop asking questions and stop learning further. And that’s what she specifically didn’t want to happen. I spent a lot of my teenage years travelling, which I’m very thankful for and I was only able to do because of our unschooling lifestyle. And that is something that was—now, looking back—I am very impressed with my parents’ trust in me. And I think they only had so much trust because we had developed a relationship over our years of unschooling.
But I would go off to foreign countries as a teenager often having worked and bought my plane ticket and telling them, “Yeah, this is where I’m going.” And I’m very thankful that they gave me the opportunity to have the freedom to do that.
PAM: That’s really fun to hear, especially because right now we’re having this conversation and my youngest is in Norway.
AMANDA: Oh wow, okay! Very exciting! Alright, so you know.
PAM: He saved up his money for that and he’s been over in Europe for three weeks now and there’s one more week left.
AMANDA: Awesome. It’s a very valuable experience, I’m sure.
PAM: Oh yes, exactly. It’s amazing. It is such a big thing for him and for us too, right?
Like you said with your mom, you find that level of trust and having developed that relationship where you understand your child, you know that they can think for themselves, you know that they’ve been making choices, and you know stuff happens too.
AMANDA: Yeah, absolutely.
I remember calling my mom when—I’d already moved out so I must’ve been 20, 21 maybe—and telling her, “I bought a plane ticket for New York City. I’m heading there for a few weeks.” And I showed up in New York, I think my bus arrived in the middle of the night and I was walking down the streets of New York to my hostel with a suitcase, twenty-year-old girl you know?! I’m sure that must have put a knot in my mother’s stomach at some point, but she never let me know that she didn’t have faith in me or that I could not accomplish what I had set out to accomplish though. Because she trusted that I could, I never had a doubt either. So, the travel was really great—for expanding your perspective.
PAM: It was funny that Michael said when he was booking. He came and said, “I’m planning on booking my flights.” So we had like a half hour conversation: “Have you thought of this? What about this? How about this?” And I’m like, “I can’t think of anything you’re missing. Go for it!” He said, “I could see the mix of fear and excitement on your face.”
Because it was like at first I was like “Holy crap! He’s going away for a month on the other side of the world, in ten days!” He was doing last minute flights and stuff. But I am so excited for him as well because I knew this was something that he would just love. This was totally his jam, and it was going to be amazing for him too. So, I needed that like, twelve-hour transition to process through it.
PAM: My daughter did the New York City thing too, when she turned eighteen.
AMANDA: Oh, awesome.
PAM: She actually ended up moving there!
AMANDA: Okay. Wow.
PAM: So, that first time I drove down with her, she was going to go for a couple of months.
PAM: So, I drove down with her, we found a spot for her. We had worked out friends had a sublet, etcetera. Got her settled in the neighbourhood. I stayed with her for a couple of days and then I scooted and she ended up staying for the six months that she could stay.
PAM: It’s a beautiful thing. And my other son is not interested. He loves being home. It’s amazing how these things evolve out of who each child is as a person, right?
AMANDA: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
My brother and I took very different paths as teenagers. But having the freedom to take those individual paths and also I feel it becomes really important in the adolescent years to start to interact with the world! And it’s funny, I feel like people always say about unschoolers, “Oh, how will you get this socialisation?” And it’s like, “Well, how do you? When you’re stuck in a classroom?! How do you see the world?” It seems so out of context, whereas I feel like it’s really valuable for the adolescent years to be able to get out there and interact with the world, and it better prepares you to be an adult. I felt very prepared to be an adult by the time I moved out and didn’t have any trouble with those things, with the ‘adulting’ things because I’d had responsibility for them already for years.
PAM: I love that. That’s such a great point. And I think we might’ve answered this, but the next question was …
What stands out for you as you look back on your own unschooling years?
AMANDA: Yeah. I think the biggest thing is just really deep appreciation that my innate desire to learn and know things was not damaged. And I never really realised that or even thought about it growing up, but now as an adult when I compare myself to other adults who were schooled, one of the marked differences that I see is that—a friend and I were just joking about this the other day.
She homeschools her children as well. But she was telling me about a paper she wrote in college and how she doesn’t remember writing it at all. Doesn’t have any memory of her writing it! And just how different those approaches to learning are. Whereas I feel like for myself, because I always learned things because I was interested in learning them, that’s never changed. It’s just been a seamless flow throughout my life with always wanting to know things and feeling confident that I could teach myself them, and voraciously wanting to know everything!
Your interest stays intact, your curiosity. You know, what small child is not curious? I mean, kids are curious about everything. Young children ask why about absolutely everything but a lot of ten-year-olds, twelve-year-olds don’t. Because that’s sort of gone out of them by them being told what they were supposed to know or what they were supposed to learn or not being able to pursue the things that they were interested in. And I’m very thankful—more and more thankful in my adult life—that that was not damaged. That I have so many varied interests, and I’m generally reading seven books at once and have always been that way.
And also, that I have always retained the ability to form my own opinions. I feel like, that’s sort of an unfortunate by product of school—at least our current Western model of school. Because you’ve spent all of this time having information fed to you, and you’re not encouraged to ever question it or look deeper. I feel like one sort of develops this major acceptance of authority, for what authority tells you.
Yes, we have to stand on the backs of those who came before us and it’s good to know what other humans have learned too. But I feel like what society is also in desperate need of, is creative, flexible thinkers who are able to approach problems in entirely new ways. Especially in today’s technological society where we have all of this information sort of at our fingertips that one has to constantly react to and sort through in order to create a new cohesive worldview. That it ends up steering you away from critical thinking and analysis, you know? That’s the unfortunate backlash that comes from feeding children information versus teaching them critical thinking and how to sort through the information.
Honestly, I think it has a lot to do with our culture’s current rash of conspiracy theories everywhere, and the public’s inability to investigate information sources. And so, I find it very valuable that my critical thinking was always encouraged and stayed intact.
PAM: Oh my goodness. There was so much in there, Amanda, I loved that. And I think that those two pieces that you pointed out—about the system—you know the lack of being able to think for themselves, just being fed information, and the lack of being able to follow your curiosity. Being told what information you’re going to be given.
And, schools haven’t been around that long, and we’re so enmeshed with that system that I think we—as a society—we’ve kind of come to see and to believe that that’s the natural state of school-aged kids, right? That they’re not curious, that they never want to do things. And, “They can’t think for themselves, we’ve got to tell them what to do.” So, we think that that’s their nature, when it’s really the result of the system they have to function within. Right?
AMANDA: Absolutely, absolutely.
It distorts peoples’ idea of children, or of the natural state of children. Like people saying, “Oh, well if you don’t put rules around how much iPad they can watch then they’re just going to sit and watch iPad all day!” Well, I’ve certainly never met a six-year-old who would sit on a couch all day if there’s a pond full of frogs outside or a tree to climb, or an adult who’s interested in engaging with them, or various other things. You know, it’s just not really human nature. But, it might be, if they were a schooled child. But not usually.
PAM: Yeah, because so often once they are so involved in that system their choices—even like evenings and weekends—are really not their own because they’re still in reaction to that system that they have been in all week.
AMANDA: Absolutely, yeah.
PAM: They’re still making good choices to take care of themselves. As in, they need that decompressing time. But again, it’s all in reaction to that system. It’s not the innate nature of a child. You know what I mean?
AMANDA: Absolutely, yeah.
PAM: That’s the thing I love about going to unschooling conferences and just hanging out with my kids’ friends. Like, we did not have all those families around that you had growing up yourself, and I guess your children must have too. So, we would travel to hang out but to see them throughout all the ages, you know right into the teen years, still being curious, still being open, always thinking critically.
To just listen to their conversations and see where they’re jumping, this and that—you can see the way they’re thinking through things and it’s just always so fascinating. It’s fun to hang out with them, isn’t it?
AMANDA: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
It definitely puts a different spin on the whole teenage years too, which is always talked about. Our society has such a funny approach to the teenage years, that it’s like this impending doom, you know?! That they automatically just disconnect and not care what you have to say, and that’s not necessarily the norm if you’ve kept the relationship intact and if their curiosity has stayed intact.
PAM: And you’ve spent those years seeing how—I’m trying to think of another word—but how ‘intelligent’ they are. As in, how capable they are—there’s the right word!
AMANDA: Yeah, when you treat them like people!
PAM: You know, as little kids we’re trying to get them to be so independent so early—society is in general. And yet as teens, then we want to stop them?
AMANDA: Yeah—“Do what I tell you!” “Not so independent!”
As an unschooler turned unschooling parent, now let’s kind of cross that threshold. I’d like to hear about the process of choosing unschooling and how that unfolded for you and your family.
AMANDA: Sure, yeah.
So, when my husband and I had children we hadn’t decided pre-having children whether we were going to homeschool or put our children in school. I had been a nanny for a great number of years up until then. And most of those children—actually, no, all of those children—had been public schooled and so I had had some experience with that, both positive and negative. And I was open to the idea.
And my husband actually had a very different experience than mine growing up. He was raised in Stockholm. His mother is from Sweden and he was raised there. And so, he grew up going to European schools which are very—the Scandinavian system is just night and day different than the American system. And so, he didn’t have so much of a negative experience with school. He had quite a positive one until he came here to the US for high school. And I think it was kind of only that small negative experience of seeing the difference between the Scandinavian system and the American system that even made him open to the idea of homeschooling at all.
So, when our daughter—because I’m obsessively organised—when our oldest was two, I think, or three, I was really torn about this choice of what we were going to do about education. And I didn’t really know what it was like to be in school, having never been myself. My one tiny little experience with school was that I took a couple of classes at the public high school when I was a teenager and was really confused by those teenagers’ way of handling their education because I pretty much blasted through the book they gave us and learned everything in about a week and then was confused about why the other kids didn’t, and were messing around and, “Aren’t we here to learn?!” But that was pretty much the only experience I had ever had with being in a classroom, unless you can count kindergarten.
So, I had this sort of mishmash of ideas around what school even was basically given to me by Sesame Street and all of the cultural messages that you get about school and how wonderful it is and the big yellow bus, and smiling children, and crayons. And so I kind of always had this idea that maybe it was this amazing centre of learning that I had been excluded from. And I wanted to make sure that I didn’t exclude my child from that.
And so, even though I had a very positive opinion of my own homeschooling and felt like it was a good thing, I still had to see for myself what this whole school thing was actually like. And it took a day—one day—of volunteering. I went to volunteer, I went to our local public school where she could have gone and asked if I could volunteer in some classrooms. And I spent a day in the kindergarten, in the classroom she would have been in, and I popped in to some of the other classrooms and all of my ideas about what school was kind of came tumbling down.
And I thought, ‘This is ridiculous! Have these people ever read a book on child development?’ It kind of astonished me. One of the main moments being when I volunteered in the kindergarten room, it was Earth Day that day. And, it was a beautiful sunny day outside, and not only did they have all the blinds shut and these kids are sitting on the rug and the teacher read them a book about the ocean. And the teacher seemed utterly bored, and the children seemed utterly bored, and they’re reading a book about the ocean for Earth Day versus being outside and doing something in nature! And my unschooled brain just went ‘This does not make any sense! Why would you read a book about the ocean? Go to the ocean!’ To know what the ocean is, you need to taste the salt, feel the waves, and see it. A child will never learn about the ocean from a book, you know? And it just seemed so out of context to me.
And then you know, a few other things—I didn’t like the way they were handled, like the whole public shaming thing of giving kids stars. We never had arbitrary rules in my house growing up and I’d never had any experience whatsoever of seemingly arbitrary rules. And so, I was a little bit astonished by them. When I saw the teachers handing out stars for things like raising your hand, or sitting in your chair for the entire time you were supposed to, for this seemingly arbitrary thing versus, “Did you enjoy something? Did you help a friend? Were you kind? Did you learn anything?” And so that pretty much sealed the deal for us. I came home and said, “No way. No way in hell!” And that was the end of our discussion about school versus unschooling. Yeah.
PAM: That’s awesome.
What a great way to approach it too. It’s like, “Hey, I’m curious.” That’s the thing too, sometimes there’s an expectation that just because someone grew up unschooled or that that was their experience, that obviously that will be what they do with their own kids.
Like you said, it’s the critical thinking and the analysis skills and understanding ourselves; understanding our environment. Of course, we would want our grown kids to make a choice—it’s not an expectation, it’s a choice. Everything in their life up to this point has been a choice. Their choice isn’t a judgement of our choice.
Like you said, your mom made a great choice and you enjoyed growing up the way you did. And it was still a choice for you to make with your own kids.
I love that you were like, “Hey I want to gain some experience in that environment, see what it’s really like” and you walked in to volunteer. What a great way to gather a bit more information for your choice, right?
AMANDA: Yeah. To see for myself.
And I have friends that I grew up with who were unschooled and have chosen to send their kids to school. Not for any negative reasons about their own experience, just that was what suited their families best. And I’ve been fascinated to see that a lot of them have still managed to retain a lot of the more radical parenting principles or the way of relating to their children, or just the approach to how they handle their children—even though they have chosen school. And I feel like, it doesn’t have to be even such a black and white demarcation of school versus unschool; that those principles can work in any situation, with any parents.
PAM: I’m jumping up and down here! Just because your children go to school, it doesn’t mean you have to bring that whole school ethos home, right?
AMANDA: Yeah, absolutely.
PAM: You do not have to value grades like school tries to say that grades have value—right?
AMANDA: Absolutely. You don’t have to manipulate like they do.
PAM: You don’t have to be upset about test scores. You know your child, you’re with your child. You can still value them and not their performance, right?
PAM: I love that. That’s such a great point.
AMANDA: I really enjoy what Lucy AitkenRead has established—the Parent Allies group for widening that conversation and making it not about whether you school or unschool but just being an ally to your child and that those—specifically the radical unschooling principles which we think of being this radical idea—that they can actually work just as well for your relationship with your child and for supporting them, even if they are in school. Or whatever the situation might be.
PAM: Yeah, exactly. Because when you get to the root of it—that’s what we talk about so much especially about unschooling, is at first—for me because my kids were in school at first—you think you’re choosing what you’re going to replace school with, right? You’re bringing them home and you’re worried about the learning, you’re focussed on, “What am I replacing that curriculum with?” You know, even if it’s not a curriculum per se. But very soon as you go through deschooling you realise, “Oh, this is really about living.” Like, we learn all the time while we’re living. If we focus on just living together as a family, as people, then the learning naturally happens.
And so, yeah school is completely out of the picture. Once you realise that, really, it’s the root of the relationship, those relationships can be there if your child chooses to go to school for a while. Knowing that they can come home or knowing that you’re there to support them, not the school, when they’re upset about something etc. If your child goes to college, you know whatever it is you’ve gotten to the point where it’s just fundamentally about you and them, about the relationship.
I have a step son also—my fourth child that was a bonus by marriage—he is sixteen now and I think that watching his growing up—I’ve been observing his growing up since he was two. And watching how my husband has handled his relationship with his son—my husband very naturally comes at parenting from what you would call a radical unschooling perspective.
I think that’s a lot because honestly, of the Scandinavian system even though that sounds funny to say because he got radical unschooling from going to school! It’s also how he was parented; his mother very much approaches things that way. That’s his personality. But it’s been a joy to watch how he’s managed to implement those principles and handle his relationship with his son in that way, even while his son has been in school growing up while he’s only been able to be a part-time parent.
Also, that those principles have still worked, even in that situation, which just goes to show that is really is all about the relationship and the respect and the support that you give your kids—not about school or not school.
PAM: Yeah. All about relationships, not about bringing that whole power thing in, right?
AMANDA: Yes. Not about bringing control, and manipulation.
PAM: Exactly. That’s awesome. So, quick question!
What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of moving to unschooling and how did you work through that?
AMANDA: So, this I feel like this is the most challenging question for me to come up with an answer to—not because I don’t know what my answer is but because I feel like it’s sort of a chunky answer! And I want to be clear about it.
First of all, I would say, as far as my move to unschooling with my children in my own family, I can’t really—I mean, I sat and thought about it—and I can’t come up with any challenge; I don’t think there’s been any challenge. Because unschooling has always been the state of my life and because those principles are very much part of my foundational knowledge and my emotional makeup. And if I’m not sure, I can always call my mom. Unschooling should come with a warning label that your children will still call you seven times a day!
So, I can’t say that as far as our own unschooling there’s really been any challenges. It’s really been something I’ve come at very naturally and not really something that I think about or really have any challenges with. If anything, perhaps growing up unschooling and starting out unschooling with my own kids I’d never heard of a process called deschooling. But now, writing about it and reading other people—you know I’ve read so much and heard so many other parents I know talk about this whole process of deschooling that they’ve had to go through which is you know, almost this whole process of un-brainwashing yourself from the system and kind of rewiring your neurons. And whenever I hear a parent talk about that I’m always silently thanking my mother for not doing that to me because I’ve never had to go through that process at all. I haven’t had to go through any deschooling. Unschooling was sort of my starting out point, and I’m appreciative of that.
What the challenging aspect has been for me has been more around my own identity with it and identifying with that. Being willing to call myself an unschooler or put my children in that camp or want to write about it. Because, as happens as is human nature, we want black and white answers about everything and especially when we’ve come from this very black and white system. Most parents—certainly every parent that I’ve ever met—came at homeschooling or unschooling have been public school themselves and finding that a negative experience and so wanting to do something totally different and then there’s the possibility of coming at it from this reactionary place. And I feel like there’s always a potential negative with coming at anything from this reactionary place because it can send you too far in the other direction. It can swing the pendulum too far in the other direction if you’re not coming from a really solid understanding of what you’re doing.
And it’s been especially disheartening to watch some of the conversation around radical unschooling especially, take that turn. I feel like there’s so much misunderstanding about what it actually is. I feel like a lot of parents I’ve observed, when they’re coming from this reactionary place, it develops this resistance to creating boundaries, a resistance to being a leader for their own children, a resistance to ever saying ‘no’ about anything.
In my own head I call this freedom fascism—which are two silly words to put together! Idolising freedom to the point where the parent is afraid to interfere with their child at all. Or idolising peace to the point where the parent is afraid to create boundaries or having any expectations of the child because then the child might resist, and that resistance might damage the relationship. And so many of the common unschooling or radical unschooling debates would fall along these lines. You know, the screen time debate or the food debate or the ‘making your kids do chores’ debate.
So, I have hesitated to want to even identify with unschooling as a dogma. I feel like there’s this sort of wave of dogma developing around the idea of it. And whenever we move away from one dogma, it’s so easy to just pick up another, you know? Because we want those black and white answers! But I feel like dogma always stands in the way of direct perception and the most important thing about unschooling is that direct perception of your child and of what their needs are, and what they are telling you. So that very much requires no dogma.
PAM: That critical thinking, right?!
AMANDA: Yeah, that critical thinking! Unschooling’s not about, “Don’t ever pick up a workbook!” or “Oh, you have a phonics book in your house! You’re not an unschooler!” or “You said your kid can’t eat Skittles all day. You are not an unschooler!” It’s this whole sort of dogma that I feel does not serve the conversation and certainly does not serve the children in the conversation. And so, I’ve had this sort of emotional resistance to wanting to even call myself that, or wanting to even write about it because of this irritation with this sort of dogma that has developed around that.
I feel like I’m more interested in being a part of a wider conversation around children’s rights in general, around respecting children in general. And then also around understanding what a child needs—evolutionarily and to reach their full potential. And that really is just a matter of science and knowing what a human being needs. And we said before, it’s not really a matter of school versus not school because—What is school? It’s just a place for children to be able to go because we’ve created this society where parents need to go to work in a manner where their kids can’t come.
It’s just a building really, with people in it, and you can make that into whatever you want. I mean, school could be a place where—and in some places they are trying out new theories. Sweden would be an example. Schools, charter schools in Stockholm pretty much function on unschooling principles. There are no age separations, it’s complete freedom as far as the child following their own time scale with learning. Not having a curriculum per se but following interests, things like that. So, you can take those same principles and apply them to any situation I think which people try to say—I mean, how many times has Sandra Dodd said “it’s about principles versus rules.” But, as she also says, people get hung up on words! And we’re still I feel like—those of us who are writing about unschooling and speaking about it—are still trying to come up with the right words to stop this whole dogma from developing around what we’re talking about.
PAM: I love it.
I just want to jump into the word piece there. Because it makes me laugh. I can’t quote it, but there’s a chapter in The Unschooling Journey, my book, where I talk about that. And, you know, it’s been that way—choosing words and how you describe philosophies—for thousands of years. That challenge has been there because words mean different things to different people, depending on the perspective, the lens through which they’re reading them. You just hit the root right there! As we describe what we do—you know, ‘say yes more,’ it’s rare for us to say ‘no’—people are, like you said, they’re coming from the experience of having grown up in that system and they’re like—
AMANDA: “You never say no!”
PAM: (Simultaneously) “Oh, you always say yes!”
PAM: Instead of that critical thinking piece, right?
PAM: It’s not a rule. It’s the moment. What’s going on in this moment. Who are the people involved? What is the actual situation? What is the time of day? There are so many different things…
AMANDA: So many variables.
PAM: … that can effect that choice in that moment.
PAM: That’s where the learning is too! Figuring out all those pieces; that’s where the critical thinking is. Not, “Oh, unschoolers always do this or never do this.”
PAM: And that’s where the dogma comes in. Where they think, “Okay I need rules. I’m not following school’s rules now, I’m going to follow unschooling rules!” It doesn’t work that way.
AMANDA: It doesn’t work that way, absolutely. When my husband and I first got together—Swedish is his first language—and even though we both spoke English and he was fluent in English, I still felt like oftentimes we would talk together and we were saying the same words but we were not meaning the same things. And finally, I decided to teach myself Swedish, to better understand him. So, I did. And it so opened up our ability to communicate. Because I finally understood what he was meaning by the words he was saying.
And I feel like it’s similar to that. When an unschooler and someone who’s grown up in a public school are talking, you might be using the same words but you’re not at all meaning the same things. There are so many writers—mostly, I don’t know how old you are.
PAM: I’m 52, you gave me your age, I’ll give you my age, no problem!
AMANDA: Okay! Writers of my mother’s generation are doing such wonderful work—you included—of trying to move the conversation forward and using such beautiful words to explain these principles. But there has still been this sort of dogma that has developed around it. And so, trying to wrap my head around how to move through that, like Carol Black talks about. When you had her on.
I love Carol Black, I just love her essays so much and I love her movie she made—her documentary. But she talks about unschooling being more like a step in the right direction of dismantling patriarchy and the oppressive systems that have been with us so far in our evolution as a species. But the moment that we start thinking of it as an end in and of itself, or turning the method into this dogma, then we’re stopping there. We’re stopping progress. That’s how I see it anyways. You know, the moment we say, “Okay I’ve got this new dogma,” then we’re not unschooling. Because we’re not investigating any further. We’re not talking any further. We’re closing down that investigation.
PAM: This is like The Unschooling Journey book. I’m sorry, is it rude to plug your own book? I’ll put a link. But that’s the whole point. It is a journey, and it’s an ongoing thing. So many people get to understanding the day-to-day of unschooling, and then they stop there.
AMANDA: Yeah, absolutely.
PAM: But if you keep trying to learn about it, you keep trying to understand it, you get further. And then you get to that point where you see how it is a part of life and how it just continues on. I mean for you, it’s become your lifestyle as well. You’re not stopping learning, right? It is an approach to living, it’s an approach to life. And it’s an openness to understanding there’s always more to learn.
PAM: And always more to learn about other people. You understand other peoples’ journeys so much more empathetically because you see that they are just where they happen to be right now on their own journey, right?
PAM: And we’re all kind of one. We’re all people here.
AMANDA: It’s kind of like the process of having more than one child, as you can have one child and you can say by the time that child is five “Okay, I’ve got this down. I know this parenting thing.” And then you have another child and you realise you don’t know anything because you don’t know that child. You might have known your first one. Now you have to learn everything again. Because it’s a different person. We have four. And every one we’ve had to learn everything differently and all over again because what works for one doesn’t work for another about pretty much anything!
PAM: And that view expands! You now realise that, “Okay, that’s how my family operates. We are all truly unique individuals. Completely.”
AMANDA: Absolutely, yeah.
PAM: Every other person I look at outside in the world is in that same state.
PAM: They are all individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses. They all have their own viewpoint, that lens through which they see things because of their own experiences growing up. Their openness to learning, their curiosity, their creativity, those are all bits and pieces of them that are just in this moment, right? That’s who they are in the moment.
PAM: That understanding that we are all learning and growing. So, that’s very cool. That’s one thing that I love about the podcast. You’ve mentioned Lucy, you’ve mentioned Carol. They all, you know, understand unschooling and it’s so fun to see what aspect has connected with them.
AMANDA: Yeah, they all have a unique voice.
PAM: Exactly. Something I love that they’ve all found the piece that just connects for them that they love talking about, right? All these different aspects.
AMANDA: Right, and we need all those voices. Somebody might so much more identify with Lucy’s writing than with mine, and that’s great. Because then they have something that they can gain understanding from. Or somebody might really like Sandra’s unique approach of explaining something versus mine or Carol’s or someone else’s. So, all those unique voices and ways of explaining something are so important I feel like.
PAM: Which is why we need our critical thinking skills!
PAM: Because we find what connects with us because of our knowledge about our self, our self-awareness is growing. Different things connect with us in different ways and being open to finding rather than latching on to that one dogma—“Oh I have to get everything from just this one source!” No. We’re all individuals. I may grab something; the way you say some things may really connect with me and help me understand one aspect, and I might get another aspect from someone else.
PAM: It’s beautiful. I love the way that’s developed.
AMANDA: Totally. So, that’s been my biggest challenge. Mainly in deciding whether I want to be a part of the conversation or whether I want to write about unschooling, because I don’t want to be seen as holding it up as a dogma or an end in and of itself, you know. Because not everyone can unschool or not everyone chooses to.
For instance, unschooling requires at least one of the parents to be around. You don’t have school as a babysitter. I know in our family, that has required enormous life changes to make that possible. Pre-having children we had owned a farm for about thirteen years with a nice big mortgage to go with our nice big property. And my husband was an engineer by trade and was off working a lot of the time. And it was just not a lifestyle where we could keep one of us at home to be doing this, or it would be one of us home to the complete exclusion of the other parent, you know? So, we ended up leaving that home and paying cash for a piece of property and putting a yurt up. And now we live completely off grid in a yurt in order to enable the lifestyle where one or the other of us can always be home. And not everyone is willing or able to do that.
I run an unschooling co-op as well, called the Village School. A friend and I started that up. And I’ve had people contact us going “We kind of homeschool, we don’t really unschool.” Or, “we’re doing an online program through the school district, so we don’t fit in to your category.” And feeling like that’s a negative, or that they’re going to be judged for their choices, or that they can’t apply these beautiful principles to their lives because they haven’t made the same choices. When really, that’s not the way that it works at all, you know. Respect and connection works in any situation, Right?
PAM: Yeah. Exactly. The same thing from when I used to run a conference as well. It’s useful in that they have an idea—they have a good idea of what you’re trying to create. Just as you wouldn’t want them to come in with expectations and be pooh-poohing what you guys are doing.
PAM: So it’s great to have that information. Because that’s what we’re all looking for—is connections. Right?
PAM: To have enough information so that you can see the potential for connection and then reaching out and seeing how it goes and I think that’s great.
AMANDA: Right, yeah.
PAM: I think this came from a piece that you wrote as well, about the idea of trust.
I was curious to hear how trust is playing out in your unschooling lives.
I definitely feel like the trust that my parents put in me has been a great, great benefit to my life, to my relationships with each of them, and to just my own development as a person. I feel like my parents did a very good job of trusting me to make my own choices, and trusting my ability to find and integrate information, and to think critically and form my own opinions. Even if they were very different from my parents’ opinions. I feel like that’s kind of the crux of it.
It’s good and easy to let your kids develop your own opinions, until they develop ones that are completely different than yours. And then that’s really where, you know, Then What? What does that do to the relationship? So, I feel like my parents did. And I can say that because I pretty much have developed opinions in many other areas of life that are not unschooling. I‘ve developed opinions that are very, very different than both of my parents. And that could have been an obstacle.
It very much could have been and I think very often is an obstacle in peoples’ relationships with their parents. But it has not been an obstacle whatsoever in my relationship with my parents and I think that is entirely due to trust. Due to their trust in me that they don’t feel threatened, that I’m not questioning their choices by making different ones—like we said earlier—but also that I’m not having a negative opinion of them just because I have come to completely different conclusions.
And I really, really appreciate that in my relationships with both of my parents—that we can talk about things that we completely disagree about but that they have no negative opinion of me that they still very much trust my own ability to make those choices. This was evidenced by many ways they approached things as I grew up, both trusting me to go off travelling and things like that, and not instilling fear in me, not instilling a bunch of What-Ifs. “Well, this could happen. Well, that could happen.”
And so, I always trusted that I was capable of pretty much anything that I set my mind to. Which enabled me a lot more mental freedom to just go for it. Instead of getting hung up in fear about things or questioning whether I could actually accomplish it. Trusting me to follow my own interests—I had, as most unschoolers do, I found my particular interest growing up. As I’m sure won’t surprise you, writing was my main one. And both of my parents put enormous trust, and pride and support, into helping me pursue my interest in many different ways.
One example would be that I have this vivid memory of being about my daughter’s age now—about eight—and I wrote this book. I was a much more terrible speller than she is. And I had wrote this book. We didn’t even have a computer or typewriter so it was just by hand, drawing the pictures for it, and I came to my mother and I said, “I want to publish this book.” And rather than tell me, “Oh honey, wait till you’re older, wait till you have better skills, wait till you can spell.” She didn’t do any of that. She helped me research which publishing house would be best, she helped me figure out how you find a publishing house, how you write a query letter, and we sent this book off. I don’t know that I ever heard back from them, probably got a rejection I don’t remember, but that wasn’t the point.
What I had learned from that experience was that she trusted my interests and what I wanted to do—that they were valid, that they were good, that I should continue. And all growing up they provided those sorts of experiences, both of them.
I was accepted into—are you familiar with the Institute of Children’s Literature at all?
AMANDA: It’s a college that is by correspondence. So, they have an aptitude test to get into their correspondence program. I took this aptitude test when I was I think 14. And they didn’t know that I was 14. So, I got this letter back—oh I guess they did know I was 14—because I got a letter back that said, “Well, you’re accepted, but you’re only 14. So maybe let’s wait a year or something.”
And I ended up eventually enrolling in that program and I did that for about four years and that was huge money and commitment on my parents’ part, but they had no problem. I remember my father sitting me down and saying, “Why do you want to do this? What are your goals? How are you going to use this? Okay, great! Let’s do it!” I had thought them out.
And so, I have strong appreciation for all of that in terms of my relationship with my parents, and my ability to trust myself, and my ability to trust my own logic and thinking, to not second-guess myself, to not get hung up in fear. And then that has enabled me to have so much more ease in my relationship with my children and being able to do the same thing—to trust their development, to trust that they have the ability to learn what they need to learn if I provide the right tools and environment, to trust their choices around things.
I have a ballet background and used to teach ballet so I put my daughter in ballet when she was like two and a half, three years old—hoping she would maybe have the same interest and, of course, she doesn’t. So, she spent about three years doing ballet and she was really, really good. I was a ballet instructor, so I knew that she had the ability to do it. But she came to me when she was seven and told me “Mom, this is not my thing, this is your thing. I don’t like it, I don’t want to be on stage. It’s not my thing.”
Rather than pushing her to do something that she was not wanting to do, that wasn’t her interest, we let that drop. And what was her interest, which she told us from about the time she was three, was violin. She wanted to learn violin. She’s been telling us she wanted to learn violin since she could talk and so we found her a place where she could do violin, and she’s obsessed with it! She lives and breathes violin. And that’s been so easy for me as a parent—to just trust those things; and to go with it; and to not second-guess; to not worry; to not have all this worry that they’re not going to find their way, that they’re not going to learn what they need to learn. Which just creates so much ease when dealing with your kids and your relationship with them.
PAM: Wow. That was spectacular Amanda. I love the thread that you pulled right through the whole thing, you know from your parents’ trust and how that helped you so much and how you could flip that and do that for your children as well. That was lovely to hear.
AMANDA: I feel like it bleeds over into every aspect of life, too. Not just academic things. For instance, my grandmother came from the generation where women were still put to sleep during childbirth. And my mother reclaimed that—she had natural childbirths so then she learned to trust herself, that she could birth without interference. And so, then because she had developed that trust in herself, she spoke so positively and beautifully about birth my whole growing up that I just didn’t even have that hang up when it was time to have my own kids. I already trusted myself, that it would be no problem. And into even when you wean your children—trusting that they will wean when they need to. Or get out of your bed when they need to or learn to pick up after themselves at some point! You know, everything!
PAM: Yeah, that’s amazing. I really enjoyed hearing that whole—‘process?’ ‘Process’ probably isn’t the right word… the history! The history. And again, that trust. I feel like trust is so wound up, back to the fact that we’re all individuals—we can’t know for someone else.
AMANDA: Yes, very much. Right. Very true.
PAM: Alright, our last question!
What is your favourite thing about your unschooling lifestyle right now?
AMANDA: Well currently, right now, I am just having so much joy in watching my children’s curiosity and aliveness in relation to their learning—which is the same thing that I experienced.
And I’m noticing it in them very particularly, as I spent all of these years nannying for schooled children and I see this very, very huge difference. Especially when a child hits maybe second or third grade. There’s a very big difference, but of course nothing’s black and white so we can’t say this for every situation but, in general terms, there starts to be this difference.
And I see in my children just this burning curiosity to know everything, this joy in relating to their learning. My daughter is this obsessive reader—keeping her in books is like a part-time job! She blasted through the entire Harry Potter series twice last year. And, not that I would see it as problem if she didn’t read at all but to see her develop that passion and to see her read because she’s interested in it and because it’s fun and not because somebody made her or told her that it was important, you know?
And even just the process of learning to read was very much because she was given a book for her sixth birthday. Her Grandmother, her Farmor, in Sweden gave her a copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream. And something about the book sparked her curiosity and she spent about two weeks doing nothing but trying to puzzle out reading that book. And she went from like three-letter-words to Shakespeare in literally two weeks. Abridged Shakespeare! But just to see it develop out of joy, out of interest, out of curiosity.
My husband and I were just saying how over this summer where we haven’t done a single thing that could remotely be called ‘schoolish’, our six-year-old is suddenly writing us notes all the time. You know, he’s handing us notes all the time. And he’s trying to spell things. So, I get little notes all the time throughout the day and to see him doing that because he wants to write notes and he has something to say, and he’s writing it because he wants to and he has something to communicate not because somebody made him do it, you know? And I just take so much joy in seeing that joy and seeing them relate to things because they’re interested and seeing that curiosity stay intact.
PAM: That’s beautiful. And I love the word ‘aliveness’. You used that word when you were talking about that curiosity and aliveness. That’s it, right?! That’s such a difference that you see a lot in unschooled kids because they haven’t been told “No,” or “Don’t be doing that,” or having judgment on the things that they’re interested in, because any interest can take them—whether it’s Shakespeare or Harry Potter—can take them to reading or something else entirely. Maybe it’s video games, it doesn’t matter! When it’s a personal interest, something that they’re really curious about and interested in, it’ll take them to all those places. There’ll be things to read about it.
AMANDA: Yes, absolutely.
PAM: There’ll be things to write about it. These are not skills in and of themselves, they’re skills to accomplish things.
AMANDA: Absolutely, they’re tools that help you relate to the world. And the thing is, that if you’re not out there in the world you can’t relate to it.
PAM: So, then you have school, as the tool. The tool has to be, you know, the end result when you can’t have something fun to use it for.
AMANDA: Yes. Which makes it kind of silly, shutting kids up in a classroom and trying to give them these tools out of context and out of relationship with interacting with the world.
PAM: Yeah. That’s amazing. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me Amanda. It was so much fun!
AMANDA: Of course! It’s been so much fun, Pam. Thank you so much for having me.
PAM: Before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
AMANDA: Yeah. So currently I have a blog at raisingunschoolers.com, I’m on Instagram and Facebook under the same Raising Unschoolers. I also have a Facebook group which I have just started which kind of started as a local thing but anyone can join it. I got tired of fielding questions so I made a place: “Come here and ask me your questions!” So that’s Raising Unschoolers on Facebook forum where you can ask questions.
And then you’ll see my articles from time to time in The Natural Parent or on Medium magazines. And you can watch for my book Raising Unschoolers—same title—and that will be done as soon as I can finish it! Being an unschooler and a parent I don’t even go by my own deadlines so …
PAM: There’ll be links to all those things in the show notes for people and thank you so much, Amanda. It was such a pleasure.
AMANDA: Awesome, thank you, Pam. It’s been lovely.