PAM: Welcome, I am Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I am here with Natasha Allan-Zaky. Hi, Natasha!
PAM: Hello, I connected with Natasha on-line a couple of years ago at least now, time goes quickly. I have really enjoyed reading her blog and seeing pictures of their unschooling lives in action. Right now she is actually doing a 365 days of gratitude project. I look forward to seeing her posts as they go through my feed. I really love that.
Thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Natasha! To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
NATASHA: Yes, first I want to say thank you so much for having me talk with you today. I am so honored.
We are a family of four, I am a stay-at-home mom and Tarik has a bar in Toronto that he travels to every week to work at. It is a show venue, so they have live bands and stuff there. So he goes back and forth a lot, yes it is a lot of fun. Then there is Lemon who is six and Ollie who is two. We also have many animals in our life that round out the family.
PAM: That is awesome. They really are a part of the family, are they not?
NATASHA: Oh, they are, they are, they bring a lot of joy.
We are very fortunate we moved here to eastern Ontario, east of Kingston. We moved here three years ago from Toronto. We were right in the middle of the city. We needed to get out. Now we are on three acres of beautiful open land. Now we are just surrounding ourselves with more and more animals. Tarik is like, “Okay, okay that is enough.”
PAM: That’s interesting because I think we had been in unschooling for like a year or two when we moved out of the suburbs of Toronto as well just looking for more space to be—and yes, the animals.
We had our first dog a week after we got here. We had spent about a year looking for property, so we had lots of time to plan and to know what we were going to do, and we dove right in when we got here.
NATASHA: Us too.
What did your families move to unschooling look like? How did you discover it and decide to go that route?
NATASHA: I think I first heard of uschooling when Lemon was about a year old and, at that time I didn’t know it, but I was practicing attachment parenting. I thought, ‘That is me,’ and that was really great reassurance because there was so much pushback against that connection. The support that I did have my in my life, well-intentioned, was: put her down; do not hold her as much; do not breastfeed her to sleep. Do not, do not, do not—a fear of something that will happen in the future.
When I learned about attachment parenting, it was a sigh of relief. It was like, ‘Okay this is all good. I am doing what is best.’ Then I learned about unschooling. I had intended to homeschool—that was my intention and I spoke to Tarik about that. It didn’t make sense to put her in daycare since it didn’t make sense to me to put her with other people and then I would go off and do something else, wanting to be with her.
We skipped that stuff. We tried the Waldorf thing, and it was once a week, and we got to go with her. It was sweet and everything, it was lovely, but there was already this indication of the structure of, ‘You have to do this; now you have to do that.”
We were talking about maybe going on with that and then I realized that this is just another form of the same thing. It is called something else, but it is the same structure—it is the same discipline it is making them do stuff when they are not ready to do it or changing things when they’re not ready to change. So when I learned about unschooling, it just made total sense.
And it made sense to me based on my experience after school. The way that I pursued my career after school and pursued my interests after school—it was basically unschooling. I was learning all this stuff because I was interested in learning. I needed to learn it to start my acting career or my dog walking company. I needed to learn all this stuff because I was interested in it. I knew it would be unschooling for them too so if that was just a no-brainer to continue on that path for them.
PAM: Yes. That’s something that I really love, that we can understand the value of unschooling from any of our experiences. I did well in school, I did well at university, I got that degree, but I could see how much of my learning was outside of the institution.
When I actually started working and how the stuff I really enjoyed doing and the jobs I actually wanted to take and applied for really had little to do with my actual degree. It was like, ‘Oh, but I want to do this,’ and I would be learning like crazy for that kind of job.
I love that whether you had a bad school experience or a good school experience, either way you can still realize how people actually learn. To see the value of that unschooling experience is so fun. To hear other people’s perspective on how they got to that point. The finding attachment parenting later and realizing there are people in the world who do this. The feedback is quite negative, ‘You’re being a weak parent, you’re spoiling them,’ and all that. I mean, you can just feel the looks.
NATASHA: Yes and it is all about what might happen later, and this distorted idea that if you give them too much now, the will not be independent later. Well she is six months old now, and she needs her mom now, so I am going to be mom fully now and then continue to do that.
When I know that she needs me a little bit less and she doesn’t need me to hold her all the time, then yes, she can go off and do her own thing for a few minutes or an hour or whatever it may be. But, to be told as parents that you cannot do that because she will never learn to sleep on her own, it’s like, ‘Well, you are not thinking this through.’
PAM: Right? It ended up being, ‘No, I’m really focused on the moment.’ That’s really what the decision is, ‘I’m not going to worry about those fears. This is what feels really right in this moment for both of us.’
Innately understanding that they are an individual. Which ties into your uncomfortableness that you felt with more structure going on. Even if the activities are more enjoyable, more child-focused, when you start putting that structure on, you’re losing the individuality of that child, are you not?
NATASHA: Yes and you can see that some kids responded a little bit better to it and then some kids did the complete opposite. But it was very interesting.
PAM: It’s how well it meshes.
NATASHA: Yes, yes.
Speaking of wonderful children, I love hearing about what unschooling kids are getting up to. I was hoping you might share a little bit about what your kids are interested in right now and how you’re helping them explore it.
NATASHA: Well, right now, Lemon is full-on into dance, music, piano, storytelling—big-time storytelling. She has got a huge assortment of Littlest Pet Shop. It has been her thing for about eight years now. She will create stories and what is really cool is she will watch YouTube videos of other kids doing stories. Then she will do her interpretation of that story. It is really neat and she will set up this huge display and backdrop—so yeah, storytelling.
Ollie is into trucks, tractors and planes and dinosaurs and all that fun stuff.
What I have noticed with helping them explore things is primarily for Lemon, she needs my help still to find things like YouTube videos of piano interpretation of songs she wants to find. I will sit with her for hours and we will go through the different videos and we it’s kind of like going into this rabbit hole. She wants to find this thing but then we end up going in a totally new direction and she discovers something new that she loves and then that gets incorporated into it as well.
There is lots of dancing that is happening in the house as a family. There is lots of watching Lord of the Dance and Riverdance, because that is where she is at right now. So we watch a lot and we reenact it a lot. Oliver is Michael Flatley—she watches it over and over and she just picked up all the choreography. We will put the song on and she will do the whole dance. Then Ollie, who is two and is usually naked, comes in and does the Michael Flatley part. It is so much fun it is pretty much just us as a family exploring the music and dance.
Tarik is a musician as well, so he plays with them and with Lemon. He will learn parts of a song and she will learn parts of the song and then they will sit and play it together. So it is just that kind of atmosphere.
PAM: That is beautiful. The piece that stood out for me to is when you mentioned following the rabbit holes. As you are diving into things, I think that is a really valuable piece. I think that it’s part of deschooling in that when our kids are interested in something to start, it can be so easy to get fixated on that. And to keep trying to pull their attention because they need to “pay attention” and they need to “follow through.” Follow-through is a big thing, right?
I think at first it can be really hard to just skip over here and skip over here and skip over here because, ‘What are we accomplishing if we are going all over the place?’ But it is amazing in there—all of the funky places and the connections that you could not have imagined when you guys pulled up that first video.
NATASHA: It is incredible. Just yesterday we were watching something off my feed of a woman in, I think, this was Sweden. She does this call to cows that are out in the fields and out in the mountains—I think it is called “kulning.” She sings to them and it is this old tradition of singing to the cattle to bring them home at the end of the day. Because they are up on the mountains and they sing this beautiful song and it’s haunting and the cows come home.
I showed it to Lemon and she was taken by this. Then we ended up finding this woman’s—the woman who was singing—her blog. Then Lemon ended up watching this blog of this woman, this beautiful young lady in Sweden who is an artist. She just got drawn into this woman’s world and who knows what comes of that too, right? Who knows, maybe she will start painting; well she is painting a lot lately but, you know what I mean, you never know.
PAM: That is how I found it is so valuable. Back when my kids were younger when we began unschooling there was not social media, but that was what we did in the unschooling email lists. Families—parents, moms—would share the funky thing they came across.
So, we would be sharing website or that kind of stuff and it was so valuable for me to also be looking out into the world and finding those little things that “child A” would find really interesting. Not trying to take them away from what they were doing and refocus them on something else, but having all these other possibilities that can just kind of connect into the moment. Or if there’s a lull you’ve got a few new things that you can bring in.
So, being connected to the world. Basically just picking up little things here and there. Some things will pass us right by because they are not interesting to us and we don’t think our kids would be interested in them. But finding all those little pieces is so fun. It is fun for us to do it and it is fun to have to share. That is very cool.
That leads us so nicely to the next question!
One of the deschooling challenges that many us face is the shift to embracing fun. Not just for the kids, for us too, because for so long we have absorbed that message that, ‘adults are serious and adult things need to be serious and fun is really just for kids.’ That is really an important shift, that shift to fun. I was hoping that you could share your experience around that.
NATASHA: Well, it’s funny. I found myself very serious in the last few years and I think it was in part by some very heavy emotional stuff that happened around the time Lemon was born. My mother passed away and my father a couple years later passed away and there was a lot of stuff that was happening around all of that. So that was heavy, and I became very serious.
I think at some point there was a shift where I realized, I need to find my humor again because I used to be really fun and funny and I used to have fun! So I think it was a conscious reminder, you know, there is something missing in the way that I am approaching things.
I remember helping Lemon, I think she was four, play with some Lego sets. She was into Lego Friends at the time and I was getting all these Lego Friends sets and we would sit down and build them. I would sit down with the instructions and okay let us do this. And she would whip out all the bags and I would start to get a panic attack.
PAM: I’ve had that same Lego panic!
NATASHA: “Just the first bag.” And she wanted to open them all. She wanted to dump them all out—then, ‘How would we find all the pieces from bag nine??’ Then I realized at some point through our building—you know, we would build something that she would want to play with it and it was not a complete set yet. And I was like, “But, we have to complete the set.” Then I realized she was just having fun. Just have fun, just play.
It was such a good click, where it was the seriousness of it all and having to do it the way it was set out is not as important as just having fun. I think that that was a big shift. And also, my thinking as the adult when I would speak to my kids—or even speaking with Tarik—if I was expressing myself, it was a humorous thing or maybe it was just a light thing, that I was taking myself very seriously. I wanted to be heard and I wanted to be respected and I would dig my heels in.
Then at some point I thought, ‘If I do not laugh at myself, if I do not laugh at this and just let it all go, it’s just going to be a life of being wanted to be taken seriously, wanting to be right, rather than being kind and being fun.’ And I think I want to go that direction now because I do not like the feeling I get when, ‘I am an adult, I am supposed to be the one in control,’ and all that stuff.
I think there has been little shifts in the road along the way. They have helped me get over to the side of more fun. I continue to work on that where it is. I have to look at the situation and say is this really that serious? Is this really that important now, in this moment? What is more important? Enjoying my kids, or whatever else is on the menu? I think the focus is always coming back to the moment. Looking at them and connecting with them and saying, ‘let’s have fun, dance, dance, sing,’ you know?
PAM: Yes, exactly.
NATASHA: I think that, at some point, I guess it is the schooling system that we grew up in. I guess it is the system that we are used to, but, that playfulness and being vulnerable. Being playful and being vulnerable and maybe making a mistake. That is, coming back. That is being like, ‘Okay, let’s just let it all hang out. Let’s just have fun.’
PAM: Yes, it’s amazing how being playful feels so vulnerable, is it not?
NATASHA: Yes. And I think it’s almost like a weakness—people see it as a weakness. You are not an adult if you are not serious and sitting over with the adults and talking about serious stuff.
I remember, I think it was something that Sandra Dodd had written about bringing more joy into your life. I think she was talking about politics. And at that time I was reading a lot of politics and I was reading a lot of the heavy subjects and it would come into my world with my kids.
The sadness or the fear or whatever was coming from all the stuff that I was reading about what was happening in the world, had filtered through my life with my kids. I remember consciously saying, ‘From now on, I’m just going to let all that stuff go to the side so that I can just be playful and joyful because, if I hold onto all that stuff that I really have no control over, right now, I will not be doing my kids any favors by holding all that in my heart. I need to have a free, open heart.’
I think we need more of that in general. And that was a conscious choice too.
PAM: Yes, that is part of what you mentioned earlier: the parent that you want be. And seeing what is getting in the way for ourselves of us being the kind of parent we want to be in the moment. It’s great recognizing all those little pieces and clearing them out—that gives you the better chance to make that choice in that moment.
NATASHA: Yes. And not holding to the old idea or the old story of how we were before having kids. That identity shifts with becoming a parent and how can I get closer the choices that can bring me closer to being the parent I want to be.
PAM: Yes, that was something I found too. I really learned how to do it again by watching my kids; seeing them in action, seeing them so joyful and having fun. Seeing all the learning that was wrapped up in there, that there wasn’t anything wrong with it. That having fun wasn’t childish, it was being human, right?
PAM: Yes, all the yeses. It’s so true.
NATASHA: And I get it, we have bills, we have mortgages, we have things to fix—we have all this heavy stuff—but it doesn’t mean that we need to lose out on a chance to be kids with our kids. We are being kids again. Finding joy in being kids again with our children playing. It is just a wonderful opportunity.
PAM: Yes, it is so true. It is not about ignoring those other things to have fun, you know what I mean? It is ‘AND’ these things. I can have fun in this moment because, like you said, worrying about this; in this moment I have no control over it. This is not a moment where I can do something to change that, and I can sit here and worry about it and lose this moment, or I can do this AND do this as well. Awesome.
I saw a video that you posted on your Facebook page about a month ago. It was about your daughter figuring out how to play a song she loves to play on the piano. You mentioned that earlier—figuring out songs she is interested in learning. I’d love to hear the story of how her piano journey has unfolded so far.
NATASHA: That was a rabbit hole too—that was a really cool one. She did express interest in learning piano—she has always tinkered because Tarik plays the piano so she would always sit next to him and tinker and play. This spring she said, “I want to learn,” and so we looked around.
We did look last year for a teacher. It was an odd experience because we went to meet this teacher and she clearly had her structure of how she taught. There were stickers and if you are a good girl etc and Lemon’s whole demeanor in this one meeting changed. It was the strangest thing I have ever seen. I could tell how uncomfortable she was and how much she wanted to please this person. I thought, ‘How is she going to learn in this environment if she is not herself?’ I do not know if she would have become more comfortable with this person but she did not want to go back. So, we didn’t tell her to go back.
This year we found somebody she was comfortable with. She did go for probably six or so classes. The teacher loved her and raved about her and said all these wonderful things about her. How she is so talented for somebody her age, she has got her posture, and saying all these wonderful things but Lemon again did not want to be there. You could tell that she was like, “Ugh, I got this, I have got it.” So again we said, “If you don’t want to go back that’s fine, we will just take a step back.”
We have all these books from her class on the piano and I was curious if she was going to go back to piano or is that it? Is it ruined? She didn’t actually touch the piano for a while—she was dancing more and more and doing gymnastics doing physical stuff. She has always been a dancer. And we love the show Spirit. Lemon and Ollie and I love watching it together. Then I found out that Spirit is in a horse game called Star Stable, so I found that for Lemon and she and I started playing it together. We were having a blast. And one of the parts of that game has a Celtic song that plays for that area and she loves the song.
One day, I thought maybe she is going to love Lord of the Dance because she is a dancer and she loves Celtic music. So I showed her Lord of the Dance. That was it! Since then we have watched it probably 200 times. Riverdance, making music for Riverdance, how did Riverdance come about, you know, all the stuff; documentaries of behind the scenes.
That was when she started to pull out songs for Lord of the Dance and wanting to learn them on piano. She had already been going back to it but she wanted to learn music for the game. So we contacted the game makers for music from them. She will sit there and watch YouTube videos of people who have done their own interpretations of Lord of the Dance music. She will want to see the piano versions, the guitar versions, whatever is on there she will watch it.
She just started picking up parts of the music and she will go to the piano in the middle of playing the LP’s or painting or whatever and she will play. Then she will figure out a piece and then she will leave it and come back the next day and play more or that night she will play more. She is bouncing back and forth but she is picking it up so quickly, almost effortlessly.
Tarik will sit with her and figure out a bit and she will figure out a bit. So, it’s not separate from anything—it’s all connected and it’s amazing! It is not separate like, “Oh, I have to go do piano practice now, or I have got to go do this now.” It’s playing the game—playing Minecraft—and jumping on the piano, and so it is all interwoven. It’s not slowing down, she is dedicated to it. She can sit there at the piano, and now she has TV above her and she will find a YouTube video and she will watch it and she studies it and she takes it all in. It is just incredible to watch.
PAM: Wow. Yes, I love that story. That is beautiful. I love the way it is so interconnected with everything. That is something we learn, right? All the different things are like silos of learning. We read stories. We play music. We write things. We are just so used to them being divided and separate and when we watch our kids in action we get to see how connected all these pieces really are. I think that is where our creativity lies too, in just seeing and making those connections intuitively between all the different aspects. They are all just one.
PAM: It sounds like a platitude or something, but when you see it in action you can just see them seamlessly running through from one thing to the next, to the next. And, in their minds, there is a connection that they are following between them. Sometimes it’s more obvious and sometimes it’s not, but once you have seen it a few times you trust—you know that it’s there. It will just be fun someday to see what the thread was, right?
And it is a lot of fun because, I think again, there is fear in not forcing. “You need to sit down. You need to do this lesson. You need to accomplish this before you going to that.”
Wow, when I am watching her she learned how to sit at the piano proper and her hands and she learned all that, but she plays standing up and every once in a while she will be kneeling on the piano bench. I still say to myself, “Is this okay? Is it okay that she’s just standing?” And I remind myself that it’s all good. It is all good. It is not a problem.
These fears creep in every once in awhile. I don’t know if that is ever going to go away, I think just trusting whatever is happening for her is happening so quickly for her because it is when she wants it.
I think, ‘If she were in school, how would she even be learning piano?’ She would not be able to just jump up and play whenever she wanted. Or play with her LPs or jump off of her computer and play it or jump on the swing and swing on the swing in the living room and then come back and play it. It’s just this flow through the day and it’s when she wants to explore it. It ‘s great.
PAM: Yes, it’s so amazing just to watch them in action, watch their focus, see where it organically flows from one thing to the next to the next—it works. You can watch it forever.
What has been your biggest “a-ha moment” so far on your unschooling journey?
I think the most recent has been to just get out of the way. Also to know that it’s all about me, and it’s not about me at all. And that is so hard because all the work all the deschooling is mine. It’s all mine and it’s all Tarik’s and for them it is just life. For me it’s chipping away and being patient with myself while I am chipping away.
Then just getting out of their way of learning. Not just what they are interested in, because I trust that part of unschooling so much because I experienced it for myself like I was saying earlier. I know it. I know that’s how learning happens. I get it, I am okay with that part.
It’s the parenting, the stuff that, the residue that is from generations past, that I need to get rid of so that I can get out of their way. Respecting that their journey is their journey. That their path is their path and just being a guidepost. Like a lantern holder, whatever. Instead of chopping down the trees for them and saying, “Okay this is safe for you to go now.”
PAM: Yes, I love that.
NATASHA: I have a tendency to be clearing out all the stuff. Where is it safe? Okay, it’s safer here. That’s not fair because that’s not life. That is not their life; it’s my wanting for their life. That is a tough one for me. It’s okay. You can be there to support, but not actually conducting.
PAM: You can be actually stepping beside them helping them chop down the trees or chopping down the trees that they would like to get rid of without being out in front of them.
NATASHA: Yes. Deciding which tree to chop down.
PAM: Not chopping down and clearing without them but walking together and doing it together. I love that image.
NATASHA: Maybe they would just like to climb the tree, not even chop it down at all, you know?
PAM: I love that. I know sometimes those walks take a long time because they want to look at the flowers and the little animals and climb the trees and, ‘Jeez, we only went three feet in twenty minutes.’
NATASHA: That is all part of the fun though.
PAM: Yes exactly.
That was something I really found in our first year. We would go to a nearby park and I would just let them be. As in, we wouldn’t have, “We’re here for an hour. You need to go to the playground and spend some time, and we need to …” Getting rid of my agenda for what happened and then just watching them in action was a huge and useful piece for me to be able to release my need to be a little bit out in front.
NATASHA: There is so much pressure to be that parent who structures and says, “Okay, now guys, we’re packing up to go to the next activity.” And that next activity is not where they’re at.
I remember we used to live next to the Humber Trail in Toronto. We used to walk down there all the time. There was a couple of times where Lemon—she was two or whatever—and she would just lay down on the trail where there are bikes and people walking and she would just lay down and look up at the clouds. I remember standing there watching her thinking, ‘This is perfect. This is where she wants to be. She is somewhere looking up at the clouds, bird, sun, whatever.’ I could easily go over and be like, “We’ve got to go. We’ve got something. We’ve got to go somewhere else.”
PAM: Or, “If you are not going to walk, let’s go.”
NATASHA: Yes. “We’re walking here.”
That was another click: it is okay if the only thing we do today is her coming out here looking up at the clouds. We are ok. The world is not going to end.
PAM: That is a big piece too: dropping our expectations around that. It is not about just ignoring all those thoughts, saying, ‘Okay, I’m supposed to let them do whatever they want.’
At first, you think, ‘This is what unschooling parents do,’ as you are trying to understand it. I think we can get stuck just trying to follow those kinds of “rules.” Just thinking, ‘Okay, I’m supposed to be okay with that.’ And, just trying to stuff down any uncomfortableness.
No, it’s about actually processing some of the feelings that we are having so that we can understand why that is valuable for them.
Saying yes and letting them do things is good, but the really important part is engaging with them through it. Understand why this is valuable for them, and why it is valuable to be in connection with them, and be engaging with them, and doing that “YES” with them rather than just standing back, hands off and kind waiting for it to be done.
NATASHA: Yes. I think that is a big learning. I think that is something that comes up a lot for those of us starting out. It’s a huge thing because we hear that all the time: “say yes more; say yes more.” You can easily go into that direction saying yes more without doing the work of why. Sometimes it is okay to say we can’t do that right now, for whatever reason, but why do we not figure out how to do that next time or whatever the case may be. Like this blanket statement “yes” without engaging is not any more helpful than saying just a blanket “no.”
PAM: Because there really is context for every choice.
NATASHA: Yes, yes, YES!
I was hoping that you could share the story behind your choice to name your blog “Follow the Joy” because you know I love that. I was hoping you can explain what that phrase means to you and why you chose to use it.
NATASHA: Well, I remember, and this goes back to the last six years of processing loss and processing grief and having all these really heavy shifts. I remember thinking about, ‘Okay, well what is the goal here? What is the goal of our family? What is the goal of unschooling? What is the point of it all?’
I remember thinking about, ‘Okay, peaceful home. I want a peaceful home.’ Yes, but happy is not always attainable; there are going to be not very peaceful moments. So, what can I look for? And joy is spoken a lot in the unschooling world. So this word just kept popping up and popping up and I thought, ‘Well, that is the key.’ I remember just thinking of this word over again and thinking, ‘Well, if that is my goal, how am I going to do that?’
So, it goes back to shedding all this stuff that does not bring me closer to that. I remember sitting on the floor with Lemon and Tarik and Ollie. Ollie was probably, well he was quite young at the time and he was just sitting up. We were building stuff with blocks and magnet tiles and whatever. He, as soon as Lemon would finish building something, he would just smash it down.
I said to Lemon, “Is this okay? We are building, we can always build it again.” And yes, no problem. Then the conversation came up that, if we let him smash this down, is he ever going to stop smashing stuff down? So, we talked about that. It’s okay to just let him enjoy smashing it down now. He is just experiencing something and it’s not a big deal and Lemon is okay with it.
So, I was having dinner with a friend and I was explaining this situation and then I explained the joy he was experiencing banging down these blocks and crashing. He had so much joy. My friend Lisa said he was following the joy. Follow The Joy. I was like, “That’s it!” Follow the joy, that’s the key, follow it. That’s where it all began and I thought that’s the name of the blog. It’s not always pretty, it’s not always going to be peaceful, it’s not always going to be perfect at all. We are going to make mistakes all the time. We are going to follow the joy. That is the star to follow.
PAM: I love that. Yes.
I have that image with the lantern that you were talking about. Just looking out for that. When you are making choices, when you are looking at the context; at everything around you. When you are fully considering which step, which direction, will bring more joy, wherever you are in that moment. To pick that next step. That is really cool.
PAM: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Natasha! It was so fun to finally get to chat in real life.
Before we go where is the best place for people to connect with you on-line?
NATASHA: Well my blog, Follow The Joy. I have not written in a while, but I will be posting soon on Facebook. I also have a Facebook page called Follow the Joy, and I’m Natasha Allan-Zaky on Facebook. That is probably the best.