PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from LivingJoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Vicky Bennison. Hi, Vicky!
VICKY: Hi Pam. It’s good to see you.
PAM: It is wonderful to see you face to face.
Just as little introduction for people, Vicky is an unschooling mom that I met many years ago now. And we have stayed connected online ever since. Her two kids are now young adults and I am thrilled that she agreed to share her family’s story with us. To get us started Vicky …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
VICKY: Well, there are four of us and we live here in Welland, Ontario.
As they’ve gotten older it’s more of a communal existence, so everybody pitches in where they can and where their strengths and talents are, and luckily, we know each other enough to know where we should back off and let someone else come in. D.J.’s 25 and Jessie will be 24 next week.
PAM: Wow. Okay, I’m going to jump right in there—the communal experience; I love that.
That is something that I’m loving at our place too. Right now Joseph and Michael are living at home; my dad lives with us. And it is just this give and take of people—looking after what they’re interested in, pursuing what they’re interested in—within the home and outside of the home.
And finding where they fit, where their strengths are, you know? And us all understanding each other, enough to know that we’re not going to have expectations. Everything flows doesn’t it?
VICKY: It does. It’s just amazing. And you would think that you would get tired of each other but with everybody’s schedules, some sleeping nights and some sleeping days—and the house was already divided that way because we went downstairs because the kids were up all night and we’d have to get up early in the morning. So, it just—it’s perfect.
PAM: I love that. It is perfect.
I was talking to the kids about it recently too, how I love that atmosphere and just being together. There’s no expectation. My little a-ha! moment that I shared with them was, as a parent of young children I found unschooling and it made a lot of sense and I loved the focus on relationships and it was great. And, why did I think it would be any different as a parent of adult children? My a-ha! moment was, “Of course I was going to do that unconventionally as well!”
This is awesome, this is what feels good for us, it works so well for us, and we love it.
VICKY: Yes, definitely.
And it’s just so practical in so many ways for them to have freedom to do what they love, instead of putting all their money into a place to live, three refrigerators, three cable bills. It’s everybody helping and making everybody stronger.
PAM: Yeah. You know, that was something that really struck me was—as part of this unconventional thing—why is it a sign of “independence” that you can create another household somewhere? And then you’re stuck there on your own—and like you said, you’ve got three fridges—they have to have all of the same things, they’re there, they’re by themselves.
It’s different if that’s part of their goal. Like Lissy, she moved to New York City.
PAM: Exactly. It’s what works well for everybody, right? As individuals.
VICKY: And I’m sure at different times … when D.J. was driving a truck and he had a girlfriend, it was like, all of a sudden, I didn’t see him. You know, there wasn’t a D.J. It was like “Where did he go?” I mean, that wasn’t for him—either the job or the girlfriend. When he came back home, it was just joyful again. It’s not like I wanted to stop him from doing that. But there was definitely a wonderful feeling to have him back in the house.
PAM: Yeah. Michael was off for a few months, living closer to the city for his work—so that he could get to it easily. It’s just a continuation of what makes sense for us in the moment. Because we always have choices, right? And, what’s the choice that we want to make? And it’s everybody helping and supporting each other to pursue their choices.
VICKY: And the kids—I will continue to call them “kids” because I don’t know what else to call them—when D.J. decided that that wasn’t what he was going to do/wanted to do, it was a process of “I can either buy a house with my money and spend the rest of my life working for that house or I can take a year off and use that money to live on, and contribute to the household.”
And so, he knew he had that choice. He wasn’t stuck in that “You have to do this, and you have to buy a house.” And also, he knows that whenever we leave this world, he’ll get whatever’s here anyway!
PAM: I mentioned that to the kids too! I’m like, “You might as well enjoy it now. Don’t wait till I’m dead!”
VICKY: And, that’s right, we can joke about that stuff, right? Because we know each other and we’ve joked so long and it’s a comfortable experience.
PAM: Yeah—it’s beautiful. Okay, that was a wonderful diversion!
VICKY: Like you didn’t know that was going to happen.
PAM: So, let’s jump back just a few years.
I’m curious to know what your family’s move to unschooling looked like.
VICKY: As far as the parenting aspects of unschooling, I have always had a thing about freedom and choices so we were already listening to the kids. And then it was—Dave was driving a truck, we were travelling with him to keep the family together and then people started saying “Oh, when they start school, you can’t do that anymore.” And so, they said “no” to Dave and Vicky and that’s never a good thing.
So, we started exploring different things and in our area—I didn’t have a computer at the time, we were out in the country and we didn’t even have cable, there wasn’t a lot of information to access—and the only people in the area were very conservative homeschoolers and that wasn’t what I wanted to do so I was up in the air about things.
And then, thank you TV, one afternoon—a Tuesday afternoon—Dave was at home and the deities I call the Unschooling Gods who look down on me from time to time, the year that D.J. was due to start kindergarten was the year that the provincial government cancelled JK in the public schools. So, it gave me a little leeway. People were like, “Oh you can put him in a separate school.” But I don’t want to switch him later, you know? The wheels were turning.
So, Dave was home and he took the kids outside to build a snowman because I was listening to this program on TV where there was a woman who was homeschooling. And as she spoke I realised—she was unschooly—I realised that she was talking about how her family just did things naturally and she mentioned John Holt and she mentioned the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents.
She also said that Ontario has a curriculum that you ordered there—it wasn’t online—if you were interested. Because people were like, “Well Vicky, what curriculum are you going to use?” “Do I need one? Like, they’re five and six!” Four and five at that time. So, I looked out the window at that moment, and realised the next year D.J. would be in afternoon kindergarten, Jessie would be in morning kindergarten, and Dave would hardly ever be home on the weekend because he has such an erratic schedule, so what was the point in having this family in the first place? So, a snowman made the decision.
PAM: A snowman. I love that, that’s perfect.
VICKY: And then, I guess we’re moving on. But there’s difficulties and trials and that, that you go through. Because once again, I was on my own. And looking back, that was kind of the nice thing too because we developed ourselves, and our ideas.
PAM: Well that does lead nicely into the next question.
What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of moving to unschooling?
VICKY: Reading. Reading was the big one for me. I was like, “Oh, I learned more camping” about science and stuff. And I could see all the other world learning. But, the woman that spoke, her kids had been in school so they had learned to read before she took them out. Most people I knew… there was no practicality. That I had seen a practical aspect of kids learning to read without…. So, I was kind of touchy about that one.
And one day I was trying to encourage it without being forceful and that doesn’t happen. And I realised that trying to make somebody think something that they didn’t want to think, was the same as trying to make somebody do something that they didn’t want to do. It was just as invasive. And I’m very dramatic so I was on the abusive side. And so, I just stopped. I just stopped right there. And that was the end of that one. And later on, I found the bulletin boards. And you know, they learn through Yugi-oh cards and WoW (World of Warcraft) and just whatever happens.
And then, the other thing that I would say is—because we only had a community of very conservative home-schoolers and they were in Beavers and everything, but they wanted to be with other kids that didn’t go to school. So, they have curriculum and so we were kind of hiding out. We’d go to Harry Potter at the movies and it’s like “No, no, no, we weren’t there!” One day we were going to a group and I was like, “Okay, maybe we shouldn’t talk about Yugi-oh and maybe we shouldn’t talk about The Simpsons and maybe we shouldn’t breathe!” Like, “Do you guys want to go home?”
So, we sort untied ourselves from that over several years. But that is a very strong influence when you are the only person who is doing things a certain way, different than everybody else. Because how do you explain that? How do you explain that your kids are… and then they tell the other kids “Oh we were up till two o’clock.” You know?
VICKY: Those kind of things make it complicated.
PAM: So, are both your kids reading now?
VICKY: I think so!
PAM: Was that a mean question? [laughter]
VICKY: No. But people stop asking, you know? They bug them and bug them until they get to be about twelve and they can bug back. Which is just the most surprising thing to me. Like, people stop asking them what they know because they don’t want to hear it. But yeah, they’re both reading. And functioning.
Otherwise, how could they text? That’s the thing—Dave’s a caller, and we’re all texters. So yeah, they both can read and they do so well. And D.J.’s been very into political things and he’s been downloading 19th Century Literature on the French Revolution and reading The Tale of Two Cities.
So, yeah, reading’s not an issue, Pamela!
PAM: “Pamela,” that’s awesome!
But I do hear you on the connecting. My kids went to school for a few years. So, they did have that experience. They were a little bit older, probably, before they were interested in doing Beavers and Girl Guides and dance, or whatever their interests were.
But that was more fodder for conversation about how we lived differently and how our relationships—the parent-child relationships—were different. We ended up going to The States for conferences a number of times—not so that they could see, but that was when they realised!
VICKY: Yeah, they just want to know…
PAM: And that was a part of why I started the conference too. And you came too; that’s where I first met you right?
VICKY: Yeah, I missed the first year and I have absolutely no idea why I did that. Toronto Unschooling Conference, I was like “Where have I been?” so it was like, desperation. So, that was pretty exciting when that came up. Because it was like, “Oh, we’ll go.”
And it was the one place you didn’t have to answer those questions. And I realised those questions aren’t always—I think I went through a fundamental unschooling phase. There was a tiny angry phase where I perceived every question as an attack, but they’re not.
VICKY: People are quite often, interested. Taking yourself outside of mainstream, has a learning curve, and it’s natural. I mean for us, not for the kids.
PAM: Yeah, that’s such a great point. They already know how to live and be themselves. We’ve absorbed so much ourselves growing up that it is a big deschooling process. You don’t realise how ingrained [it is], how far into our psyche. Just our expectations—like, how we think the world works—are actually informed by that system. It’s so interesting to dig into and tease that piece out, isn’t it?
VICKY: Well, just recently in the news, Canada has legalised marijuana. And my kids do not partake but everyone just automatically assumes they do because they’re so calm, like at work. D.J.’s always like, “Well, it’s not like a political belief. We’re coffee people. We need to focus, that’s what we need, it’s what we do naturally.”
And that was one of the things, like, “Are you guys really that much calmer than other people?” And they’re like, “Yeah.” They work hard—I’ve been asked, “Do you have more at home?” “No, you’ve taken two of my kids, you’re not getting more.” They don’t have that same sense of doing something wrong. I think that’s half the anger in the world right now, that people are so, “I don’t want to be wrong.” Because making a mistake is a big red X. And I think that might be a part of it.
PAM: That’s great. And I think that is a really great observation, because it’s true. Especially when my kids were teens and they started working out and about in the world, even when they were engaging in activities, and I would chat with the other adults that they were engaging with. And they noticed a difference; they truly did. That calmness. I remember one when Lissy worked at the thrift store, somebody came up to me and was like “She just does stuff.” You know?
VICKY: Yes, yes.
PAM: She doesn’t wait to be told what to do and then, like you said, worry about doing it right or wrong, waiting to be judged. They’re just going to try it and if somebody suggests a different way or another way or just says, “Do this too,” or whatever, that’s just more information.
VICKY: It’s not personal.
PAM: Exactly; it’s not personal. They take it in and they move forward. The way it works for them. That’s such a great observation, that’s something that I’ve had feedback on as well, that there is fundamentally a difference in the way they engage with the world.
VICKY: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Let’s jump over to Dave—from your perspective, of course—of your journey to unschooling.
VICKY: Dave was born to unschool, I believe. Like, he came into our relationship saying, “You don’t have to do that, you want to do it.”
VICKY: The unmatched socks man. And so, in those ways, he was very ready to do that.
There were some things, because he’s a collector. Because he was on the road during the weeks, we had all this freedom to like, make crafts and to not pick them up and on Friday I would do like a quick sweep to get rid of the clutter. And one day he came home surprising us, and I’m like, “You can’t.” He’s like, “What do you mean I can’t come to my own home?” and I was like, “I didn’t clean up!” He said, “I can handle it” and I was like, “You’re not man enough to handle this, buddy.”
So, there was a little in the issue of—because he is a collector and you want to take care of your stuff so it remains valuable. And I remember the one day—and I decided to stay out of it because you can’t diss his relationship—and D.J. needed to clean up his room and he tried the garbage bag and your toys trick. And then I look upstairs and I see my five-year-old with his arms crossed at the top of the stairs crossing his arms over his shirt saying, “I will not be blackmailed.” Dave just turned around and quit and I was trying really hard not to make it obvious that I was laughing my head off. So, we kind of got over those things.
And he was working as a Road Knight at the time so he would go to schools and talk to the kids about this and that he would go to the Kindergarten classes and say, “You know, they’re not doing anything different” than our kids were, really. And he would go to high schools and talk about job opportunities and things and he would say, “They don’t talk. They just stare at me.” And I’m not saying every high school student is like that, or putting down the system, but he did not see that back and forth that he had expected to get in that kind of thing. So, all of those things were positive.
It was more, when one of us lost faith the other one would have it, and vice versa. So, it went back and forth that way. And, like I said at the beginning, with everything I was sort of like “What am I doing?” and it was actually, I left a book in the bathroom and he came out and said “What the heck is ‘unschooling all the way’?” It just… unschooling has always just been naturally our lives. I don’t think you can separate the two—you have to go all out with this or, you know. It was just living life.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great point, that’s a great point. It works really well when it’s not a separate thing. Because fundamentally… I remember when I used to write a lot of blog posts. And I would always end up, by the end, saying “unschooling is life”.
VICKY: And once you’re doing it, it’s not a separate entity. It couldn’t be for us.
PAM: It’s just so intertwined with the relationships. It doesn’t become about the learning. It just becomes about living life and the relationships with each other.
VICKY: Day to day.
PAM: But, next question—speaking of learning—
As you watched your kids in action, what kinds of things did you discover got in the way of that, of their learning?
VICKY: Me! No. Making things too big, I think. I get excited about things, and about ideas, and sometimes it was just a little too much. To say all of this, I would say my first rule of unschooling was “always listen to the kids” because it was, “Mom, why do you make everything so big?” When they would say that, I would learn not to do it.
D.J. brought up, when he got home from work the other day—I was thinking about that question and I asked him—he brought up because when he was about sixteen, seventeen, you know that little bit of angst; he questioned what he knew compared to other people and maybe another person in the household said, “just because you’re supposed to learn all that, doesn’t mean they learn all that; they knew all that.”
Any comparing to the other ways of learning, is going to cause it damage. Because you can’t, you can’t parallel, you have to say this is what we’re doing, this is how it is. He is so happy that he unschooled. He can’t imagine that his life, all his belief systems would turn to that. He would be appalled if he was brought up any other way. They both are really happy and do not see any negativities about being unschooled. But at seventeen, going out in the world, and I don’t care who you are you’re going to have some angst about growing up.
PAM: Two things I want to bring up. One, yes, it’s their journey to take. It’s not about convincing them or anything, right? You can have conversations with them, answer questions, validate what they’re feeling and thinking because it’s real and it’s true. But it’s still their journey to take and it’s that detachment, you know? Even if, whatever came out of it, for them it’s still part of the journey. And things change over the years, it’s not ours to live for them.
VICKY: We made a choice. That’s why it’s so important to believe and have faith in, that choice. Because, we made a choice and we know why we made that choice and it may be something that they’re not even aware of yet. So, it’s not an argument. It’s just knowing confidently. Because if you start to feel bad, you’re going to get cranky about the whole thing. So, it’s just having faith and staying cool. And this is what I decided to do. And if I messed up, there’s a million people that were messed up, so you can go on Oprah! I’m just kidding about it. I wasn’t that insensitive. But it’s true.
PAM: The other piece of what you mentioned earlier—making things big. Because when we do that, so often, that’s when we make it about us, right? As soon as we take some little something that they’re interested in and we’re like, “Oh, let’s run with that!” all of a sudden it becomes about us and our interest and we’ve kind of taken it over and taken it away from them.
And one thing I learned over the years when I was able to catch myself and not do that—in my mind I still know where I would have taken it—and I discovered that so often they take it different places. I found it so interesting! And that’s how my world grew. Because my world was always just, the way I saw things, right? Oh my gosh, the world is so much bigger than the way I saw things happening. Was that your experience?
VICKY: Yeah. They had a way of doing things in their own. You know, I really want a computer like Iron Man in the Avengers. If you take all of those things, it’s just amazing how every little detail ends up being who they are now. Like, it’s this whole story unfolded! And I can see that if that had changed… Okay, point of opinion, I really think that nature overrides nurture because I have two, a year apart, who lived exactly the same lives and are completely different.
VICKY: I mean, they’ve got some similarities but they’re so different in their outlook. So, they came into the world a certain way and they experimented all along the way and now they’re back to being who they came in as. I can see so much of that. So, our big things are just their tiny experiments! Right? They know where they’re headed.
PAM: I love that. It is so amazing to look back at each of them. Like you said, they were born, they all grew up in the same family, in the same environment. They grew into themselves. Because they don’t grow into little mini us’s. If we had taken those paths that we saw ahead for them, and coaxed them to take our paths, they would not discover who they are and they see…. *trying to think of the right phrasing* the different experiences. There we are! The different experiences that we all experience together but they all took different things from them because they’re connected to who they are as an individual. And you can see, “Oh, that’s why that part of that thing was interesting to them.” Right? You can see that individual in there, and it’s just brilliant. But you need to give that space and that freedom, and the support to help them and allow them to do that.
VICKY: Well I was thinking this morning, to demonstrate that—when D.J. was little and we wanted to put ambient music or whatever on at the dinner table, he would say “no.” It was just, “no.” We were a little bummed, but we said “okay.”
And then as he got older, during the time they wanted to go to church, when it was time for the kids to sing at the front he would never sing. So, I would say, “Why aren’t you singing?” And he would say, “They’re brainwashing.” So, you would think that he didn’t like music but then on one of those nights where they were busy doing their thing and I was going to have to entertain myself, I decided to sneak into the basement and turn on The Phantom of the Opera songs and sing at the top of my voice. So, I heard steps coming down and stop, and then steps running back up the stairway and I thought, “Oh, I’m really that bad.” But whoever was there brought the other one back and then we talked about whether it was a book or not, because anything that’s a movie or play must have been a book once, and then he said “Mom, come and listen to the Halo music with me. Do you feel that?”
And the next step was he decided to Level Up in life instead of WoW so he killed off his character while I was sleeping that night and I woke up the next morning and the music that he played on the video when his character died—I was in tears. It was so emotional. And then he’s making ambience music with nature and you can hear all his aspects of life, if you know him, in the music.
So, it wasn’t that he didn’t like music, it was that he wasn’t ready for the emotions that he felt from the music. He was so into it that it was just too much. If we had forced him to sing, forced him to listen to the music, if I hadn’t been singing The Phantom, I wouldn’t understand that at this point in time. But that is his form of communication in a house of many forms.
When his dog passed away after seventeen years, he immediately wrote a song. And he was like, “I don’t know why I’m doing that” and I’m like, “Well I can hear you running in the woods with him.” So, it is important to let them not listen to ambient music at dinner.
PAM: Okay, now I have to share a little background music story from yesterday. I came home. Rocco had music on. He was busy doing something so he had background music on. And he’s known for many years that I’m not big on background music. He’s never really quite understood why, I think we got a little bit closer yesterday. Because he had a song that was on and I said, “Oh, that reminds me of this” and the next song came on and I said, “Oh, when I was dancing as a teenager this was a song I had a dance to.” And, “Have you seen the picture?” I said to him, “with the red leotard and the skirt? That was this song.” And then the next song came on and I said, “Oh, that reminds me of this.” And I said, “Every one of those songs brings up an emotion for me.” I said, “This is why I don’t have background music on!” And I think it clicked for him.
VICKY: It is very emotional for so many people and like I said, we all communicate different ways, we all receive information different ways, and I think that’s one of the things that helps us live together when we get that.
PAM: Yeah, exactly. And like you said, even if you don’t understand—like back then, you didn’t really understand why he was saying “no” to this background music—but it’s respecting his wish for that. That he has a reason inside, even if he can’t explain it to you, there’s no need to pester. Sure, it’s a curious question at first, you know, “Why not?” But even if they can’t explain it, to respect it because, you know what, eventually someday you’re probably going to figure that out.
PAM: And it still doesn’t matter if you do. It’s about knowing each other and respecting each other’s needs in those moments, right?
VICKY: Right. Jessie didn’t always respect them! But it’s just a D.J. thing and we’d just go with it. There were Jessie things and there were D.J. things; Mom things.
PAM: And especially when, when the kids left school and came home. Certainly a lot that first year too, there was a lot of learning about each other. Because the kids did want to do different things. So, it was not about stopping someone, it was about finding ways that they could all do what they wanted without interfering with each other. So, it was little conversations as I was talking to one of them and said, “So and so doesn’t like this, maybe because of that.” Or if I knew, I’d explain why. “And you want to do this, let’s find a way to do both.” It was a lot of that kind of stuff. Certainly, we don’t all just live together in harmony, from the get go. Because we’re all individuals, right?
VICKY: And I’ve finally realised, that when people see peace—you know, you think about how you want to live in harmony and you see that white room with the curtains flying and you go “No.” It comes from chaos. Because that’s where the growth comes in, from understanding. So, chaos brings a definition of peace. And it takes you a while to really get that. But when you do—it’s like, for years I told people, “Just excuse things, we’re in transition.” And then I realised we were always in transition! Because we were always growing. It doesn’t stop. The minute that you get in that room with the curtains blowing, it’s not blowing in anything new.
PAM: I love that.
And that just reminded me I have a talk that I wrote, called, ‘A Family of Individuals’ and it’s about how family harmony.
“Get along with your brother. Get along with your sister. We’re a family, you need to get along.” And you want family harmony as your goal.
But to get to that space is actually all about respecting and helping each other as individuals. Because then there’s not that power struggle. Everybody’s got the power to be themselves, and we’re just figuring out how we all, in that chaos, live together.
Because it looks like chaos from the outside, right?
VICKY: Yeah. People will ask “What religion are you?” and they’re referring to all four of us. I’m like, “Is it Tuesday?… This is what I am today!” It’s starting to take down the institutions. And I mean, it’s not taking down, but questioning every single thing and you do ultimately question the institution of family and what that means, and what you want it to mean to you. And that just becomes a natural step.
PAM: And that circles back to right how we started out this call, right? Continuing to question that even when you don’t have children per se. Questioning how we define and how we want to move forward as a family.
VICKY: Well, because they’re going to have relationships, they’re going to have children… and my concept of, ‘when in doubt just keep your mouth shut’ just is still the best philosophy. It gets harder, I think, over the years.
PAM: Because so often I found, when I managed to do that, it was usually that I—if I was in doubt—it was usually because I was missing some piece of information. Right?
VICKY: You don’t have all the facts. And it’s so easy—because it isn’t out of love, it’s out of wanting to help them or I guess not wanting them to be hurt has been one of my biggest things to cause difficulty.
PAM: It’s true though, you do. Yet when you look back, it comes back to that chaos piece again. Peace and learning comes out of the chaos. And in the chaos there can be hurt, right? Those kinds of situations are where chaos also lies and where so much growth and learning and peace and self-awareness comes out of. But yeah, it’s hard. We’ll just leave it there. It’s hard.
VICKY: Very hard.
PAM: I think one of the challenges for parents as they move to unschooling—and this was something that was challenging for me, and amazing for me in the end—is reawakening our own curiosity and wonder about the world. So, I was going from, ‘I’m an adult and I know everything now, everything that I need to know.’ That’s the persona I needed to wear because we grew up being judged for not knowing things, right? Was that something that you found helpful for unschooling? That shift?
VICKY: I’m not sure that Dave and I ever grew up in the first place! I mean, you have to remember that I met him because at twenty-eight I decided that if I was ever going to leave town in the middle of the night down a dark highway and be like James Dean, I had to do it then! And that’s how I met him. And we really did just enjoy finding new things. We were never the club dancer kind of people. We were like the museum type of people, and ‘how does that work?’
But somebody has to take care of the paperwork. Working in daycare had really helped that and I had worked with teenagers managing the restaurant with kids so I had always worked with kids and been with kids. So, I had that. I had that perspective.
It wasn’t one of those harder things but it is so important, and I still didn’t figure out if Sandra had said this or John Holt but, prejudice of anything stops learning. Having a passion of your own and allowing other people’s passions regardless of whether…. I can’t say anything because that will show my prejudice!
But for example, I decided when the kids were born that—because we are their Creators and therefore in definition ultimately their Gods, if you keep going with that, so anything that we decide they’re going to think, whether we make them or not, to a degree—so I decided I would not have a religion, so that they would feel free to choose whatever religion they wanted to have. And so, if you take that backwards, if you are—say—specifically one thing without wanting them to learn about other things, all the myths and that lead to more learning. And once again, you don’t know what they’re looking for in it, right? And it’s the same with different books or different types of music, different countries.
So, you can’t let what you like and don’t like, mess things up. And that brings a lack of curiosity, right? When we’re told, “this is a good thing and this is a bad thing.” Definitely having passion for things and the kids seeing that. I’m not saying don’t have interests because they need to see that you have interests.
PAM: Like that example, you’re curious about the world and finding answers to your questions. They’re seeing it in action. I think that helps with the idea that this is a lifelong thing, right? It’s lifelong learning, this is just how we engage with the world. It helps get rid, or not develop in our childrens’ case, the idea that learning is different for children and adults. That kids need to learn things and be curious about things but adults don’t need to. No, this is a human thing. This is the way we’re choosing to live our lives together.
VICKY: And it makes life worthwhile. Definitely unschooling, people would say, “What are the kids learning?” And I’m like, “Forget about the kids, let me tell you what I’ve learned!” It’s so much about relationships and so much about learning itself. I once said to someone, because they were saying our life looked fun, and let’s face it; people get insecure and cranky, but I said, “Well, once you put food on the table and a roof over your head, what else are you working for?” And he was like, “That’s just so profound.”
Because we come back to that—intelligence is cynicism, right? If you’re not crying you don’t see the problem and therefore you are a part of it. And it doesn’t help to be that way. So, it is a fun way to live once you get the hang of it and understand how much the kids learn—and you learn—by interacting with each other. Because I wouldn’t know what Steampunk was! There’s so much; they’re such a source of information.
And now they’re growing up I told them the other day—“I’m gonna have to get some more teens and kids because I don’t know what’s going on!” My information source is drying up, Pam!
PAM: Absolutely. That was one of the things that I just loved about this lifestyle—how much bigger my world grew is because of them.
VICKY: Well I think this is probably a good time to bring up Stick to the Story, which is not a plug but…
PAM: No, go, go.
VICKY: Okay, when the kids were about fifteen or sixteen, Dave started making staffs and that grew and I started writing stories for the staffs which all had to be individual because everybody has their own journey. Wherever that came from! And Jessie wanted to have—we had gone to the Pagan Festival the year before—Jessie wanted to have a stand. And because Jessie wanted to have a stand, we pushed to have a stand. And then that grew into Medieval Festivals, the people there were like, “Well, you’ve gotta go try this Festival!” and that grew into costume-making and that grew into Comic Cons and Jessie having a place to sell her art and D.J. playing the flute for little fairies. And then that led to meeting celebrities and then doing interviews with celebrities. So, this one thing—because of our children wanting to do this one thing—has grown into so much and it’s such creative outlet.
It is the Bennison’s creative outlet. Like, we’ll do that through Stick to the Story and because we are such fans of stories—books, watching, listening—it’s just sort of in the title. It’s who we are. And we’re having a ball. Like, on Saturday Dave was doing Hamilton Comic Con and Big Bird was there and of course, Dave had to have a hat with a feather in it and Jessie was with him helping to film and Big Bird actually motioned him over out of nowhere and put one of his feathers in his hat. So that for me was like, one of the biggest things ever. Because you know, Big Bird, child-like, innocent, and everyone thinks he’s not all that intelligent—it’s like the perfect symbol of what it’s useful to be as a grown-up in unschooling.
PAM: Wow. That’s awesome. I love that.
VICKY: And you never know where things can grow and connect. I guess that’s where the trust piece comes in. Eventually, things have grown in curious and interesting ways enough times that, like you said, you’ll just jump in. Jessie wanted to have a table so we figure out a way to do that. And we do it with gusto! We just dive in and see what happens. And afterwards, people, of course, ask you, “Did you make any money?” We’re like, “Were we supposed to?” And I was thinking, if the kids just learn something, if the kids see that if you paint a stick and carve it, and just write a few stories and you can sell them; then they will see that they can do anything.
This has brought so many ideas and also such a great place for them to meet different people and to be able to talk to people about different things, to see that—as far as artists go—even people who have been in a TV show are still out there trying to sell their CDs and make a living. That people who have famous comic characters out there are still trying to sell their posters and make a living. Like, it’s an actual working thing and everybody’s basic. Even at our first unschooling conference that we went to there was a gentleman who had left accounting to be a Blacksmith and I always remember that. They weren’t going to grow up to be mathematicians! I think the DNA works to a certain degree as far as interest in that.
PAM: That’s a great point. That’s part of discovering who they are and what connects with them. I did interview somebody who grew up unschooling and discovered a love for math and he’s now studying math at university. So, it is, it’s the person as an individual and what they discover they enjoy along the way.
There was something that—I forget where I saw it this week—but even as adults our lives have different stages/phases, whatever. We all continue learning and our life takes turns, even as adults. So, you know, it’s amazing, and it’s wonderful to support them as they twist and turn through things because they gain experience that it’s okay to say, “This isn’t working. Driving trucks isn’t working for me anymore. It’s okay for me to leave that and find a new path, decide which way I want to turn now.”
VICKY: And that was one of the things that I found really useful, because as adults we go through different sections. So, we leave the world of being a Mom with kids that need taking care of, they were turning seventeen and sixteen around the same time that I was going into this new world, so we were all starting something new. And I was anxious about what we were going to do next because unfortunately I still had that—it would go away but as the kids started getting more independent—I still had that, “I am not legitimately working.” Like it was one of my holding-on hang-ups. So, when you can see that you’re all going through the same thing, it also helps to understand what they’re going through.
PAM: Yeah, and it’s that realisation—so often—that it’s human. That this is something that humans go through. That we question ourselves, and it’s all part of our growth. And it just helps us relate to our kids so much more; to be able to see from their perspective and realise, “Oh, that connects to the way I’ve been feeling about this, or that.” And you know, to realise that this is a human thing. It’s not a kid thing, it’s not a grown-up thing. This is something that we all experience at some point, right?
VICKY: Yeah. I don’t think there are lots of dividers as far as… I think people fool themselves about kids not going through things. It’s not as innocent as they portray it.
PAM: Yeah. I love that.
What surprised you the most about how unschooling unfolded in your lives?
VICKY: The easy-ness. Like, once you get over the things, it’s easy. How all-encompassing it is, because it is your life. If everybody your kid is friends with online has gone to a 24 hour Walmart and picked up a latest edition WoW and you’re in Canada in a rural area and your Walmart opens at seven and there was an ice storm last night; you are scraping those windows okay? It’s not because they’re making you, but because that’s your warrior aspect of being an unschooling mom.
PAM: Oh, I love that. Yes.
VICKY: It takes up time. And I would sometimes look and think, “You know, they do the curriculum and then they stop”. But we are always on, “Mom come and watch this show.” “Mom, over here.” I remember once D.J. waking me up before coffee before we had the computer, and just staring at me saying, “Are worms born from eggs or are they born from worms?” But you are. You are always on and you are always in. And in turn, that just gives you so much back. Like, the adult children I have—it’s not what I pictured having, as you pointed out before—I pictured as having, as adult kids. Because we have all our individual hang ups with parenting and stuff, but they’re just so in there and so helpful and just… I don’t know.
PAM: Alright, now let’s go back just a little bit.
As they were growing up, was there ever an interest or activity that one of them wanted to do that kind of stretched your comfort zone? I was just curious about how you worked through that.
VICKY: Organised sports. It’s a thing with me.
PAM: That’s curious!
VICKY: I might be showing my prejudice but Jessie just really wanted a uniform one year. So, probably around seven. And then D.J. thought, “Well if Jessie’s doing it…”, and he was around eight. And we did it if course. I had to! And the vision of being on a sport’s team as seven and eight—the vision of being on a sport’s team was not what they expected it to be. So, Jess actually had an accident that skinned her finger. So, that was it. She was not a pain girl. And D.J. made it to the end of that year. But once again that was one of those things that Dave was ecstatic, because he came from a sport’s family. But then, as he was there, seeing things from his new perspective, and sometimes how the kids are talked to or whatever; he sort-of, went the right way, which was my way! So, we went through it and we lived through it and we won’t talk about how it messed up—because we had to be at practices—so we lost a lot of freedom. But we did it and it was a learning experience, and part of their learning experience. So, if they wanted to do something that I didn’t want them to do, we pretty much did it. Because it was their lives, right?
PAM: So basically, that’s how you worked through it is realising this is their life to live and, “I’m gonna support it even if it’s not my favourite thing.”
VICKY: Yeah. I always knew I was going to support it. I also always knew that Dave was going to hear lot of grumbling. And they have to learn and as far as a specific activity, I remember one time Jessie wanted to go to a Y Dance and her friend’s mother had pulled her from school so she really wanted to be in school. And there was going to be some of her school friends at the dance. So, just taking to her I was like, “Jessie, you’re going to get ditched at the dance. She’s going to use you through her mom to go there” and so, no Jessie didn’t care, and she went. And once again I should’ve kept my mouth shut. And she went and it happened. And she walked in the door and said, “You know, I know what happened Mom but I just wanted to see if could deal with it.” So, they know they’re learning lessons and what they want. Yeah.
PAM: I think that’s something that generally or conventionally, we don’t think a lot of kids’ abilities, that they’re capable of these things, that they think to that level—that self –awareness, and that wanting to stretch. That’s another thing that people think—“Oh you know, if we didn’t make kids do things, they would do nothing.” That’s the farthest thing from the truth, from reality right? I mean, when you see kids, if they look at their kids and they’re not not forcing them to do something and they’re like, vegging out it’s because they need that vegging out time just to recover from all the pushing that’s been happening on them.
VICKY: Exactly. And because they don’t have freedom to make choices. Even in King Arthur, the whole answer is that people need choices. And this is what drives me crazy, that I see this all over Facebook—“If people aren’t made to work, they’re not going to work.” And I’m just thinking—I’m sitting there looking at prime examples of how—I mean, I never told them they had to work, we never told D.J. he had to go from sitting in front of a computer to driving a transport truck by himself across North America for two months. You know, none of this was forced. It was because they chose to do it. And if society in general was happy, there would be a lot more of that going on. So, I get mad at the memes.
PAM: “I get mad at the memes!”
VICKY: It’s so obvious in our kids that it’s not true.
PAM: Yeah, yep. Okay let’s circle back just a little bit, cos we’ve touched on this, but—
As your kids have become young adults, how has your definition of success as a parent, changed since you began your unschooling journey?
VICKY: Well, when we first decided to do this, one of the things I said to myself was “I don’t care if they sell jewellery on the beach made from shells, as long as they’re happy and they can support themselves.” And it’s turned out we are selling art with shells! They’re happy and I know that because D.J. said he was happy the other day when we were talking about unschooling. They are generally happy.
I think my idea of happiness has changed. You know, it’s not a euphoric twenty-four-hour thing. It’s knowing where your food is going to come from. You know, there’s not a lot of that just dropping in. And when it does drop in it’s usually something good or you have the strength to deal with it because you haven’t been worrying and stressed out and everything. So, I still want them to be happy, I think we succeeded in general. But happiness is a lot of things besides what we think it is.
PAM: I love that. I found that too, that definition of parenting before I had kids was so very conventional, right? Because that was the goal, that was what everybody was trying to achieve. And yet, through unschooling as you talked about before, I came to question so many institutions and so much of the conventional wisdom.
You know, like, why is that so important? What are people getting out of that? Who would I be if I got there? And questioning myself. So, much about, “Okay, I did that path. What did I learn from it? What do I remember about it? How do I feel about this? Why is this ‘successful’?” You know, just every question under the sun! And it did—it comes down to happiness. And not in that “Oh look! I have a doughnut!’, you know what I mean?
VICKY: Well that would make me very happy!
PAM: Not that artificial happiness of things of the moment, but yes. I guess I use the word ‘joy’. It’s a feeling of being capable; of knowing that I can make my way through whatever situation comes up in my life. That kind of soulful level of joy in that “I’m in control. I’m making choices in my life. These are my choices to make.” And also taking responsibility for those choices because they’re mine. And I’m seeing how they play out, right?
VICKY: Taking responsibility for the choices is the most important aspect. And actually the happiest aspect. Because you can make things happen. I was actually even reading something in Celtic mythology the other day and they said that the first step to magic is taking responsibility for your life, right? Because then things are going to start to happen. I know they’re not magical but, like I said, Big Bird! You know, you put yourself in certain places and things are going to happen that are going to be magical.
PAM: That’s a great way—we’ve described unschooling as magical there are these moments when you’re making choices and you’re letting them play out and you’re paying attention and you’re seeing what happens. Magical things seem to happen with a wonderful frequency, don’t they?
VICKY: Yeah, definitely. And you sit back with the ‘camera zooming in’ moment and you think, “Did that really just happen?” It just becomes sort of surreal because there doesn’t seem to be a push or a shove to it and yet things happen more frequently in almost a straighter—I mean, I don’t care about straight lines—but I almost think you do take a straighter line. Like less detours.
PAM: Yeah, that’s a great point. And when you have that self-awareness and you’re making those choices, you’re making the best choice for you in that moment right? With what you know etc, but that’s the thing! You’re not taking that step because you think that’s the next step you’re supposed to take.
You’re literally evaluating that next step based on how you feel, what you know, what the circumstances are, what your goals are. And you’re just so much more apt to take that next best step for you. It’s more likely to be a great step. That means your line is straighter; I’ve never really thought of it that way but it’s really true. When you are free to take those steps, you are taking the best steps for you and which are likely to be the straightest line to the goal that you’re trying to accomplish right?
VICKY: You know what it is, or not. You don’t have to figure out that goal because as you narrow down your choices…
PAM: That’s right, because you just take that next step and you just see where it leads right? It’s like “Oh yeah, this is where I want to be.” That’s wonderful.
Okay, question Number Ten! Looking back, what has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling do you think?
VICKY: And once again, we get that “is unschooling different from life?”, but us. Us. Just everything that we are. The ability to communicate, understand that people communicate differently, understanding my husband better because I know his kids and I can see him in them, the kids having a better relationship with their dad.
I just… I said in the thing, I cannot imagine how our lives would be without it. And just to think, if there hadn’t been that Snowman day or to think, like, how easily that might have slipped away from us; it’s just…. the stuff of nightmares because I cannot sit here and imagine our life at all, without unschooling. I would never ever put them in school. If they chose to do that, that would be different but I’m very, very happy with the way things have turned out.
PAM: Oh wow, that’s a wonderful way to wrap this up here. I want to thank you so, so, so much for taking the time to speak with me Vicky. I so appreciate it.
VICKY: Oh, no, I love it! It gets me away from the memes!
PAM: Kept you busy for an hour! And before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online and find Stick to the Story?
VICKY: Okay they can… well, Stick to the Story is on Facebook. Stick2thestory is on Twitter. Stick2thestory is on Instagram. And if you want to talk to me about unschooling or anything, I’m Victoria Young Bennison on Facebook.
PAM: Awesome. I will put all the links for that in the show notes and thanks again Vicky. I had such a great time chatting with you.
VICKY: It was fun. You know someday we may have to meet for coffee.
PAM: We have to do that! Bye, have a good day.
VICKY: Buh-Bye, take care!