PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia at livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Max VerNooy. Hi Max!
MAX: Hi Pam. How are you today?
PAM: I’m wonderful! How are you? Recovering?
MAX: Excellent. Yes, recovering.
PAM: Just to give everybody a little bit of intro, I’ve known Max’s family for many years, online and through unschooling gatherings. And I’m so happy he agreed to chat with me about his experience growing up unschooling. To get us started Max…
Can you share with us a bit about your family?
MAX: Well, I live in Delaware with my mom, dad brother and sister, and we’ve lived here pretty much my whole life. I was born in Pennsylvania, about 30 minutes away but basically the same area my whole life. And I’ve grown up unschooling my whole life too.
My parents are both very, what’s the word I’m looking for—they were very schooly growing up. They went to school their whole lives, they went to school as kids, they went to college, they went to graduate school. And they intended to send their kids to school too, probably just because they didn’t know any better, um, but very quickly they realized that it wasn’t going to work out for my older sister. So, they took her out and tried to homeschool her which eventually kind of morphed into unschooling. Then when I became the age for school, they asked me if I wanted to go to school and I said, “No.” I didn’t want to go to school. So, they just kept me out of school too, and since then I’ve been unschooled.
PAM: That’s awesome. Do you remember why it was that you didn’t want to go to school when you were younger? I don’t know if you can remember that far back.
MAX: When I was young, I was incredibly shy. I was also very attached to mom, so leaving her was kind of the biggest thing, and when I grew older, my family gave me the choice, “Hey, do you want to go to school? It’s something you can transition into, something that we can help you with.”
And at that point I just didn’t have any desire to do school topics. They didn’t interest me, they sounded boring, they sounded like work, they sounded like something I would have trouble with it. So, I just kind of left it.
PAM: That leads very nicely into the next question then.
As you were growing up unschooling, what were some of your interests, and how did you pursue them?
MAX: I’ve always been a huge fan of games in general, to the point that even when I was too young to even operate a computer, I would point at the screen and my mom would click for me wherever I wanted to go. She would have one hand on her mouse, playing solitaire, and the other hand on my mouse, clicking where I pointed.
PAM: I love that.
MAX: And as I grew up, I played more and more video games, more and more active games, and as I got older, more and more board games as well, so that’s something I’ve always been interested in.
PAM: So, what was it that you found attractive about those games?
MAX:: Um, good question! I think it was something for me to kind of explore and play around with. It was a good test of my mental capabilities, I think. Other activities and other passions that I enjoyed growing up—randomly, I was inspired to learn how to juggle and I tried to teach myself how to juggle, and it didn’t go so well. It took me like three months trying to teach myself and just dropping things over and over. And eventually I actually got a book on how to juggle and I read that and I just kind of experimented with that on my own as well, and eventually I learned how to juggle, and then later unicycle as well.
PAM: I remember that!
MAX: And so now one of my favorite things to do is to teach people how to juggle.
PAM: Sweet. Yeah. I remember after one of the gatherings Michael coming home and picking up some balls for himself for juggling too. So, you also became quite interested in karate. I was interested to hear how that passion for karate developed.
What was it that caught your interest with karate, and how did that interest grow over the years?
MAX: Good question how I first got into karate. Um, when I was a kid, I was interested in the idea of ninjas- that might have been why.
PAM: Of course.
MAX: Of course! Everyone is interested in ninjas at that age. But when I first started karate it was actually not something I was really ready for. I didn’t really have the attention span for it.
And I tried it multiple times before I actually got into it for real and stuck with it, and eventually when I was about 13, I got my blackbelt, and a few years later, I quit.
I decided this was something I wasn’t really interested in any more. I was doing soccer at the same time, and it was a lot to manage both, so I dropped out of karate. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when my mom, who actually continued taking karate without me, encouraged me to come back for a class. I jumped back in, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually pretty fun.’ And then I stuck with it, and I started coming to more and more class, and that eventually evolved into a full-time job, but I think we’ll get to that later.
PAM: I love hearing how you went in and out and in and out of it over the years, because I think that’s something that parents get worried about, you know, after they’ve seen their child commit, or even feeling like, ‘Oh, I wish that they liked something,’ and feeling that quitting part is a big deal and worrying that they’ll never get back to it. Thinking that they spent all that time learning and then they left!
But, it really is cool for it to just be part of your life, because no decisions that we make are forever, right? You can try something out and not fit. But if you don’t make a big deal about it, it’s still there in the back of your mind and you can still jump back in whenever. Is that kind of how it flowed for you?
MAX: Definitely. I definitely enjoyed the freedom to make those decisions on my own. My parents asked me, “Hey, why don’t you go to karate these days? Is this something you want to continue with?” And I was like, “Eh, not really,” and they are like “OK, then we’ll drop out.”
PAM: You know what I love about karate too? Because I spent a lot of years in the dojo with Michael. And I love that karate is such a great example of age kind of being irrelevant. There’s a lot of adult white belts, like you said, your mom was into it and started training as well, right? It’s a great place to go in and out and to move at your own pace, and to learn really how you do.
I guess it certainly depends on the dojo too. Like I said to Michael, “If you’re interested in karate, and you don’t like going…”, he went and tried out a class or two. I said, “If it doesn’t feel like a good fit, that doesn’t mean that you don’t like karate, maybe it means that that particular dojo, that particular style, that particular sensei, just isn’t a good fit for you, so that you can go try other ones.”
So, I really love the way that it’s individualized, in that a person can go in and get involved as much or little as they want. They can go once a week, twice a week, four times a week and progress in the way that works for them. That’s my experience. Is that how you saw it as well?
MAX: Yeah, definitely. We see a lot of people in my karate studio now from all different phases in their life, some are working full-time, some are students, and a lot of kids obviously…But everybody is free to learn and grow at their own pace and that journey is very different for different people, and I think that’s cool to have the freedom to do it as you please.
PAM: Yeah yeah, and actually, that leads nicely into this question, because I think that diving into any passion like that helps us learn so much about ourselves, and like you said, it can be such an individual journey for each other. But I think diving into something—I mean there’s the piece where you are learning all about karate and that’s awesome. You are learning the topic of what you are interested in, but I think you are also learning so much about yourself, there’s so much self-awareness about it.
Like figuring out how much you like it, how much you want to go. Pulling in and out and seeing how that feels. Considering if you want to do extra time training at home.
There’s just so much you learn about yourself as you go through the process of following passions. Was that what you found?
MAX: Oh yeah, definitely.
I’m going to side track away from karate for a little bit. When I was a teenager, I played a lot of this online game called Final Fantasy 11. It was a huge part of my life, to the point that I played it almost like a part time job, and I got very involved in the end game, the highest level of content in the game. Eventually I grew to be a guild leader of the link shell in that game, which is basically the guild system instead of what World of Warcraft and other games have.
Leading that group and organizing these events and planning times for them and running and managing people—all those were skills that I didn’t really think about as I was going through it. And all the things I ended up doing in that game, as a leader, ended up transferring very nicely into my role as a karate instructor now. And those were skills that I didn’t think about at the time, but that really shaped and let me become who I wanted to be. I wanted to be a leader, I wanted to be in charge, and I wanted to run things, and that was a great way to see how that developed.
PAM: That’s a great example. Thanks, Max. Because, you know, people are always worried about video games, but all those skills and understanding that we develop pursuing any passion, there is so much of that self-development and self-awareness, all those skills, and understanding that we develop is really applicable no matter where we go. That’s something we learn and take with us moving forward no matter where we go, isn’t it?
MAX: Oh yeah, definitely.
PAM: I love that example, and I’ve heard from a few guests too, and I know from my own experience here that those kinds of skills are so valuable. People worry so much about the difference between virtual and real world, but you’re still engaging with people! These are real people that you are figuring stuff out with, that you are managing, that you are engaging with. You know, just because it’s literally not face to face, I really haven’t seen a huge difference.
I used the example before about how Joseph, managing relationships, and just the kind of stuff you’re talking about, online, and my daughter was less interested in games, but more things like girl guides, volunteering, all the kind of stuff she was doing out in the community. But the conversations that we were having about those relationships and what was going on, and the challenges they were encountering were very similar. We were talking about the same things, they were just in different environments. I thought that was so cool.
OK, so let’s dive into your karate instruction work. That wasn’t very well said. You’re working full-time as a karate instructor right now. And you alluded to how of those skills that you developed were transferable to being a karate instructor.
I’d just like to hear a little bit more about how you decided that you wanted to go forward with that as you were going in and out of karate as an interest.
MAX: So, when I came back to karate as a teenager, at this point I was probably about 17 or 18 years old. I started helping out with classes as well. I would just stay late after my class, or get there early. I would hold targets or lead a line for the kids, demonstrate a technique just little things. And as I started doing that more and more, I started to enjoy it more and more. So, I started to show up more and more, to the point where I was coming five or six days a week, taking five or six classes a week, and then teaching even more than that.
And I would just say, “Can I come for this class? Can I come for that class?” “Yeah sure, you can come as much as you want!” to the point where my instructor offers me a job. That’s when I realized that I could get paid to teach karate! That was like the defining moment of my life. My mind was blown! I could get paid to teach people karate! This is amazing!
And leading up to it, it was kind of odd, but I really had no image in my mind of doing this as a profession. I didn’t ever consider it, even though I was spending so much of my time with it. So, I got hired and actually moved to a different karate studio that was run by the same guy because they needed more help there. I learned a whole lot from a bunch of different people about how to run a karate studio and to be a teacher. Eventually, I moved back to the karate studio I’m working at now. My boss at the time who was managing the karate studio eventually bought the studio from the old owner, so I’ve seen a lot of the process of behind the scenes of how to run a business, how to start a business, how to maintain a business and all that behind the scenes stuff has been a huge benefit, I think.
PAM: It’s fascinating.
MAX: Yeah, it’s really interesting seeing this stuff from the other side. But again, all these skills that I learned growing up, even just organizing games at my local park day, working with other kids and trying to decide what game we were going to do. All these skills of running and managing people, transferred beautifully into any work environment, but particularly this kind of work environment where we can be very creative with our event planning, how we run the classes, how we work with our other helpers and assistant instructors. All these are things that I was prepared for and had a knack for pretty early on just because I’d done it before in the online world as a gamer.
PAM: Ok so, you know what I find so fascinating: You can see all those connections when you look back, right? At the time, like you said, when you were gaming, it’s not like you were thinking ‘Oh, this is going to get me this skill or that skill,’ you were just enjoying this. You were like, ‘I like doing this. I’m going to do more of this.’
Same with when you were teaching people to juggle at unschool camps, organizing games at park day, you were doing those things because you really enjoyed doing them. I bet there were lots of kids who didn’t enjoy them, they enjoyed playing them and everything, but they weren’t drawn to the organizing piece, or showing people how to juggle.
All those little bits, giving you the freedom to just do the things that you are drawn to doing, that you are interested in doing, gave you that whole skill set, because you know, people’s interests, the things that they are naturally drawn to that they enjoy doing, aren’t likely to change in a huge way.
Teaching juggling and teaching karate, you would think, ‘Oh, those are different things.’ But really, those base skills, and the things that drew you to doing each these things, is the same THE love of showing other people how to do things, the leadership piece, the helping them figure things out. Those are the things that are common in all those things, and if somebody had jumped in and stopped you, not given you the freedom to pursue things even though it’s like “Why? Why is he drawn to that? Why is he playing video games so long?” You’d miss the opportunity to develop those skills.
There are so many ways that we can worry about those interim steps because we don’t know where they are going. But giving people the freedom to pursue the things that they’re attracted to, look where it takes you later on! The puzzle fits together, but only when you’re looking back. I think that is what I’m trying to say. And the value of having the freedom to choose over the years actually built you the skills that fit so beautifully with what you are doing now.
Is that right? I just had this big “a ha!” moment! Does that make sense?
MAX: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s easy to not be able to see what’s ahead of you, but looking back, it actually makes sense how I got from there to here, to this point.
PAM: Yeah and, I guess the other thing that I usually tell parents is the challenge of not creating expectation, you know, like we were talking about earlier. Like, “Oh, my kid is really interested, he’s 13 years old, and oh my gosh! He’s going to own his own studio one day!” Not putting that out there, because we don’t know. That’s just through our eyes, right?
We don’t know what the child is getting out of it, right? It could be a totally obscure skill, but he’s meeting that interest through that particular topic. Maybe he’s getting something totally completely different from karate. Maybe he’s loving anatomy and the body training and that kind of stuff is what he’s going to bring forward with him, but you can’t know in that moment. But when you let them follow what they are interested in, you can trust that they are getting something out of it while they are engaged in it. Does that make sense?
PAM: Now speaking of transferable things, you’ve also been a mentor and continue to be a mentor at the East Tennessee Unschool Summer Camp, right?
MAX: That’s correct.
What drew you to being a mentor at ETUSC? Now that seems to be all part of this mentoring and helping other people, figuring things out, supporting them…Do you feel that kind of ties together? What excites you about doing that?
MAX: Yeah. So, I first got involved as a mentor. I was first interested in going to the camp as teenager, but it never worked out. I was going to a lot of other unschooling conferences at the time—I still am, but, that was kind of one of the factors. Wondering if I could really take the time to go here and here and here. So, it never really worked out, and the cost of it, and the travel time. It’s in East Tennessee, so it’s a 10 hour drive from me which is kind of a pain, so it never worked out until I became old enough to be a mentor. So, I applied for that position, just because I like being in charge, like you said, I like helping people and guiding people through their journey, as well as learning for myself, but also helping other people get through whatever they are trying to get through.
So, one of the cool things about being a mentor at the East Tennessee Unschooling Summer Camp, it’s a summer camp just for teens. I think that a lot of teens are at a stage in their life when they need to experiment and play around with who they want to be. To be able to do that in an environment like the East Tennessee Unschooled Summer Camp, where you have those role models, those mentors to help you out, but not really get in your way as much as a traditional summer camp with adults telling the kids what to do, is so valuable.
You can have a more self-guided journey at a summer camp, where you can just feel around and figure out who you want to be, what kind of friends you want to make. But still an environment where you can have some of those role models who are going to show you how to act and how to behave without getting into any trouble or doing anything destructive with your time. And also, just being there if you ever run into trouble or if you are ever going through anything emotionally or socially with other people. It’s nice to have those mentors there to kind of guide you through everything. I think it’s just a really cool environment at the East Tennessee Unschooling Summer Camp.
PAM: So, you’ve enjoyed your time there?
MAX: Oh yeah. Every year I’m like, “This is such a hassle!” It’s like a week and a few days that I have to take off of work. I’m doing it all by myself, so I’ve got to do it in chunks sometimes, stay at a hotel on the way down. So, it’s just a huge time commitment. I’m like. “Do I really want to go through that?” And then every year after I get home from there, I’m like, “I want to do that again next year! I don’t care what I think eight months from now when I have to make this decision again, but right now, I want to go again next year.”
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. I love that. So, last question:
As a grown unschooler now, with years of unschooling under your belt, what piece of advice would you like to share with unschooling parents who are just starting out on this journey. Maybe they’ve got young kids, or maybe their kids are a little bit older but they are just starting out. What advice would you give to them?
MAX: I think giving your kids the option to make choices in their own life is a huge benefit to them, including allowing your kids to make the wrong decision, because I think making the wrong decision can be a huge benefit to growing your character, and to learning about yourself. And I think a lot of parents get too caught up forcing their kids to make the right decisions that their kids don’t even learn to make decisions.
PAM: I love that.
MAX: I think there is a big difference between, you can still be there as a parent to help guide your child—you can give them advice, be there to catch them when they fall down, but let them make that decision for themselves I think is a huge benefit.
PAM: Yeah, I think that parents can be so caught up in the way that we were raised and most of us went to school, “failure” in quotes, is such a big thing to avoid. It’s like “OH MY GOD,”, and so we want to try to save everybody we know, like our kids, our spouse, everybody. We think, “No, no! I know what’s right! I know what’s going to work out!”
That’s something I learned from watching my kids. And I used to just be so amazed. They’d make a choice, they’d want to do it, and it wouldn’t work out the way that they were hoping, and it wasn’t the end of the world! I’d have been totally ashamed and embarrassed and judging myself for having made the wrong choice in that moment because I didn’t get what I wanted out of it. But no! They just learned from it, and they just got right back up and were like, ‘Oh, hey, oops, that didn’t work. I’m just going to try this and try that…”
I think that this was something that I learned from my kids so much, and how valuable it was to just be able to make the choice. Because, you’re always making the best choice for yourself in the moment. Because you’re not thinking, “Well, this thing has the best chance of working out, but I’m going to choose something different.” Typically, no. But instead, what do you learn?
I was missing this piece of information. I didn’t understand how big the impact of that was going to be. There’re a million things, and like you said, you learn so much from it. And having your parents around to help you process it, figure out what didn’t work out as you expected, etc.
There’s just so much learning, again, about ourselves and about the situation and about how to make choices. I mean you think, ‘I didn’t consider this, or I didn’t consider that.’ There’s just so much in there. I love that.
Now, is there anything else from your unschooling experience that I didn’t ask you about that you think would be helpful for people trying to understand? I know so often, listeners enjoy hearing from grown unschoolers because, they are choosing this lifestyle, but their kids are younger and they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I think that’s something that they really enjoy hearing.
So, was there another piece of your unschooling lifestyle growing up over the years that you thought was really important for you?
MAX: I think just being respected makes a big difference if you want to raise a kid to be respectful, respecting them is the best way to do it.
PAM: That makes sense too, right?
MAX: It sounds obvious when you think about it…
PAM: It seems obvious, but we grow up being taught that, you just automatically respect your parents, like automatically, that’s just something that parents should expect from their children, rather than earning it, right? And by showing that respect toward them, and treating them as a real person, as a human being, That’s what helps them understand what that means, you know what I mean?
PAM: It’s almost so self-evident that it’s hard to explain…
MAX: Yeah, again, thinking of it, it seems obvious. But in every single little moment, it’s hard to remember to be respectful in all that you do, because life is hard! Life is full of various things that you have to deal with, especially as a parent raising children. There are a million things you have to worry about, and sometimes being respectful to your kid is not one of the things that you think about, unfortunately.
PAM: Yeah, you just want to get through the moment. But the time that you spend working with them and engaging with them through the moment, there’s just so much value in that, isn’t there? There’s so much value for the children and for the parent. Just as people figuring things out together.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with today Max. It was a lot of fun, thanks!
MAX: Thanks for having me. This was fun!
PAM: Before we go, if someone wants to connect with you online, where do they go?
MAX: You can find me on Facebook, my name is Max VerNooy. I don’t think there’s too many Max VerNooys on Facebook, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.
PAM: Ok that’s awesome. Thanks, so much Max. Have a great day.
MAX: Thank you. Bye!