PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Leah Rose. Hi Leah!
PAM: Now Leah and I connected online pretty recently and I really enjoyed what she’s been sharing of her unschooling experience. So, I was very happy when she agreed to join me on the podcast. To get us started:
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
LEAH: I am married for coming up on 32 years and we have five children. Our oldest is 27. Our youngest is about to turn 17. We’ve been unschooling since about 2008 I want to say. We kind of run the gamut. When we decided to start homeschooling, the kids all had a choice in whether they stayed in school or to leave. Our oldest at the time was finishing her sophomore year in high school, her 10th grade. She’s also very academic and school was her world so she was happy to stay.
Our next youngest was finishing seventh grade, about to go into eighth grade and our school runs K through eight so he was about to hit the top, the pinnacle. So, he decided to stay for the next year, for eighth grade. Our fifth grader and our third grader jumped at the chance to leave. Our youngest had only done preschool. He was set to start kindergarten the next year and since his older brother who was in third grade was choosing to stay home, I just kind of shuffled him in, too. If your older brother, who is your big pal, isn’t going to school neither will you.
Actually, the impetus for homeschooling was I could tell that what was required of a little boy sitting in school was not going to serve him and his experiences of learning. So, he was part of the reason why I wanted to try homeschooling because I just couldn’t picture him going off to school, getting him out of bed much less getting him out the door and into school. Preschool was enough of a challenge that way! So, he’s never been to school. We have one who only went to school and one who never went to school and the gamut in between.
Our middle daughter who left school just after fifth grade, she’s about to graduate college. Our son who in the eighth grade saw his siblings for that year of eighth grade be at home having fun said, “You know what? I think I’ll try this unschooling thing.” He didn’t go to high school and he graduated with a criminal justice degree, recently completed the police academy, and was hired to go into the municipal police department, so he’s working.
Our two youngest boys who never went to school, one left at third grade, they’re both going to community college and picking up credits so things just sort of progressed to the fun of life without school.
PAM: Yeah, yeah well that dive into how you discovered unschooling and what your move looked like. So, it was your youngest, really, that had you looking for something different because you knew it didn’t seem like this was going to work for him, like the school path wasn’t going to work?
LEAH: Well that definitely was a huge concern and it hadn’t really dawned on us. We live in a very small town. There’s a private religious school here that all our kids went through, it goes K through eight and then high school is nine through 12 and they were all enrolled. That’s actually where I went because I grew up just a mile down the road. We live in the house my husband grew up in. He was born in our dining room! So, he went to the schools, too, a few years ahead of me. He was serving on this Board of Trustees at the time and they went through this period where they started raising the tuition rates.
We had three kids in the elementary school and one of the high school, which was even more expensive. The whole thing started because he came home one night from a Board of Trustees meeting and said they raised the tuition again. I think maybe he was the only one who voted against the tuition raise because people like us who wouldn’t get a lot of financial support- we’re sort of in the middle bracket where we can’t afford that kind of education for large family. We were kind of stuck. So, I just looked at him when he said that and said, “We can just keep our kids at home and pay them to learn for a lot less!” Then we looked at each other and thought, “Hmmm?” hahaha!
I hadn’t heard the word unschooling at the time but I knew there was this homeschooling thing but to me it was this teach them at home kind of learning thing. So, that launched us and we went into a conversation and it was a relief to me because I had this concern with our youngest and how that was even going to look for him to be going to school. I couldn’t picture it. So, we spoke to them at the end of that year, and they immediately made their choices of what they wanted to do. That summer rolled around and they were done with their school year. I started thinking ahead- if we’re going to be doing this school thing… and I realized that the two who had decided to stay home had some experience with school. They loved being there with their friends, they loved their teachers (we have great teachers in the school) and they hated school work. I’m here thinking, ‘Wait, so now they’re going to stay home, they’re not with their friends, they don’t have the teachers they love, and I’m going to hand them their school work… how is that going to work?!” Hahaha!
So, I jumped online. I think I might have just gone straight to Amazon and started to look for books on homeschooling, like what are the options? I landed on John Holt. That opened the floodgates. I did a ton of reading that summer and into the fall because the whole idea of learning without the formality, I loved that so much. I started reading and was just handing each book off to my husband as I finished and he was reading along behind me. It just made so much sense.
Before I became a mom, I taught for a few years in the high school here, the same one that our daughter went to and that I went to. I have to say there was always some part of me, as a teacher, that when the kids would say, “Why do we have to learn this?”, there was a part of me that really resonated with that. I was like, “Yeah, why?” “You’re going to learn it because I have to teach you, that’s my job.” I didn’t feel like there were good answers for some of that.
I loved school. Growing up I didn’t struggle with school. It was easy, it was where I shined, it was where I felt confident. But there was always that part of it, “Why do you have to learn all this stuff?” The thing that really appealed to me about unschooling is that the kids are learning what they need to know when they need to know it. So that’s how we moved into the whole thing.
PAM: I really love the observation of that difference. I did well in school, too. I did enjoy it but you’re right, it was always something different than life. Those were two separate things. This is what I did at school. This is what I learned at school and then I’m out of school and it’s something completely different. They were unrelated most of the time because the things that I was learning weren’t things that I was using day to day when I got out because this is something you should learn for someday.
LEAH: Absolutely or even if it wasn’t for some day it was for the grade on paper, for the gold star. I can honestly say that for me, as much as school gave me a place to shine and feel confident growing up, it also had kind of a damaging effect.
I remember getting to my last term of college and I was looking at graduation, I was about to get my last report card and I literally had the thought go through my head, because I was a straight-A student and always had been, “Well, now how am I going to know that I am any good?” That thought literally went through my head as a 21 year old because I was so used to evaluating my work through my grades. So, even for kids who really shine, depending on what else is going on in their lives, there can be an unhealthy aspect even to the success of getting good grades and being able to manage school with a lot of accolades.
PAM: That’s so true. At the top and at the bottom that’s the way we’re judged and that’s how we think of ourselves. It’s like, “Without that, how am I going to know whether I’m doing well or not well?” How am I going to know if I am a person who typically doesn’t do well? Imagine how kids feel about themselves when they’re not doing well at school and they carry that out with them knowing that they identify with being mediocre or whatever terms are being used for them when people talk about grades and talk about people judging people based on what their grades are. Wow!
LEAH: It’s a comparison thing, it’s really difficult. I think part of the struggle I saw with my youngest, that I was concerned about with him had he gone to school, he probably would have quickly been put through a diagnostic. They would have diagnosed him with ADHD and with auditory processing because I had done enough reading, I knew enough about those things to be able to see it even in his day-to-day life even where he wasn’t being asked to follow directions, that kind of thing.
Even in preschool his worst times were Project Time. Things where they asked the kids to stop doing their thing and focus and do this project. So, that was my concern with him and but I noticed something through him never going to school. Now, it was just in September that he started Community College as a 16 year old and he’s dual-enrolled so he’s earning high school credits towards a diploma at the same time they’re also college credits towards a two-year associate’s degree. He’s getting straight A’s as a sixteen-year-old at Community College and I really think his experience of himself as a learner, if he had started when he was five or six, might have damaged is ability to experience himself to know who he is so that by the time he got to where he is I don’t know if he’d been able to succeed the same way.
And what’s interesting to me is that when he started at the college and he was doing his first test and things like that it had been a couple of days and I had forgotten about it. A week later I said, “Hey, did you ever get your test back?” And he said, “Yeah.” I forgot if it was a test or a paper- he got an A-Plus or something. I said, “Oh, that’s great!” when he finally told me. And I said, “How did you not tell me this?!” He said, “I forgot.” He was so casual about his grades because he didn’t grow up with it being a big deal. It was just so funny. I said, “Did the teacher write you any comments?” And he goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well what did he say?” And he said, “I don’t know. I didn’t read them all.” Haha!
So, I looked at the paper and the teacher had lots of great things to say about this English essay he had written. It’s so funny to me because when I was his age it was all about the grades and the teacher comments and it is still now, vicariously through my kids, partly because I want to see how the experiment worked out! And he’s my big experiment having never been to school! But his relationship to grades and to that kind of feedback is so much more relaxed, there’s so much more space around it. It’s whatever. And I think part of that is because he’s a boy.
Sometimes boys are little more, well, that really depends because I have another son who is much more into what the grades were so maybe that’s not it! It could be partly a personality thing but I sort of wondered if maybe there was a little connection there but the fact that he didn’t grow up being measured and graded and having to deal with that kind of mindset.
PAM: Yeah, the mark and things are just another little piece of info about what he’s doing in the class. It’s the class itself and what he’s picking up from it that’s really the most important piece. That’s going to be from his perspective, whether or not he’s enjoyed it. It’s not going to be about whatever his grade was. That’s fascinating. And you know what I wanted to emphasize your observation, too, about how he sees himself as a learner.
In general, like we we’re talking about before, those who aren’t going to do well in the typical classroom are going to carry forward with them that self-image of, ‘I’m not a good learner. I don’t learn well.’ Whereas he, having the space to learn the way he wanted to learn, has always seen himself learning. This is just another place that he wants to go try out to learn some of the things.
LEAH: Exactly. He’s trying to get an extra science degree because he’s interested in that and he’s already run into sometimes to get to ‘X’ goal you have to do stuff you’re not interested in but if you have your eye on that goal, you do it. And that’s part of the learning process, too, is learning how not only do everything that’s interesting to you but sometimes do things that you have to do to reach that goal.
PAM: Yeah, that’s something that you hear quite often, “They’re never going to do anything hard if you don’t make them do something hard.” But no, there are so many moments in life where for your goal, for your long-term goal, whatever you’re trying to achieve, there are steps along the way. Outside of that goal you wouldn’t choose it for yourself because they’re not individually interesting, but that goal is important enough to do those other things.
LEAH: The motivation is intrinsic.
LEAH: You’re not doing it because somebody told you have to or because you have to get a specific grade or you think you’re a terrible person or whatever. You’re doing it because you have your own purpose.
That’s what I think is the difference. With unschooling it allows children to live their childhoods, not just their adulthoods, with meaning. That’s what we try and do as adults, we try to live a meaningful life and find the meaning in our lives.
That’s a huge part of our adult life and a lot of times I think it’s stunted because when you go through school you’re doing so much stuff that’s very often meaningless to you personally or you find the meaning in the grade you got, which may be great if you got a good grade but if you’re someone who struggles to get a good grade then that means something really different about you.
I just think that kids get trained out of the idea of doing meaningful things and seeking meaning in what they’re doing because what’s the meaning of a fifth grader learning about the economy of the Mid-Atlantic States or something like that? So much of what’s in the curriculum isn’t there because it in some way benefits the children to know this stuff, especially in this day and age because you have knowledge at your fingertips. You don’t need to spend all those years and I think that’s what really appealed to me about unschooling was that this idea that kids could spend their days doing things that had meaning to them. I wonder if that’s why so many kids who unschool get into creative arts and creative activities is because there’s so much personal meaning and creativity. I mean it’s just a theory on my part but I just wondered about that.
PAM: That is really interesting and you’re right. You see so much like when kids get out of school finally and then they need to go take time to ‘find themselves’ is kind of the quote because they’ve never been able to find what’s meaningful for them because they’ve just been so busy doing what they’re told what to do. They are even being told, ‘This is what makes you a successful adult’, being told what path they’re supposed to take. Some of us, I jumped right into that path for a number of years and did the whole regular thing before I started questioning.
So, that is one of the things that I love about unschooling is the kids can get to know themselves, understand themselves, start exploring the things they like, like you said, the creative side. Having that space and time to do that, it’s wonderful.
LEAH: Yeah, it really is. That’s the thing, I’ve always felt the happiest watching our kids just use their days and their hours and minutes in ways that had meaning for them. It’s a huge freedom, although I like the word freedom in regard to unschooling but sometimes people get caught up in what that means. “Freedom means that you can do anything!” Oh, that’s a whole other conversation! Hahaha!
PAM: That probably leads nicely into our next question because I wanted to dig into deschooling somewhere with you. One of the things that I see but I don’t think gets talked about very much is the desire to identify as an unschooler. Our need, just as human beings, to belong to something is strong enough that it’s right there in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . It’s right there—that need to belong, to feel loved and when you discover unschooling and find some groups online or local groups it’s so exciting to find people who finally hold similar ideas to you about parenting and education and relationships with their children. It’s like we found our tribe. But from there, if we hold onto that too tightly it can get in our way, can’t it?
LEAH: It certainly did for me and I think part of it is because we live in this schooled culture which is so much about comparison, comparing yourself to others. This was as much with the idea of radical unschooling, getting more into the parenting side of unschooling and relationships with your children that I had kind of a love-hate relationship with some of the online forums that you can read- the Sandra Dodd things, places where you could interact with other unschoolers, get questions answered with long time, expert unschoolers and see what they were saying and doing.
I could only take so much of it because I would read what they were saying and it made so much sense and I wanted that for my family and trying to figure out how to relax into unschooling. That was the really tricky path for me. I saw what they had, I wanted that and I was trying to kind of impose it almost because to me that was being a successful unschooler. Your family is supposed to look like this. I kept reading things about how don’t think of your child as who you want them to be, think of who they are.
And I can understand that intellectually but trying to reconcile that was a really tricky thing because I wanted this identity as an unschooler. There was a security in being able to say I am doing this thing. If I’m doing this thing, felt like our family was supposed to be looking a certain way because this is what this thing is supposed to provide. And the fact is, it’s all a process.
You’re on a path and so it was really challenging for me to learn what it meant to let go in the sense of stop trying to manage our unschooling life so that we are unschoolers.
PAM: It’s right! That, for me, that was a huge jump, leap, journey—from intellectually understanding it to actually living and breathing it. When you intellectually understand it, you’re looking for those things like: unschoolers do this, they don’t have rules, they do this, they don’t have bedtimes, they don’t tell their child what to learn, they look at their child. These are things we don’t have experience in yet and we don’t have the tools yet unless we’ve already been living that way.
So, I found I would be trying really hard to stick to those things but life was quite chaotic to do those things or to not have rules so I stepped back and we don’t have rules but then life is crazy and it’s not helping any of us and we’re all getting frustrated. Yet as I keep going and keep learning, like you said, you have to step back at first because it’s making sense but even when I’m trying to implement it in my family and do it, it’s not turning out like they’re describing it!
It’s like what do you mean everyone is sitting around and happy, and talking and y’all work things out and off everybody goes. It is that transition. It’s not about the, “We don’t have rules”. It’s about the whole process. How to engage with each other and how do we connect, how do we move through those moments. That’s the important part but the, “We don’t have rules” is the easy thing to say, it’s true and it gets it across quickly but it doesn’t really explain what we do after. I see that as a huge piece of deschooling. It’s a huge movement from understanding why there are no rules per say to actually understanding how I can live it and what tools I have instead of just standing back and letting chaos reign.
LEAH: I think for me part of it was I had this idea that if you’re an unschooling family there’s a lot of peace and, to me, peace was no conflict. If we’re a “good unschooling” family (this goes back to the comparison, comparing yourself to others who are succeeding) then everybody would be getting along because that’s what unschooling leads to—people getting along and peacefulness, peaceful relationships.
“Why aren’t they getting along!” haha! A very challenging part of it for me was to get out of the way of other people’s relationships because I got really good at trying to manage the kid’s relationships with each other or their relationship with their dad if I didn’t like what I saw going on there. I was always trying to get in there and, “Here’s how it’s done!” hahaha!
PAM: That’s the identity that we are striving for and we think we need to be right in there, like you said, managing it.
LEAH: Right, like, “If you can’t be people on your own, let me come in here and show you how it’s done!” Hahaha! As you can imagine it didn’t work very well! But yes, that was a big piece of it and the other thing that I’ve noticed that I still haven’t figured out how there’s any good answers about it, is that you see on these forums a lot of people who are new to it asking about “How do I do this if I don’t have rules around food or screens?” or whatever it is I’m talking about. “I took the rules away and we descended into chaos” and long-term unschoolers will say, “Go very slowly. Be gradual about it.” And there’s definitely sense in that.
It is the healthy way to proceed but the hitch is that, and I remember this clearly for myself, when you begin to see or it clicks for you that, “Oh yeah, trying to control things, having all these rules, no you’re not allowed to watch TV until a certain time” all of a sudden you begin to see the arbitrariness of it and you’re trying to get away from the arbitrariness. There’s this advice that’s often there that says, “Say ‘no’ less often” but as the parent once you’ve seen the arbitrariness of it, “How do you decide when to say no” because if it just seems arbitrary to have rules around screens then as a parent you want to just go, “Okay, that is dumb. So, we’re not going to have rules around screens.” But if you do that to children who are used to having some sense of boundaries in their lives of what’s acceptable and what’s not, what do we do? What don’t we do? that kind of thing.
As a parent you can philosophically see why you don’t need that. You rip it away and the kids are flailing all over the place trying to figure out what are the limits of what’s allowed because you can’t, as an unschooler, just do everything. You can’t go to your neighbor’s house and paint their walls just because you felt creative. There are limits to what you can do and where are those limits? Children need to have a clear idea of what kind of behavior is acceptable and what isn’t and in your private home it may be somewhat different than what it is at Aunt Jill’s house. So, then they’re always trying to figure out, ‘Okay so what can I do, what can’t I do?’ I’m not sure what to tell the new parents about that kind of thing because I just think that’s the hardest struggle is to figure out, “Well are you just supposed to arbitrarily say no sometimes just so that you are sometimes saying no?”
As a parent what now do you use as a judgment for when you should say no and when you shouldn’t because if you mostly think, ‘Well that was a dumb rule I don’t need that rule I’m going to toss it out.’ That’s what feels right but it just leaves the kids in chaos. I don’t really know what the answer is maybe it’s just that transitions are messy.
PAM: Yeah, definitely. That’s one way to look at it. For me, when I think back, because you’re right it was hard to do it bit by bit and I wouldn’t really say we did because when you see it, it now feels contradictory to yourself to use it so what worked for me… And I do think it is messy. Transitions are messy. Life is messy!
It was more about I’m not going to say ‘no’ but I’m going to talk about the constraints that you were talking about. These are the kind of things we do at our house but maybe not at the neighbor’s house. Maybe not at these times. You don’t go knocking at the door of your friend at 11 o’clock at night. Those kinds of things.
So, instead of saying no, I would more start a conversation around the reasons I would have thought ‘no’ might be a good answer.
So, we’re watching TV or playing a game or something and we have to get up early the next morning. So instead of saying ‘no’ when they ask to watch another episode or do another level or something like that it was more of a conversation around, “But what do you think? We have to get up at this time because we want to do this.” and I found what a really huge piece of that deschooling transition is so much more engagement with our kids than we had before because now we’re talking to them, we’re learning about them. We’re now bringing up conversations around things that are going on so ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are really short cuts. Rules.
Rules are shortcuts for seemingly logical things but then it seems arbitrary because it’s eight o’clock. Now eight o’clock was just an idea of it’s getting later in the evening. This is approximately when you guys usually get tired so we used eight o’clock because that’s easy. It’s an easy quick answer. But now we’re not having the easy and quick answers anymore. We’re having the conversations instead and it is a lot of conversations. We’re learning about each other so much and just the back and forth. It is a lot of effort! But this is what we’re choosing when we’re choosing unschooling, this is part and parcel of the whole thing because if you just toss the rules and just say yes… that’s another thing. “Don’t say no as much, say yes more” and people will take that as a rule too, and say ‘yes’ all the time no matter what and that doesn’t work out well either.
So, you’re back into chaos when you’re bending yourself into a pretzel trying to accomplish all these yeses. But when you bring up the conversation in the context and the real people involved, “Your sister’s really tired. Probably not a good thing for us to go out to the park right at this moment but maybe after she has a nap or maybe when Dad gets home and he can stay with her while she sleeps.” It’s bringing in all this context. And the thing with rules and kids conventionally is that we don’t think they can have those conversations. But they really can.
LEAH: I have to be honest I never tried unschooling with young kids, we didn’t come to it until our youngest was turning six so I’d never gone through the phase of trying to raise little tiny children. Right now, our oldest is married and she has a two year old and I’m the daycare because they both work. She comes to me every day and even though our oldest was the one who went through school, she asked me, even before she got pregnant, “When we start a family would you unschool and help us unschool our children?” So, I’m sort of on board now with the next generation. I have to say, one thing I have really noticed is it might partly be the buffer of this not being my child but my grandchild but doing it now, she’s 2 years old. She’s getting right into that, “I’ll do it myself” but one of my struggles that I was constantly hashing out with myself was I didn’t want my kids to be disappointed. I wanted them to be living happy lives! Unschoolers are supposed to be peaceful and happy!
There were all these “shoulds”, these kind of labels and conceptions I had of what we’re supposed to look like as unschoolers. So, that was part of what hung me up, even having those conversations it didn’t feel okay to me for some kid to be disappointed or having a meltdown. It’s a lot of stress and pressure that was all self-imposed and it was probably because I didn’t know how to relax around it. That was the journey, learning how to let go and let people have their disappointment and I guess that was part of it for me that I was trying to—not help our kids always be happy but there’s this idea in unschooling that you are trying to help children do the things that do make them happy. So, I felt like there was a part of me that whenever my kids weren’t happy then I was failing as an unschooling mom and it really created a lot of problems.
Then that means that my kids aren’t allowed to be unhappy, except that they’re human beings and that doesn’t work very well! So, for me it might have been just a lot of internal pressure and things that I personally brought to unschooling. I feel like I see them echoed out there on other unschooling forums.
PAM: Do you think that might have come from how well you were trained, I was trained, at school to ‘I have to find out what the parameters are, what is right, what is good in this lifestyle and attack it and if it’s not working well then it’s my fault.’
LEAH: Definitely, I was a rule follower. I followed the rules. That was definitely a part of me as I moved into unschooling that I was looking for, “What are the rules of unschooling?” And you will have the longtime, experienced unschoolers will tell you, “Stop looking for rules about unschooling” and 11 years down there…
PAM: Now I know what you meant!
LEAH: But I was geared to, “What are the rules? How do I know I’m unschooling if I’m not following the rules!” So, one of the rules are that the kids are supposed to be happy, they’re supposed to be getting along, there’s supposed to be peace, no conflict! Hahaha! I had this whole picture of this unschooling and how it’s going work. It’s inside this box and I just need to apply all of these.
PAM: The most spectacular thing, though, is once you’re through you, well you never finish but after the bulk of that deschooling journey, that’s where you end up. You end up with this peace, this level of trust with your kids. You end up with this relationship, and you end up with all of the things that you heard about but that at first you were striving for through following these rules until you understood that it’s really about us. There are no rules about unschooling. It doesn’t make sense until you actually can get there in your own family and see it in action. Drop that piece and really start living it.
Does that make sense?
LEAH: It makes a tremendous amount of sense because it is really what I saw happen. One of the things that pained me hugely starting into unschooling, because we had very traditionally raised our kids up to that point. So, they were turning six all the way up to 16, and they had very competitive relationships. It’s not that they never got along. When they were smaller they definitely… whoever was the baby got babied by everybody. There was sweetness there for sure, but I was always distressed by how kind of nasty and unkind, competitive they could be with each other. I wanted them to be great friends.
So, that was always part of it for me—trying to manage their relationships to “be nice to each other!” haha! Learning to relax around that and sort of become not an arbiter but a bit of a sounding board. “Well so and so…” and just hearing what they had to say, validating what was understandable and useful for them and bringing another perspective and just becoming, not somebody who was getting in there trying to make them get along, but just assisting them in being in relationship with each other in a way that they are still making the choice. “How am I going to hold this? How am I going to react to this?”
So, I wasn’t forcing them in a different direction but just offering information and feedback and perspective. It made a real difference to just kind of step back and create some room around that and if they ended up arguing or whatever just not taking that on myself, not in a way where they just get to go and beat each other up but where they get to go learn how to get it figured out between the two of them. It’s kind of interesting thing because there’s a part of me that felt like I wasn’t supposed to do that that as an unschooling mom. I was always supposed to be right there. But it’s a tricky balance because it’s also not healthy to just to be neglecting.
There’s a piece of it there, a role for mom and dad to help the kids, support them in learning how to get along. So, figuring how to play that role in a way that lets them have their own relationship with each other and isn’t completely neglecting but isn’t totally tightening all around it, it’s fairly interesting. What’s been kind of interesting to me now with having our granddaughter here is how much I can be with her when it’s time to do something she doesn’t want to do it, she’s throwing her stuff… with my own kids there was a part of me that just thought, “Ugh! I can’t stand this!” I’m kind of resenting the fact that they’re acting like this because it’s hard on me. It’s just that there’s a lot of space around my granddaughter which is partly because she’s a granddaughter and not my own child. There’s a little buffer there but also partly because it’s what I’ve been through as an unschooling parent, learning to let people be, having the experience they’re having and not trying to manage their experience for them.
PAM: That is awesome Leah and I love the way you described that. Maybe it was Pam Sarooshian who called it “that dance”. The dance of relationships, the dance of parenting, that metaphor seems so apt to me because it changes over time and it’s like, “Should I step this way or this way? What’s the beat of the moment? Are we moving fast? Are we moving slow?” There’s so much context of not only the moment itself but what’s happening in the moment, also who’s involved in the moment. Maybe what plans have I made with that child before. It’s beautiful because we went from, “Okay I’m not going to manage that” to “But I’m not going to step back and do nothing” like it works here in sibling relationships as well in our relationships with our kids.
It’s the conversations and like you said my experience too, it was individual conversations with my kids, usually after some sort of encounter that didn’t go well. Again, you’re not letting it go crazy or people get hurt or anything and you’re kind of watching from the sidelines to step in when you feel they would like the help, but again they learn most when it’s their experience. You can talk to them after, help them process and validate like you were talking about and add, “I think he or she meant this when they said that” what they were thinking or feeling.
That’s once you validated their perspective because you know what? Even in those moments everyone’s perspective is really valid. That was a great thing about having the conversations individually. You didn’t have somebody else in there who felt they needed to defend themselves. Or like, “What do you mean you understand what they were saying!?”
LEAH: “Whose side are you on anyway?!” Hahaha! And I actually think that what you’re getting at is that idea that there are no rules, there’s a flexibility. There’s not, “Okay, this happened and my response as a parent should be this…” Getting away from that “should” thing so you’re actually, this is where the whole mindfulness in parenting and unschooling comes up is your right there in the moment, responding to what’s going on in the moment, in the context it’s in.
You’re not running to a rulebook and saying, “In this case, what am I supposed to be doing?” You’re just there and your kind of winging it but you’re winging it with a lot of knowledge and I think that if you’re in a good place you’re doing it with a lot of internal space and flexibility about how this is all going to turn out because the management thing is all about trying to get to this specific goal or end or it’s supposed to turn out “X” way. When you’re not invested in, “Well where is this going and am I going to be able to be okay with the outcome” but you’re just really there in the moment helping facilitate whatever it is whether it’s an interaction between others, the feedback and conversations your having with your own children, whatever it is.
A piece that clicked for me was learning how to let go of the outcome because all of that control, all of the management, all of the wanting to have rules, and the comparison piece of it, all of that was tied up into, “It’s supposed to end like this!” And when you can just let go of that “It has to end like this” just be like you’re in it for the ride. Where is it going to go? What happens is you go through this whole process all of these years and it is still a process. It’s not like, “Okay, I’m letting go”. It’s a process. You’re growing and changing through this but you get through that and miraculously, at the other side of things, you are, as a family, in a very different place which is not about having no conflicts. That’s not what the piece is.
PAM: Or life being perfect.
LEAH: And everybody’s always happy and nothing bad ever happens. You’re just living real life and real relationships which sometimes are strained and stressful but there’s such a solid layer of trust and companionship and everybody begins to kind of adopt that flexibility and so there isn’t all this “everyone’s in their place trying to defend their rigid territory”. It’s just everybody’s willing to step aside for this person who needs. It’s just like it all works out but it’s all about letting go. That’s what I found out.
PAM: That’s spectacular! And you know what I love? How through our conversation we’ve ended up hitting on just about every question I had without even having to go through the questions! We went through “healing sibling relationships”, we went to “mindfulness”, and “unschooling”. I love it and I have goosebumps. It was very similar to my journey and you know what? That’s why I ended up writing “The Unschooling Journey” as a book because it really was a process. It really was a journey. Without taking that journey, that growth, that understanding you can’t get there from here.
We try at the beginning, of course you do, because that’s what we know. These are the rules, this is how an unschooling family looks like on the outside. They look peaceful, they look like they don’t have rules, they look like all their kids get along just fine. Everything looks nice and then we are okay. That’s what an unschooling family looks like. That’s what I want to do and be and l would love our family to be like that so these are the things that they do. They say “yes”, they don’t have rules, all those things from the outside but we don’t see the inside.
We don’t see, like you said, the whole deschooling journey is about developing that foundation of that companionship, that trust, of connection. That is what gives you that outcome and it consistently does because we know hundreds and thousands of unschooling parents who have taken that journey and who are in that place. Those are the experienced unschoolers online who are interested in sharing their stories. But because it’s so individual and you’re building that foundation with the individuals in your family. It’s not about imposing the framework on top of your own family, no, you have to build that whole layer yourself and then you’ll get there.
Leah: What it is is a practice, just like mindfulness is a practice. A practice of learning how to be right there and how to let go of expectations. I used to think that meant that I was supposed to let go of all the expectations that I could have of my children for anything. It took me awhile to realize that no, I can have some expectations around. It’s letting go of the expectation that it’s all going to look like this, my expectations about my goals for everything.
That’s the journey of it and you can’t take somebody else’s experiences and transfer it over to you. Now you have that, too. It’s kind of like the fairytale thing. You read a fairy tale and it always ends with, “And they lived happily ever after”. What does that look like? Because there’s this kind of romantic unschooling vision, this beautiful thing I can see. I want to live that vision and it didn’t end happily ever after. How did you live happily ever after because then Prince Charming and the princess go home and now they have to begin and start working their lives you know they lived happily ever after in the sense that… and you don’t get to see that part of the story and that’s what a lot of these forums are kind of like. You’re hearing the fairytale “And they lived happily ever after” but that’s kind of where the story ends in terms of your knowledge of the details because how they got to any individual family they went through their own working out the messiness of life, to figure out how to live happily ever after, so to speak.
PAM: What just hit me was that so often the questions from newer people coming to unschooling who are starting their deschooling journey and I completely remember being in that space and I’m sure you do too, Leah. It’s like, “But I have five kids that I have to manage”. We still have this vision but it’s a little bit different for me. “But I have this little problem”, “But my kid will do nothing but watch TV or play video games”, “But my kid doesn’t know how to read yet and they’re such-and-such age.”
There’s always something. “But how do I make it work for me, but how do I make it work for me?” Having gone through the journey, we realize that it’s really not about that question. It’s about developing that foundation because once you have that foundation you can work through all those questions. But those questions are so pressing at the beginning! Sometimes it’s very frustrating when you have those questions and they say, “Just relax, just relax.”
LEAH: But how can I relax when there’s no peace in my house! Just answer my question!
PAM: You know, I feel for them so much! I find even in our Summit Group, we have a private Facebook group, and I love the questions and I love how they’re asking them and yet I find so often I’m answering kind of the same way, which is one of my favorite things, which is why I have a podcast about unschooling! Because I like to take that moment how you’re seeing it and get down into the foundation. I hope they don’t mind that my answer seems to be the same thing all the time. I end up at the same place but it’s because foundationally you do get to that same place.
That’s the piece to learn about, how you see the situation to be able to process it and then all of a sudden it’s something you learn to be able to do in your own life through that deschooling journey you can then say, “Oh wow, look at this interesting thing that’s happening in our lives. How can I bring that down and use that trust and connection and that openness and that not having the expectation of the outcome, that mindfully approach, approaching it the same for whatever the thing is that comes up.” Does that make sense?
LEAH: It does. I really think that what tends to hang us up, and it’s partly just a human thing, is that we are very attached to our outcomes and what we want to have happen.
PAM: We are so attached to them that if things aren’t looking like they’re going to go in that direction that’s where the fear kicks in like, “Oh my gosh. They’ll be 25 and not read” or whatever the thing is. We see that outcome. That’s why we talked so much about our fears really just being us projecting things into the future because it’s our expectation about something down the line.
LEAH: That’s the one thing, thinking about, that I did some reading a little later on in the process in just the last few years. I started getting into Pema Chödrön’s works, which is all centered around Tibetan Buddhism and there’s a story that she tells, and I’ve seen it other places too, and the punchline- just jumping to that because that’s the important part- is talking about being more curious than afraid. To me, that’s the piece of it.
If you want to be living an unschooling life and walk that journey of deschooling into that space where things are open and flexible and relaxing, be more curious than afraid.
When you’re responding, when you’re tightening up around this idea of how you wanted this to look or whatever, you step back and you just decide you’re going to look at it with curiosity rather than with fear that this thing is not going to be what you wanted to be.
And I just think that’s a huge piece of it. If we can learn to become more curious rather than so attached, this space opens up. That whole breathing thing, that’s a huge thing in unschooling. That’s what the breathing is, this openness to what’s going to happen and you’re still paying attention.
PAM: Because fear becomes a physical feeling in your body. It’s a tenseness and then you get that tunnel vision and you can’t be creative or curious when you’re like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” and you’re tense and you’re breathing more shallowly, the adrenaline’s running, everything. You hear that a lot, “Just take a couple of deep breaths”, just to try and wash some of that out so you can become a little bit more curious, step-by-step. That’s beautiful, I love that.
When you said that I was thinking, that’s a perfect thing! More curious than afraid. And it sounds like it’s something beautiful for an experienced unschooling parent to share and somebody new coming in, “Okay, I’m really curious but how we’re going to get there?” haha! It’s something that you understand more deeply while you go through the journey. Like when Sandra was on the podcast she talked about when you start you don’t realize it but you’re looking at a black and white photo. As you go through the journey you discover the color, the color starts to appear because you don’t even know what’s missing until you’re open and curious and you keep going and you try it.
For me, I’m more of a word person so for me it’s about the language. When we say things to new unschoolers like, “Be more curious than afraid” or all those “Breathe more”, all those little tidbits, they make sense on that level intellectually but once you live them, those words mean so much more. Like when you say to someone, “We don’t have bedtimes” conventionally someone new to it just imagines chaos because they can’t envision that layer of trust and connection and all those things that are underneath it that mean we don’t have chaos. We’re figuring things out and everybody’s taking care of themselves and helping out their other family members or friends or whatever. But they can’t see that piece, that can’t see that color yet because they haven’t gotten that far along on the journey to experience it.
LEAH: Well, they’ve also been told what a mess the picture is going to look like if they do that.
PAM: Yeah, that’s true! That’s absolutely true! The conventional message is that’s exactly what’s going to happen. And you know what? Like we talked about, it can happen and it does happen without that foundation built yet. At first, you don’t have that so you’re starting this journey, you’re starting to do those things without a really thick foundation. That’s what you’re building but you don’t really know it yet so what you see is what you kind of expected to see.
LEAH: That’s so true. We totally do. We always see what we expect. It’s that confirmation bias, in the unschooling sense of it. That is very true.
PAM: Leah, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I had so much fun!
LEAH: I loved this. It was very fun to meet you and to talk about one of my favorite topics hahaha! I don’t have that many people in my life that I can just go on and on and on! It’s crazy to them! Haha!
PAM: That’s why I need all these podcast calls because I can dive right in! Hahaha! Because there are not a lot of people around where you can have this kind of conversation. I love it so much! Thank you. And before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online if they’d like to?
LEAH: I would say probably Facebook Messenger. I’m on Facebook under my name Leah Rose this is what I look like! With these glasses. My hair is a little different on my profile picture. I’m from Pennsylvania. Facebook would be the place. I actually don’t do a whole lot of social media, although I’m just toying around with starting a blog, specifically about unschooling. I think a lot! Getting my thoughts out on paper about whatever’s going on, anyway. But I don’t even have that up and running yet so I would say Facebook.
PAM: That’s awesome. Thanks again. You have a wonderful day!
LEAH: Thank you. Bye!