PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca. And today I’m here with Renee Cabatic. Hi Renee.
RENEE: Hello Pam!
PAM: Just a little bit of an introduction, I really enjoyed meeting Renee and her family at a homeschooling conference a few years ago and I saw that you recently spoke at Free To Be in Arizona, right?
PAM: Very sweet. Well, I am very happy that she agreed to join me for a chat on the podcast.
To get us started, can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
RENEE: Sure. First thing is I’m a little nervous so forgive me. Being on video and audio recording, I’m just a little nervous. Let’s see. A little bit about my family. So, Chris and I met and fell in love and decided we had this five-year plan and we’re going to finish our educations and then start a family. Well we, surprise, got pregnant with twins.
So, we just decided to finish putting him through school and then the idea was I was going to finish school and then we were going to take turns with someone staying home with them all the time. That was important to Chris. But he was able to get his engineering degree and that’s way more lucrative than my anthropology degree, that I never completed. And also, I was breastfeeding. And so, the plan kind of morphed a little bit into, I’m going to stay home with them. The unschooling didn’t come up until they were about six because in the beginning, I just wanted to be with them, gentle parenting, co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding that kind of thing. That just kind of naturally flowed into looking at different alternative education things.
I toured pre-schools around the area. I went to Waldorf and Montessori and the local preschools through the university where the child development specialists were working. None of it seemed as good as what we were already doing at home.
RENEE: Because we were already having just such a good time. So, we just thought, ‘Well let’s just keep them home another year.’ Okay well now they’re really getting fun, let’s keep them home another year. And so, it just happened really naturally for us. And then I think it was actually a Life is Good unschooling conference right here in our town and someone suggested I look into it. But I really didn’t think we were suited to unschooling. This is totally weird, what we’re doing. But when I went there and met other people I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not that weird. Other people are doing this.’ So, it was cool.
PAM: Oh yeah. That is really interesting. So, had you heard the term unschooling before somebody suggested Life is Good to you?
RENEE: No, not really. Well I guess I kind of thought of it in a negative way initially because I actually had negative preconceptions about homeschooling too. It was Chris who wanted to. He had a neighbour when he was a kid growing up and when he was on the bus going to school, he would see that neighbour playing in his yard because he was homeschooled. And so, he told me when we met, “I really want my kids to be homeschooled.” And I was like. “No.” Because I thought homeschoolers were people that were trying to keep their children from the world, protect them from information about other people and cultures and other religions. So, I was thought that’s not for us. And I really initially went into it just thinking that because we’d gone to some homeschooling curriculum fairs.
And I met the people that don’t believe the dinosaurs existed. Some people that were very restrictive on their children, like no television, no video games, no pants, like only wearing skirts for the girls. Things like that. And I was just like, ‘Boy this is not us. I don’t know, we’re just alone in a sea of people that we’re never going to connect with.’ And then that first Life is Good Unschooling Conference really blew my mind. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ And that’s where I actually learned of John Holt and some of the other people to read about and learn about.
PAM: Well that’s so interesting that a conference was kind of your first introduction into the whole world. That’s fascinating. So, how old are the twins now? Just out of curiosity.
RENEE: They’re 18! When they were much younger I used to be like I can’t wait until I can talk about unschooling to other people but I was so busy with them at the time. And now they’re 18 and I can actually talk about it and I feel bolstered because I have this proof in the pudding right? I can say, “Look it worked.”
PAM: Yeah. That is such a great point because there is, on one hand that comfort level and I know that process. I guess proof is kind of the word but what is proof? You know that whole question. Still there is that comfort level to at least knowing, just to the point where it worked for us. it has worked for us know no matter what direction it takes I’m comfortable with the choices we made and here’s where we are.
RENEE: But like you said whatever “works” means. How you define success? Honestly, they don’t need me as much. So, I have time to think about these things now.
PAM: Well that’s the other piece too. I had my unschooling editor, Alex, on the podcast we talked about my first book which is a little thing right. Like 25,000 words maybe but it took us a year and a half to edit going back and forth a year, year and half just because our kids came first. She’s an unschooling mom too.
RENEE: Yeah, get it.
PAM: You don’t really have the time to do things other than, supporting your kids, doing things with your kids, engaging with your kids, unschooling basically.
RENEE: Yes exactly.
PAM: Because that was always a balance, I like to think of it more as flow but there were times when we didn’t even hear from each other for a month, six weeks because we were just busy doing things. But that was the point. We trusted each other and we said from the outset, our families and our kids and our unschooling come first.
PAM: When we get a moment, we can do our little thing and get back in touch with each other. But yeah. That’s interesting. So, it’s nice to see that you’re out and about sharing some more about your experiences at conferences now yourself.
RENEE: Yeah, I really enjoy it. I actually really enjoy it. My most favourite part of it is frequently afterwards teens will come up to me and just have this grateful look on their face. Their parent will be standing right next to them and they’re just like “Thank you so much!” And the parents are like “Yeah, thank you. That was really helpful. It eased my fears and my worries.” If I help one person like that, it makes the whole nervousness and preparation worthwhile.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great point because it is those little connections. I’m glad that was helpful in that in that moment because that’s all that matters, in the moment. Because they’re just going to take that seed and whatever they do with it, they have it now.
RENEE: And I have so many people that I looked up to. I remember seeing Pam Sooroshian and Roya do a talk together and it happened to be on fears. I was blown away to see a mother and a teen daughter just speaking openly and really just being super connected together and honest about the realities of the fears they each had as they went through the process. It was just great.
PAM: That’s awesome. Speaking of fears and stretching comfort zones let’s go there.
RENEE: It’s one of my specialties is apparently.
PAM: Many long time unschooling parents, I would say most/all have a story around learning the value and how important it’s been for them.
As parents stretching our comfort zones is often sparked by one of our kids being interested in something that maybe we’re not comfortable with or we don’t know much about and we’re feeling uncomfortable and maybe even fearful. So, I was wondering if you have one of those stories you could share with us?
RENEE: I have so many. (laughing) I have been focusing lately on the progression of my daughter’s horseback riding career in part because it’s resulted in some really amazing things. By anyone’s definition they could call success. There were moments when I was scared of all the video gaming or how much time they were spending focused on one thing. Because I have deep divers, they go into something and it’s just all the time, all day. And so, I can relate when people say that they’re scared or that they’re wondering what value do Disney Channel shows have for your kid? Tons of value. Let me tell you. But I’ll tell you the story of the horseback riding because it’s just so fascinating.
So, I grew up afraid of horses. I’ve always been afraid, pathologically afraid. When I was very little my mother told me a story. My mother and aunts and family are all horse people. And she told me a story of being in the barn when her dad was scooping and she kept poking her head around. And the back of the horse was where her face was. And her dad kept saying, “You better quit it. Carol quit it.” And she kept doing it. And something about her swinging her head and her pigtail spooked the horse and the horse kicked back and hit her right in the chin. And she had the scar from it. Her whole life. So, that was the story I got about horses as a very little kid and it apparently impacted me greatly because from then on, I was like they’re terrible, scary beasts. And I have to avoid them.
I wonder now if that was my mom’s way of being like, ‘Let’s not get into horses. It’s an expensive hobby and a lifestyle choice that she didn’t want to pursue as an adult.’ But whatever. So, then when we lived in this rural town, we moved from Portland to Corvallis. And it’s a college town but it’s kind of rural though. Wherever we drove there would be horses out in the fields and XuMei would just vibrate in her car seat, from 15 months on, she would kick her legs and squeal and point.
I remember trying to point out other animals, “Look at the cows. Look at the goats. The birds.” Like let’s try to find other. But horses were special and at about five she started asking and I was just, I mean I just wanted to put the brakes on it. I remember asking other moms like “OK how do I do this? I don’t want to do this.” And it was through a mutual contact who also was an unschooling mom who knew another mom who was unschooling her kids. And that daughter was starting to give horseback riding lessons at their house at their stables in their backyard. So, it was very relaxed situation. And they were connected through the homeschooling/unschooling world and scouting and other recommendations. So, I was like “OK maybe we’ll check it out.”
At this point in XuMei’s life, she was about six, she refused to wear shoes. So, I called several barns in the area including this one that was recommended and all the other barns were like “No way if she doesn’t wear shoes she can’t come.” But this particular barn and the woman’s name is Robin Houck. She was like, “Well, shoes are important for these reasons but just have her come and meet the horses and we’ll talk.” And she just had this wonderful relaxed calming way about her. And so, we showed up and I carried XuMei around with no shoes on and we met the horses. She connected with Robin and Robin explained why she needed to wear shoes and she was willing to wear shoes. So, that was the beginning. And even through this time I remember just thinking to myself like ‘It’ll eventually fade away like so many interests do.’ Eventually she’ll get her fill.
I remember I met a woman who actually said to me, “You don’t have to support this. My daughter was interested in horses but I don’t want to be a horse mom so I just said no. You have that right.” She was trying to give me permission to say no. And I just really for me, searching my feelings, that doesn’t sit right. My children are other human beings. They’re not my property and I could see that this gives her joy. She is so lit up at the barn. She was like the different person. It was amazing. And so, for a couple of years she did lots of lessons.
This comes to the point of prioritizing their passions that can be expensive. And figuring out ways. We were very low income at the time and it was really surprising to people that we would pursue this. What is commonly known as an expensive interest. It can be an expensive interest. I’m not going to lie. But we figured out ways. We offered to do things at the barn to get discounts. We would do two lessons backed up against each other so less of her time was spent getting ready and tacking up and more time on the horse learning things. And we would just talk to Robin, if we had a rough section of time we’d be like “Robin you know us you know we’ll be there, can you give us a little leeway this month?” And she was so cool about it and so we managed to pay for it and pursue it.
There are a couple quick incidents, one time it was the horse’s birthday party and XuMei wanted to give one of her favourite horses Gabe a peppermint and shoot when she reached out her jacket sleeve hit the electric fence. And so, Gabe got a little shock when he touched her hand and he jumped back and he didn’t want to take the peppermint and was really scared and she just collapsed and sobbed and sobbed for the rest of the day. And I know I went to Robin and I said I think we need to go. So, we went home and I think that was one of those light bulb moments for me where I realized, ‘This is like super big for her. Her relationship to these horses is so important.’
And then another moment was as she was getting a little more advanced in cantering and doing more exciting things. I would come and watch. I couldn’t help myself, I’d be standing at the edge and I’d “gasp” and I wouldn’t know what the horse was thinking or doing and so I would inhale and I would look shocked and I would back up and I put my hands on my heart and stuff and so even though Robin to this day does not remember this conversation, I recall it very vividly. She said, “So, it might be better if you waited in the car.” Because the horses are reading my message that there’s something to be afraid of. And so, for years and years I would just drop her off. Little 7 year old XuMei, just drop her off at the edge. She’d open the gate and I’d drive away. And honestly, I think that was the best thing for both of us. So, she was able to pursue that without my fears being laid on top of all of it.
PAM: Exactly. So how is it now? How is your fear level?
RENEE: Oh man. So, she has not only pursued horseback but some of the most exciting and dangerous horseback styles you can think of. Drill Team, vaulting, trick riding. We went to see Odysseo, which is a subset of Cavalia, which is that circus-like performing horse show that travels around.
That was another moment for me where I had this “whoa” moment. Because I love theatre and I was always sad that my kids didn’t get involved in performance, in theatre. So, seeing my love and her love combined was amazing. I cried the whole time. I was like, “I love this so much!”
Then she started teaching. The Barn has a program where they rescue horses and then train them and then either sell them or they become lesson horses. So, she just developed all these skills and it’s really impressive to see her at the barn. When I go to the barn now, I’m not afraid because I just trust her. I trust that she knows her own abilities and her horses and she has these great relationships with all the horses and with all the people at the barn.
And then when she turned 18, the day after she turned 18, she bought her own horse. And so that has been amazing too because you just feel different about your own horse. Rory is able to be this horse that I can really slowly get to know and spend time with and learn about. We went camping together and I got to hear Rory neighing in the night and wake up and see her in the morning and it just has changed me. I love Rory and I love the relationship she has with XuMei and how happy she makes her. And she’s like Rory is the cutest thing, “Guess what she did today.” And she’ll tell me stories of how she learned a new trick or she behaved so well with someone new in the arena. I don’t know, seeing XuMei light up, I think is what’s changed my feelings about horses.
PAM: That’s spectacular! I love hearing all the different pieces. The journey. The first part of seeing how she lit up and just taking that step to call around to barns and showing up yourself. And then the realizing how it is better for you to be in the car for a while. Even though you were uncomfortable or would get nervous and react, you were still there for her to explore that interest. You figured out a way that it still the worked for both of you even if it was you not being around for a while. You had gotten to a point where you trusted Robin and the barn enough, then and XuMei was comfortable with you going as well.
It’s all part of that flow isn’t it? Checking in with each other and with the environment that you’re in and getting to a place where you’re comfortable with that next step. Understanding what that next step is. And then now you’re more involved again. You’ve seen it connect with your interests and now with her own.
It’s just a beautiful story, how over the years that can flow and how happy are you now that you started that?! And that you didn’t at the beginning say, ‘It’s alright if I say no to that.’
RENEE: If I had done that, I would have set up this horrible block between XuMei and I. That would have thwarted her.
RENEE: There was a moment when she fell at a performance. They would do these end of the season performances to show what they’d worked on. And she was standing on the back of a horse and the horse happened to be facing away from the audience and the audience all clapped in excitement. Well, that was new to the horse. And so, the horse moved differently than she expected and it was just really amazing to see her like that. It actually helped me. I know it sounds terrible but seeing her fall and how skilled she was at falling. How careful she was with her horse and her body. And it just honestly looked graceful. I was so impressed. Then she was able to hop right back on and that helped me.
PAM: That is part of the whole picture. It is understanding all those pieces. Knowing that things don’t have to go perfectly for things to be okay, right?
RENEE: Yes. Yes.
PAM: That’s such a big point. You just reminded me of when Michael worked at Medieval Times for a couple of years and he ended up being a knight on the horses. And hearing his story about horses and how they had to work with them because of the audience and the audience reactions and all the lights and the smoke and all the stuff that are part of the show. He would come home talking about the personalities of each of the individual horses and that moment when they asked him to train with the most difficult horse and all that kind of stuff. So, it’s really fascinating. It’s an amazing world isn’t it?
RENEE: It is. It is a whole world, love it.
PAM: So, you mentioned a little bit earlier about video games and things like that. That is another kind of stretchy area.
We see questions quite often about parents who are concerned about technology. So, I was hoping you might be able to share a little bit about how technology, TV, video games, YouTube those kinds of things wove through your unschooling days.
RENEE: This question is such an interesting one for me because there were things like the horses that were difficult for me and then things like food and video games that were not difficult for me. So, where do I start? Maybe because Chris and I both loved gaming before we had children. We both liked board gaming, cable gaming and video games. I love television. He loved television. This was just part of our life. So, the idea when they were young. I remember parenting manuals and other parents saying proudly “My child doesn’t even know we have a TV.” And I was like, ‘That’s kind of weird.’ Keeping the TV a secret or something.
And for us it was just television and video games and then YouTube was coming into the picture, were just part of the many choices we made every day of things to do. They were super useful for things like downtime, resting in between activities and sharing things. Even to this day, each of us has a connection that we watch certain shows together. So, Chris and XuMei watch Bones together and the family started watching Firefly together. We have just hundreds of stories like that. And over the years to all of the activities we got involved in, YouTube was so useful for looking up how to do things, how to buy a new game. How do you play this game? The guy he does tabletop gaming. Oh, he’s from Star Trek…
PAM: Wil Wheaton.
RENEE: Wil Wheaton, thank you. I kept wanting to say Will Smith, that’s not right. That’s how my brain works when I’m nervous, it glitches up.
Oh my gosh. So, because my husband is in a band called The Marimba and he plays the marimbas in The Marimbas. We would go to festivals and be in the local festival days and the parades and stuff like that. And so, the kids got involved in circus arts. And so, what better place to look at what’s the next level to learn and your juggling or your stilting or your hula hooping, than You Tube. It was such a great resource. And on TV, we watched every Disney Channel Original. Hannah Montana, Sweet life of Zac and Cody, That’s so Raven, every episode. Loved all of those. Those were so great because even if in the moment I might get annoyed with the sixth viewing of a particular episode, we were having awesome conversations that were being brought up by things that would happen on the TV.
And there were so many times when I would notice that they were noticing things that I wasn’t even paying attention to. Like XuMei used to notice when in Gilmore Girls the characters would wear the same clothes many seasons later. She would be like “Oh you know Lorelai wore that cardigan in the second season. And now Rory’s wearing it here.” And I was like I wasn’t even paying that close attention.
PAM: Yeah, that’s spectacular.
RENEE: Everyday there was something we were doing swimming, biking, skating, jump rope, chalking, having friends over, nerf battles, etc. Every week we would have a video gaming gathering and our friends would bring their, not just their laptops but their towers, to our house and set up around our kitchen table. The gaming was why we got together but they would jump up and eat and run outside and shoot bows and arrows in the backyard or jump on the trampoline.
We’d lived really close to a park so they would attach the wagons and the bikes all together and take a train ride to the park and swing and play on the bars or whatever.
We never demonized any one choice or even put a judgment on any one choice as less than the other choices. And I think as a result, to this day still they’re just fun awesome things we do, tools we use. They’ve never been afraid to tell me things.
There have been times where XuMei has said, “I want to Google something but I’m nervous of the results. Will you google it first and let me know that the pictures aren’t scary?” or “Can you just find the answer to my one little question? I don’t want to have to wade through all of that garbage.” Yeah stuff like that.
PAM: That’s amazing the way it just weaves in. I know some people are concerned when that seems to be their kid’s passion. Like you were talking about your kids, some kids are really into doing the deep dive into one thing right?
RENEE: Yeah. So, Xander got really into computing and gaming and coding. We actually found a friend and we paid him to come over once a week and they would sit and code together and he was teaching him what he knew. He’s much older, teaching what he knew and after a while Xander was like, “OK I’ve gotten enough out of this.” And now he really wants XuMei to learn how to code. And so, they set up a date once a week to code. But she’s super busy and it hasn’t happened and now she’s like, “OK if you learn to ride a horse, I’ll learn to code.” So, they have this funny thing going on right now. But …Sorry my computer just did something.
PAM: No problem. Speaking of computers. Fascinating. Michael is very much into coding right now. And Joseph is working on pixel art. And he and I are working on story. So, we’re all kind of working together and we’ll see where something may go. But it’s so fascinating that way isn’t it? For it to just be a part of your lives. And I think that’s where our work is. In just getting to the point where we understand, where we’re comfortable or more comfortable with just seeing it as another tool. So, often you get into the whole screen discussion but so many different things are technology based.
RENEE: Or can be improved by technology. So, if you say, no technology at all, you’re actually cutting off a way that it could be better.
PAM: Yeah. And I love the connecting pieces too because you’re right, you can tell we have older kids, with Lissy we watched Supernatural. Right? That was what we watched with her and with Michael it was Doctor Who. He was always into science and has always been science based, all that kind of stuff. So, it was Doctor Who for him. With Joseph, Rocco and I just last night finished watching a series of Let’s Play videos for a video game.
RENEE: That’s awesome.
PAM: For Outer Wilds. So, we’ve been watching that over the last couple of weeks and you know we finished it last night and yes there were tears at the end of the game. It’s so fun. It can be connecting as long as we’re willing to meet them there and connect with them over it. If we try to get rid of that judgment piece and just say “Hey I’m just going to be open to this. Let’s see.” We can find places to connect. Right?
RENEE: When I first saw Doctor Who I was horrified by the terrible special effects and cheesiness of it. And just the Britishness of it. But Xander was so into it and I was like “OK let’s do this.” And we dove into that show and I love it. And for a while, all of our clothes were Doctor Who inspired T-shirts. I made a joke that when we quit watching this will have nothing to wear. We just loved all the characters and we dressed up as the characters for Halloween. It was such a great show.
PAM: Yeah. That’s awesome.
RENEE: I totally disagree with the idea that it’s isolating. Again, because we were there doing it with them. It was connecting for us just between us and our family. But also it’s literally been the way my kids have made most of their friends and stay connected to their friends as they’ve moved around. They spend a lot of time with their buddies online. I come into the room and I’ll be like “Who are you on with?” That’s the question right? They list off like six people and they’re all hanging out together. It’s so connecting.
PAM: Yeah. And I really think that that’s the parent’s choice, whether or not they’re going to connect with their child through that technology, whatever it is that they’re interested in. It’s really connecting with them around their interests. Because it’s not just the tool. What is it that they’re interested in? They’re interested in connecting with somebody, they’re interested in this game, the TV show, whatever it is. Even if it’s that downtime, connecting with them relaxing and enjoying entertainment. There is nothing wrong with entertainment either.
RENEE: Yes, relaxing! We joke we joke because my husband actually has trouble relaxing. He cannot relax. And so, it’s actually something that I’m like, ‘You know being able to relax and enjoy time off is a valuable skill!’
PAM: And I mean the connecting piece is another big thing. You mentioned learning things too. I remember Michael made a comment, oh months ago now, because a lot of his tricking and parkour stuff. I remember even when he was doing weapons and things at the dojo, they had been talking about how the skill level in general has increased for everybody because they have access to You Tube and they can see other people doing these tricks and thinking, “I want to be able to do that!” It’s very inspirational for people who are interested in that thing, whatever it is. And in general, just raised everybody’s level and enjoyment of the sport. Because they were able to see other things and be inspired and practice. Because they’re usually talking about how they did that and what their tips and tricks are and everything. So, that’s another great aspect of it isn’t it?
RENEE: Yeah. And it’s like democratized. So, everyone has access to it and it’s not some elite thing that only certain people have access to. And there’s a kind of innovation. Everyone’s innovating. So, all the sports. What if we tried x, we can make it better and more fun.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. I mean anything that you’re interested in you can search on YouTube pretty much and I think find anything. I know my husband enjoys watching it for just any kind of thing that he’s interested in from solar to repair, to all sorts of things.
RENEE: I know. So, I think we could talk all day, honestly.
PAM: I know, I’m sure we could! Oh okay, I like this one too. Another one of the really valuable paradigm shifts that I remember, it was a big one for me is around the idea of quitting. I remember when my kids were young, trying to cajole them to continue with something. To finish those swimming lessons or whatever it was that that we had that I felt we had committed to because it seemed like I was doing a bad job as a parent.
It would be seen as a failure if my kids quit something. Or if they quit this thing, thinking they’re going to quit everything, they’ll always give up when things get hard or something like that. All the stories we conventionally tell ourselves.
There’s definitely another way to look at quitting, isn’t there?
RENEE: Oh my gosh. First of all, I think quitting is such a huge success. I love it when quitting happens because I think there’s so much to be learned about yourself.
And let me tell you, kids will do really hard things when they want to and they’ll stay committed to it even when I, the parent, I’m going, “You can take a break from this, please. I see that this is really hard for you.” But if they want it, they’ll be like “No I want to do this.” And they’ll do it.
So, this story is kind of wrapped up with the whole college story but I’ll try to skip to the part. So, in our town there’s a program where kids who have never gone to school can go to the community college and earn their high school diploma and their associate’s degree together for free, books everything. So, it’s a nice program. And I talked about it with them and they had a friend do it and so first XuMei tried it. And then after a term or two I think Xander was like “OK I want to try it.” Which is part and parcel for their whole life together. She would try something and he go, “OK that’s something I want to do too.” And he tried for a little bit.
So, after a term he said he was quitting. And you know, I was so impressed with the things he said. As we talked about his decision for quitting. First of all, they both got really good grades. Not that it matters but people who are nervous like to hear that, right? Yeah. They got all A’s and I actually was encouraging XuMei to not get an A so that she could not be so stressed about always getting A’s. I was like, “You need to just get over this.”
But so, he didn’t quit because it was too hard or because he didn’t succeed. He chose to quit. And he said, “You know, the only reason to do this program is because it’s free. And that’s not reason enough for me to be stressed and miserable.” And he thought about a lot of things regarding college. He was like, “The definition of full time, is really just there for funding. It’s not really a good match for my life.” The other thing he said that was so great was, each professor expects you, even says to you my class is the most important. This should be a priority. But he was like when I’m focused on one thing, I can’t be focused on four or six other intense things. I want to be able to focus on one thing and not be failing in other things. Really for him, the way it worked, didn’t work for him. And he made that decision.
And he promptly signed up for and achieved his scuba certification license. He rebuilt a Subaru Outback engine. So, now he has a car in the driveway. The things he pursued, it just suddenly became very clear to me, that the way college is set up maybe just doesn’t match for him right now. And it was just a really good choice for him to quit.
He also started woodworking in our garage and he wants to make a kayak. He’s in the process. There are wood shavings and wood pieces. So, he’s doing that project. And he’s always been a gardener and a baker. He loves to make all his food from complete scratch. So, pasta from scratch and pizza, udon noodles and just whatever thing he’s fascinated with, he’ll just dive deep into figuring out all the different ways and the best ways and stuff.
And so seeing that choice in him, it really made me realize too, in my life, the moments where I’ve decided, ‘Oh man, I was stuck on that idea that you had to stick with something forever.’ And what a mistake that was and how I judged myself as a failure for not achieving some goal that I had set up previously within the parameters of that pursuit.
And looking back on that, that’s one of the benefits. Xander does not think of himself as a failure. And I love that. He’s not! And I wasn’t either. I changed what I wanted and changing what you want is about learning who you are. And that’s a success.
So, I just think it’s such a great thing to be to supported and encouraged and validated that maybe this isn’t for you, maybe quitting is good. Let’s stop doing this thing and do something, add something else. Sometimes an activity or a pursuit will be like a stepping stone to the next thing. I think if we say, “Well you can’t quit.” Then we’re stopping them from saying “Wait but I want to step to this next thing.”
PAM: Yeah you’re right it’s like almost stunting or stopping their growth.
RENEE: Thwarting the word, thwarting keeps coming to mind. Because that idea of, “First we do no harm.” I think it can be really harmful when we’re thwarting them or stopping them. Because I do believe that learning happens naturally and that they are interested in the world and they’re going to pursue things. My job is to just kind of get out of the way.
PAM: That’s right. It’s so interesting to think about it that way. I always love the image. Because when you see them engaged in things and just exploring things and trying them out, like you were talking about how XuMei lights up. You saw her lighting up around horses. Then there are other things that they try and they do fine by outer standards, like you were saying, but look how much they’ve learned about themselves and how that doesn’t mesh with the way they want their days to go. And it’s getting in their way. You could see so clearly looking back now, how the way college is set up versus how Xander likes to dive deep into singular interests at one time. How that just doesn’t mesh for him.
RENEE: And it never meshed with him. When we tried scouting and they did the same thing. They would blow a horn and you’re supposed to switch activities and he would be like “No, I’m busy with this magnet project right now.”
PAM: That’s right. I mean that is the beautiful thing too when you watch natural learning in action. You see how it works for each child individually.
There are definitely people for whom they like to grab a little bit of this, a little bit of this and a little bit of this. That lights them up. For some other people it’s like “I’m going to sink right into that until I’ve had my fill.” And that’s where the quitting is when they realize they’ve had their fill. Maybe they’ve been doing it for five years five or five weeks.
They’ve gotten to the point where they’ve hit as much as they want out of it. And to see them in that moment and to see how, I was going to say how clearly they know but you still have conversations about it that helps them process and become more clear about it. But that self-awareness is so wonderful isn’t it? I know I’ve learned from that by watching my kids because it kind of gives us permission, as you were saying, “It’s like oh, I’m not a failure because I did that. I just changed.”
RENEE: And like you said, a lot of it can be happening internally too. So, you might not see it and you might have worries like “Oh, what if they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.” There have been so many stories. I remember XuMei was super into swimming for a while. Both of them were but they noticed that XuMei was so good at swimming and the swim coaches and they’re like, “We want her on the team. We want on the team.” And there was no thinking about it for her. She was just like “No, I don’t want to do that.” And I was like “Are you sure? This is a great opportunity.” And she was just like “Nope, I don’t want to do it.” They’re both great swimmers to this day. They love swimming but going to the swimming pool at 5 a.m. and swimming for two hours every day was not something XuMei wanted to do.
PAM: That made me smile too. And in the realization that for so many of us we’ve been brought up chasing that status.
RENEE: Yes. I remember being completely overwhelmed in school trying to do everything, go to everything. Totally overwhelmed. Not given permission to say “No I don’t want to do that,” even if someone else thinks I’d be good at it. The fact that they know that, they get to choose what they want to do because that’s what they enjoy doing. That’s a huge success right there as a parent right? You know when to quit something when it’s not for you.
PAM: Yeah. Exactly and that it’s okay. And you can shift and that’s all valuable. I love that. Yeah, it’s a big thing. It’s a really big thing.
RENEE: It is. It is.
PAM: So, let’s jump to the college a little bit because you kind of brought it up there as well.
I’d love to hear a college story or two because that’s another common concern isn’t it? When people come to unschooling, they sometimes think if you choose unschooling you’re closing off that door for your kids. So, can you share a story or two about that?
RENEE: Yeah, I touched on it a little bit already. You know the free college opportunity in our town but there were some interesting things through that process. She asked me if she could do it. So, I called the counsellor at the high school to ask her about the dates and stuff and the woman was like “The test is tomorrow. She would have to test tomorrow to get in.” And XuMei have never tested before. And so, I thought she’d say no way and I asked her and she said “Yeah, let’s do it.” So, without any preparation or anything, that night we kind of talk a little bit about stuff because we discovered that she wasn’t super familiar with math notation or mathematical language. You feel like you use it all the time but then you discover things like maybe we didn’t use the word take away or we use take away but we didn’t use subtract or something like that.
PAM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RENEE: So, there were some things that she was unfamiliar with and she was like, “It’s fine.” And so, she went in and took the test. And then when we got the results the counsellor was looking at me with all this. “Sorry Mom.” You know to tell us the results. And when she told us the results I was thrilled. I was so happy I was clapping. I was like “Yay. You know you did it.”
And she tested in the math 50. And yeah it was just I don’t know how to explain to you that process except that she wanted it. She would come home and she’d have her nest on the couch. We kept doing the same things we did their whole lives right, just supporting them and providing them with what they asked for and just being there if they had questions. And she would have a hard time. She would cry, it would be really hard. I would be like “You don’t have to do this. This looks is really uncomfortable.” And it’s hard to see your kids uncomfortable. But she would say, “No I want to do this. I know I can do this.” And she did. And in ten weeks she learned what you need to know to get into the next math class. By the time Xander took the test she was going into math 95. He also tested into math 50. But he went home and he spent two weeks on You Tube. Learning what he wanted to learn, went back in to take the test again and tested into math 95. So, they were able to take that math class together.
Writing too, prior to this the most she had really written were texts to me. There wasn’t much writing going on. That just wasn’t an interest but in one term of college she was writing term papers. And she was writing essays and the professors were like “Can I use your essay next year to tell the students what I want? This is so great.” Looking back now, in the moment I remember being like “Whoa this is tough. It’s hard. Are we going to do this?” But looking back now, it just seems really like it was very easy because they just did it. They just decided to do it and they did it, like so many other things. Once they decide they want to do something, they do it.
Now she works part time, she teaches horseback riding. That funny idea people have where they won’t get up in the morning to go to things. It’s just so absurd. She keeps her own schedule. She goes to class. She prefers 8 a.m. classes,the earlier the class the better. Because she likes to get home so she can set up her study nest and get her homework done and then go to her job. She just has this great attitude about it. It just seems easy now.
But I remember those years where I was like, ‘I hope we’re not setting them up to not get to do something they want to do.’ Right? I remember that question. I hoped and I just trusted some of the other kind of big names like you and Joyce Fetterol and Pam Soroshian and knowing Pam’s three daughters all went college and just kind of trusted for a while. But I would still have that worry inside me like I don’t know maybe we didn’t do enough. Maybe we didn’t play the right game. But now that they’ve done it, it just feels like that’s a silly worry. If they want it, they’ll do it.
PAM: That’s so true I think. I mean absolutely I remember those worries and getting to the point where you know, “OK here are other ways that we can do it if that’s something that they want to do.” Yeah you want to make sure that you’re not closing these doors on them. Absolutely. You can understand those questions. But that’s the nice thing about having these conversations later when you can see. The fascinating thing is that just because they didn’t go to school even if they test into, I don’t even know what testing in the math 50 is, but even if it’s basic math, the lady giving you this look like you should feel bad or something about this. It’s like, no way! Because it’s not like they were sitting in a closet for years doing nothing and not doing math. Right?
RENEE: Right, right, right!
PAM: They are doing so much, like from knowing themselves and understanding themselves and pursuing things that they want through the hard times and quitting things and moving to other things. And then learning what the things that they’re actually interested in at the time, they’re just showing up in this moment at this college test the next day. That’s an awesome story. Maybe they quit in six weeks or whatever but they’re showing up for the moment, like they have always done. And the whole word, the term of remedial math. Sure, that makes sense maybe in the sense of a student who’s gone through the system. That they should have learned, they had been taught this before. But there is no behind for an unschooling student, who shows up and has been doing other things.
RENEE: It just speaks to the idea that the teaching element of that equation is less important than the learning element of that equation.
And if these students, if these classes exist it’s because so many students who went through twelve years of schooling aren’t getting that information because they aren’t interested, they’re not ready. They’re not open to that right then anyway. So, it’s a huge waste of time to be trying to make people go through this year after year after year. It’s just silly. Why not do what lights you up and what you’re interested in and what just feels good. Why do something painful for 12 years? It’s a silly.
PAM: Right. And I just love the idea that it doesn’t matter where they’re starting. They’re starting where they start in whatever new interest. So, if college is something they want to pursue, wherever they’re starting that’s fine. That’s where they are. It doesn’t matter if it takes an extra year of things because they’re just accomplishing their goals.
We’ve never judged by years, or a particular timeline. Her horseback riding “Should she have been here at the end of the first year and at the end of the second year.”
It’s only there in learning in that particular system where that’s a thing really. And we don’t need to bring that thing with us.
RENEE: Right. And I think when you’re living in the present moment, you really are able to feel that and not worry. Not fret about the past or worry about the future but really just be right there. And I mean Chris has an engineering degree and it took him five years. And that happens a lot. I know a lot of people that take five or six years or take a break in between or whatever. So again, back to what Xander said, really that those years are really designed to, it’s a financial question. That’s really what it’s about. It’s not about how humans learn or how to optimize the amount you learn or how well you learn it. It’s really about how to afford it, how to pay for it.
PAM: It really is.
RENEE: From the girl who a couple terms ago was like, “What does multiplication mean?” She has taken calculus now and got an A. She’s taking another calculus class I think this term. I don’t know, actually, I should ask her. And she wants to pursue biomedical engineering right now and again that changes all the time.
Which is something that as an unschooling parent, I think is really important is to just be flexible and not pigeon hole them. Or be like, this is what you’re doing and this is who you are. Because there are so many doors open, when you don’t shut the door.
PAM: Yeah. And I think that is a little tweak to remember too because that is something we get used to with unschooling. Our kids changing interests, back to the quitting things and moving on and when we look back we can see the thread of how one thing kind of morphed into another and you can see how the path changed over the years. When they choose some more formal kind of learning it’s just to check ourselves that we don’t get pulled back into that judgment right? So, it’s that little push to say they’re using this tool. College is a window, it’s a way, it’s a path just like TV is a path.
RENEE: Or joining the circus or whatever.
PAM: Exactly. It’s a way to learn things. And you still keep that openness.
Like you said, she comes home and she builds her nest. It’s still your life. It’s still your life, you guys are still in control of it right.
RENEE: Yeah. So, it’s so cool. I just recently too have had some really lovely moments when everyone’s been home and it does feel more fleeting now. Now that they’re 18 and they’re starting to pursue these bigger goals and it’s just like, ‘Oh man, just love every moment that we’re all together and chatting and sharing our interests.’
PAM: Yeah, you really come to appreciate it. Right?
RENEE: Yes, yes!
PAM: OK. So speaking up from this vantage point and looking back:
What do you feel has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling all those years ago for you? Just personally what feels wonderful to you for having chosen this path?
RENEE: For me, I think the most wonderful thing is still having this really connected relationship with both my children. On a selfish level, I just enjoy that we’re friends and that we can talk and share interests and be happy together. Laughing, joking, cooking together. Whatever we’re doing.
But when I thought about this question, I thought about the benefits to them. I didn’t even think about me, I was thinking about them. I was totally thinking about them and the thing that I see over and over and over again. In particular, when comparing their life to the lives of some of their friends or even just people I know who went through the school system. They just have so much more of that self-awareness and self-efficacy is the word I learned recently. Which kind of combines self-awareness and self-esteem and it’s a good word self-efficacy.
They aren’t people pleasers. They aren’t people that are bent and swayed by the trends and the tides. They’re just really mindful and thoughtful about things. And I can’t say what it would have been like. Maybe that’s a personality thing. Maybe that’s genetic. I don’t know but I do think there’s something to be said for the environmental component of not having gone through the whole school system and having had their interests and their pursuits honoured and their person respected and recognized for their 18 years.
PAM: It’s a great point that there will be definitely some personality aspects involved but I think when you the unschooling teens and young adults at conferences and you see them engage with other kids out and about the world, there is a difference that I have seen many times. And I do think that the environment of the lifestyle of unschooling, the time that they have. The relationships, being respected and having their interests valued and just always being treated like another human being makes a difference.
RENEE: Seems so simple and obvious right? Of course.
PAM: Well, this makes so much sense is treat them like a person. (laughing)
RENEE: It’s a little bit crazy how different it is than the mainstream and how it felt like we were doing something really radical compared to other people.
When we say it like it is, it’s just so simple.
PAM: And it leads to why for you it’s been those relationships. You can see the tie between what’s been the most valuable for everybody. And it’s those relationships and that self-efficacy, perfect word. That they carry with them. It’s so beyond compulsory school years. It’s about the human being in the world isn’t it?
RENEE: And I think I just realized just sitting here with you that those early moments of trusting them. So, trusting that they knew how much of a food to eat for instance. I’m going to trust them to make that decision with their stomach and trusting that they know how capable they are on their bike. “OK. You’re ready for the training wheels off. Let’s do this.” I’m going to trust that you’re ready and not lay my fears and worries and concerns over you. For me, trusting the horseback riding and trusting the gaming. There have been funny things recently that have happened. So, XuMei was out one night and Chris and I went to bed and she came home and knocked on our bedroom door was like “Did you not care that I didn’t get home?”
And they were like, “You’re 18, We trust you we know you’re fine and that you’ll let us know if you need anything.” She said, “I thought you guys would at least wait up for me.” We’ve learned how to trust through practicing trust. We’re better at trusting and they’re great at trusting. I think that trusting relationship is part and parcel with the respect and honouring each other as people.
PAM: I think the other big piece and you talked about a little bit when you saw XuMei fall off the horse. It’s not about trusting them to never make mistakes or for things to turn out perfectly. Things are going to go sideways, things are going to go wrong, and it’s trusting that we can still recover from these things. That, in that moment, she’ll pop back up on the horse or we’ll talk about it and we’ll figure out a plan B or another way through things.
It’s trusting that they’re making the best decision in the moment for them and that we can also deal with how it turns out. And that’s so much of their learning too. That experience of life and seeing that it’s not all perfect, life happens. But we deal with it. And imagine just how much, back to the self-efficacy, knowing that you can handle if something’s going to go wrong.
RENEE: Yeah. That’s what it’s like, built in resiliency. When they’re little, when they would fight or squabble, asking them to figure out a solution was so much more effective than me imposing my adult solution on their squabbles or whatever. The exact same thing is true now. If they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place “What do I do? You know I’m under this pressure this friend is saying this this.” Whatever is happening in their life. You know if I say well this is what I think you should do and I’m going to judge whatever you decide is as a bad decision, that’s not partnering. That’s not supporting. But when we have this connected relationship and we’re able to, like you said, talk about things and brainstorm and come up with ideas and truly whatever choice they come up, honestly at this point you know it might not be the choice I would make. But again, like you said, I trust them that they know themselves and what they’re capable of and what’s the right choice for them. And like you said is it not the right choice? Who knows?
It’s like that Buddha story about the guy whose son breaks his leg and the whole town says “Oh we’re so sorry your son broke his leg.” and he’s like, “We’ll see.” And then the army comes in to recruit but his son has a broken leg and they say, “Oh, it’s so great that he has a broken leg.” and he says, “We’ll see.” And then the story goes on and essentially with every choice and everything you know there’s a pro and con and a different path.
And then, just like you said, resiliency and you just make it go.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me Renee, it was wonderful.
RENEE: Thank you Pam.
PAM: Thank you so much. And before we go is there a place where people can connect with you online?
RENEE: I don’t have a blog but I’m on Facebook and Instagram And I’m Renee Cabatic on everything. I don’t have any fancy names. I love to make friends and answer questions and talk about this stuff.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. Thank you so much again. Have a great day.
RENEE: Thank you, bye!