PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Donna Anderson. Hi, Donna.
DONNA: Hi. How are you doing?
PAM: I’m doing very well, thank you. I was actually introduced to you a little while ago through a podcast listener. So, I am so excited to get to learn more about you and your unschooling journey. To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and what everybody’s interested in right now? Just a little snapshot.
DONNA: Yeah, sure. In my family, we have myself and my husband. We’ve been together about 20 years now. We’ve known each other that long. We’ve got two boys. They’re always unschooled and Liam is 14 and Quinn is 10. We have a dog, Lucky. We’re not sure how old he is. He was a rescue dog, so I don’t know, maybe seven or eight or something, but yeah, he’s a big part of our family. We’ve got some chickens and fish and the usual thing.
We live in Australia. So, I’m kind of ahead in time of you and it’s morning here, evening for you.
PAM: It’s tomorrow.
DONNA: Yeah. We’re in tomorrow over here. It’s the morning time and we’re in Queensland, on the East coast of Australia, about halfway up. We’ve lived here for about four years. We really love it. It’s really great. It’s a small city and still got that country vibe in that people are really friendly, but there are things here that we want. And we live near the city in the suburbs, so we’ve got quite a big, almost quarter of an acre block for all the animals and the garden and all that kind of thing. But still, only a few K’s from the city, which is nice.
And we’ve moved around quite a bit. I don’t know. We haven’t really talked about that. Have we? I’m from Sydney. My husband and I met in Sydney. I was at uni and working and stuff. And then, we moved. I went to Singapore, my husband went to Africa, and then he was offered a job in Dubai and we decided to move there together. And then we had Liam. Then we moved back to Australia. Then we went to the Netherlands and now we’re back in Australia again.
We like traveling. So, that’s one of the interests that my husband and I have is that, when we first met, we both said we both want to travel the world. So, we have been able to move around a bit and travel.
I’ve got to go into some of the kids’ interests there. It all kind of overlaps. Our boys, they’re really, really good friends, which is lovely. And they have some common interests. So, they both quite like RPGs, sort of like tabletop RPGs, like video gaming RPGs, and all four of us like martial arts stuff. So that’s some of their overlapping stuff.
Dungeons and Dragons. That’s been a thing that they’ve been into for a few years now. It started off like we just played at home a little bit and then they got some games with friends going and that’s something that they’re still really interested in.
Liam, he’s been playing some RPG games lately. New one came out, Baldur’s Gate, and he’s playing a Star Wars RPG. And he’s such a great guy, 14. It’s fantastic. He’s really lovely, funny guy, really interested in history. He dives deep into all these different time periods and often it is through YouTube and games and movies, and he knows so much.
And it often ties into politics and other things. And then it ties into his martial arts and weaponry. And he’s interested in medieval fighting. That’s something he wants to explore, how they do it in modern times, dress up as the knights. That’s something he’s quite keen on. And D&D, he really loves. He reads a lot and fleshing out characters and writing about characters and stuff.
Oh, and his martial arts, he really loves that. He’s tried a few different types, but Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is what he’s settled on and been doing for a few years and he loves it. He looks forward to it. He goes a couple of times a week, has a really great bunch of guys that he trains with. And it’s so cool seeing him just loving it and really putting so much energy into it and it’s really great seeing that.
And Quinn, as I said, there’s some of those similar interests with D&D and RPGs and stuff. He’s really into animals as well. He spends a lot of time each day with our dog and chickens, and so do I, and so does my husband, and then Liam, too, but he’s really into animals. And, he was actually the main driver in us starting to foster animals. So, we’ve fostered some kittens.
And actually today, he’s super, super, super excited. We’ve got someone coming from the rescue group to check our boundaries and do the little interview thing so we can foster puppies and dogs. So that’s really exciting today and it’s funny how just that interest, it just brings in so many different things, because we take our dog for a walk and we meet other people with their dogs. We’ve got to know neighbors through our dogs, because they all say, “Here comes Lucky!” It’s almost like we don’t exist. Because he’s such a sweet, beautiful dog.
And then even things like he’ll see sometimes, he notices things. We’ll be walking and he’ll go, “Oh, look at that nest!” And I’m like, it’s so far up. And we stop and we watch the birds and then we research, what kind of bird is that? I don’t know. I learn so much. You think you kind of know stuff, but yeah. I feel like I know nothing. It’s so humbling, isn’t it, being around kids and the things they’re interested in?
Oh, funny story. It’s about the animal thing. Can I tell you?
DONNA: Recently, I was a little bit sad that we found there was a possum that had sadly passed away. It’s a ring-tailed possum, which is a small marsupial thing. And Quinn remembered, luckily, that marsupials, you should check their pouch just in case there’s some babies. And I hadn’t thought of that. I was just like, oh, that’s sad. And then he said, we should check. And I was feeling a bit like, oh, I don’t know. But I did and I thought, oh gosh. And as I got close, it was like, there’s definitely something there. And then, yeah, there were two little baby joeys, apparently they call them. Little ones. And they were alive. We popped them out.
I used to be a midwife and I thought, little babies, we’ve got to keep them warm. So, we just popped them under our top to keep them warm. We did the phone call to the rescue. “What do we do? We’ve got these tiny baby possums.” They looked really good and they were fluffy and looked super healthy. And we dropped them off to someone who could look after them.
And Quinn was just like, “This is what I want to do.” I can’t remember the word he used. “I’m an animal rescue hero,” or something. And he was really just so stoked and I was, as well. But just seeing him, super excited. And I was like, “That was amazing that you thought to check.” Because I was like, oh, it’s sad. But then he was like, “We’ve got to check in the pouch.” And I was like, “Are you going to check?” And he was like, “Nope. Are you going to check?” And I was like, “Yes. I’ll check.” I had to really psych myself up for it. But it was so amazing and it wouldn’t have happened unless he said the thought of checking.
We’ve got so many other interests, but I could just go on for ages. Quinn, I should mention, is really into mythology.
PAM: Oh yeah?
DONNA: We can just talk about their interests. This is our life. But mythology is something that’s been a big thing. Greek, Roman, Japanese, Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, and this was something I knew really nothing about. I was like, oh yeah, there’s some Greek stories or something. That’s all I really knew. So that was driven by him. Even from when he was two, it started off with the Disney Hercules, which he must have watched a thousand times. And then, other mythology, and then he’s gotten older and actually started reading about Greek mythology and I thought it was a bit full-on. Some of it is not really for little kids, is what most people would think. But I was like, well, he loves it. Let’s just go there.
And we got audio books that we’ve listened to, so many great ones by Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry, and then even anime and manga, so much of that is references to Japanese mythology. So, we’ve learned so much about that. And then Beowulf and Norse mythology. And he just knows so much about all of the gods and goddesses and their stories. And then, at times, he’s into modern, different religions and how they explain how the world started. And you can see these connections and how it overlaps and how could he be 10 and just have this incredible worldview? It’s amazing. I didn’t know that that’s what life could be like, I guess. But again, it is.
I guess I should mention the interests of my husband and I, because of course we’ve got stuff, too. But I’ve started doing martial arts, as well. I think I actually started before the kids. I go a few times a week to do that. And apart from that, my husband and I, we have a good time together. We have our own business. So, we work together. But we really enjoy each other’s company and we’re a great team. So, I guess parenting got us off to a good start working together.
We started our own business last year. And it’s been really awesome, because he can be home more and more involved in our lives. And he’s a really great guy. He’s really into history. He loves playing those strategy kinds of games, like Total War and stuff. The 14-year-old, they’re both into that, some of those political intrigue kinds of games. And he loves cooking. He loves the whole process of going to the shop, choosing food for that meal, finding new things we’ve never had before, making a meal. And I like doing the baking and snacks and bread baking and cakes and pastry. I just love that. I like gaming, as well. Really love gaming with the boys and they surpassed me years ago, but I still love it. I really love gaming with them.
And music, I play guitar and ukulele a bit. Very much a novice, but I dive in. Oh, and Liam plays guitar a bit, too. Electric guitar. Not so much songs. He really likes playing around making cool sound effects and stuff, so that’s good, where I am a bit more boring. I play a song and sing or something. And then volunteering, I volunteer for a local breastfeeding group and I’m doing my counseling qualification for that, as well. And yeah, I think that pretty much covers the main things we’re into at the moment. But it changes. You know what it’s like. There’s always something new to try.
PAM: I could let you go on forever and ever. I didn’t jump in because, number one, when you’re unschooling, look how full your life can be. All those different interests. And I love the way you shared that these are some of the interests that they share. These are some of the interests that they’re pursuing on their own. And then we heard sometimes the ones that they engage with you and with your husband, and just everybody weaves in and out with each other, depending on what they’re doing. It’s just a beautiful example of how unschooling flows in our lives when we have that time and that space.
So many people say, “Your kids don’t go to school. They must be so bored.” Right? I remember hearing that, especially when my kids were younger. And my kids heard that.
DONNA: Oh yeah. No.
PAM: And it’s really not true. Because when you have the space to actually think of something you’re curious about and just do it and just play with it, whether you’re making sound effects with it or learning songs, it doesn’t matter. It’s just so fascinating and beautiful to watch them in action, isn’t it?
DONNA: Yeah. I love it. And sometimes an interest comes up, and it comes up for a week. Over the past year, there’s been lots of opportunities where you just have even more time than usual, which is awesome. And it’s like, oh, let’s do some woodworking. And it just happened that someone said, “Oh, there’s this really great person and they’re selling some kits.” And I was like, cool! Let’s do that. We started whittling and making different things with timber. We ordered these cool knives and that was really fun. And then we just put it aside.
And then drawing would be a thing. So, Quinn would be like, “Oh, I want to get some new art stuff.” And he would be really into it and drawing a lot and just doing these amazing drawings. And then he would take a break. And then I would be like, oh, let’s paint! So, then we’d get some paint and we’d get some canvases and just paint stuff. I’m not an artist or anything, but you just have a go. You just do it and play around with colors and things. And there’s so many things that come in and out. And you never know if it’s going to stick. You don’t know.
When Quinn first started watching Hercules, I didn’t know that was going to be something at 10 that it’s become this common thread through his life. It was like a Disney movie that we were watching and I was like, oh, it’s awesome. At that time, the kids were younger and I was like, I don’t know how I feel about some of the things. It doesn’t matter, though, right? We watched it and watched it and watched it. And it’s become something that he’s really into. Yeah. That’s an unschooling life, I guess.
PAM: Exactly. You don’t know until you’re looking back and you start to see the threads through things. And it’s the same with things that they try out for a while. Even if they don’t stick for longer, while they were diving into it, they pick stuff up that they’re keeping with them, and that weaves into other things. You don’t know what they’re getting out of, say, the drawing. It could be a perspective thing. It could be an artistic thing.
But, a few years down the road, you’ll probably notice, when you’re looking back at the threads, the little piece that they pick. Maybe it’s just a critique piece. Now they feel more comfortable critiquing the art in a video game that they’re watching or something because they played around with it a bit. It’s just so fascinating to see what they’re drawn to, no matter how long for, right?
DONNA: Yeah. You never know where it’s going to go. And even something like video games. I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday, and I was saying, I was driving somewhere with Liam. Because you know the car, there’s always so many cool conversations happening. But I had Classic FM on, which is all of the classical music. And just by chance, this guy comes on talking about video games. And I was like, this is unusual. It’s normally they’re talking about different concertos and things like that.
And then he was talking about gaming. And then he was playing different songs from different games. And I recognized one of them and my son’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s that game.” And it was the London Philharmonic. I can’t remember what the game was, now. It was an anime-based one. And just listening to this beautiful, beautiful music, and I was like, that’s fascinating that ties in.
And I was talking to my son about Minecraft and there was this really cool waltz that was playing once and I was like, that’s beautiful! And someone had written it. And just knowing that in video games, you’ve got directors and I never knew they were like movies. I was just like, I don’t know what games are. They’re this separate little thing, just this little thing that the kids get into. I never thought they were bad or something.
But you’ve got the game and the art, as you were saying, they’ve got artists working, so many artists working in the game. And it’s really like a movie. And the kids get to direct the movie, in a way. They create a character, which then interacts with other characters, and in some games, you can create a whole team of characters. And they’re all interacting and it’s like, oh wow.
I remember in GMod, watching them when they were quite little. And they were together in Garry’s Mod, playing. It’s an empty mod. You just drop stuff in. And they were creating this cool thing and they had these robot things that were interacting. And I was like, oh my gosh. It’s like they’re making a little movie here. And it blows my mind, the things that I didn’t know. And just seeing how much fun they have and how capable they are and how everything ties in together, like the music and the art and how it all comes into one. That could just be from games. And of course, that’s not the only thing they do. They explore so many different things.
PAM: Oh, I know. It’s so beautiful. Because once you’re open to that and just following your flow and just what catches your eye, so much of the world comes in. Because it’s all connected. It’s not divided into subjects that don’t cross over. You hit so many things just by being curious. Like you said, within the game, there’s just that whole spectrum of things. But within any interest, there is a whole spectrum of things. Beautiful.
Okay. I should probably go to the next question. But I love that. Because that’s unschooling in action. That’s why I love hearing about what families are up to and how they’re flowing through things. It’s just a beautiful example of unschooling in action.
I would love to hear how you discovered unschooling and what your family’s move to unschooling looked like. Because you mentioned your boys haven’t been to school at all. So, you discovered it when they were younger?
DONNA: Yeah. Pretty early. I heard about homeschooling. Actually, when I was in high school, a kid had come to school who had been previously homeschooling. And then that threw all the stigma out the window, because she was just this really cool, fun person. She knew so much. So, I guess I had the idea that homeschooling wasn’t what everyone said it was. So, I had a positive start.
And then, I didn’t hear about unschooling, though, until after Liam was born. But I guess it started with attachment parenting, like a lot of people do that. So, I had been a midwife and worked with families. So, I had the academic background of knowing about attachment theory and knowing that a really warm, close connection to children, it gives them a really great emotional start and creates this wonderful, secure base. And then they can explore the whole world.
And when you think about it, that’s the basis of unschooling. So, I guess that’s where I was coming from and talking to parents and families about that. And even though I didn’t have kids, I thought, it makes sense. There’s some good research behind it, which people like to hear about that. “Yeah. That makes sense.”
So, when our son was born, it just kind of flowed. He was born at home and we just snuggled with him and fed him when he wanted to. And he was this new little person, and we got to know him. And my husband was way more natural than me and was naturally able to parent or something. I don’t know. I thought, isn’t it wrong to have him in bed with us? I know the research, but I’m just feeling like I don’t know. He was like, “Keep him in bed. That’s fine.” We were snuggling in bed together and getting to know him as an individual. So, I think it started with that and breastfeeding and stuff.
And then as, with friends and stuff or that general pressure of, you’ve got to start making them eat this or not breastfeed, and wean them, and then they start crawling and getting into things. And people talk about discipline and how to manage and corral them and stuff. And I’m thinking, this isn’t feeling right. But I didn’t really know, what do I do next?
Now that he’s getting into the world and exploring and he’s looking at the potted plants and pulls a plant out and I was like, I love that he’s exploring and curious, but I kind of like that plant in the pot. I knew there was a way that I should be, but I wanted to do something different.
And I was talking to a friend and she was like, “Yeah. You sound like an unschooler.” And I was like, “What is this? What does that mean?” And I remember Janet and I remember talking to her. We were in Dubai and she was back in Sydney. I said, “I don’t know what that is.” She said, “Check out Sandra Dodd. Go on her Yahoo group. Don’t dive in asking questions or writing stuff. Just read bits and see if it fits.” And I was like, “Okay.” And I checked it out and I could see how it felt right, but it felt like these were just people on the internet. No one I know is doing this and I don’t know if this is what we should be doing or not.
But he got older and then a friend was saying that she was going to homeschool when she was a teacher. And I said, I’ve heard about that. That’s definitely not something I’m going to do. But I want to unschool and then send him to school when he comes to school age. But then, at this point, just watching him learn, and I could see that he was learning to speak and to walk and interact with the world. And it was all just from us supporting him.
And I was like, well, yeah! Why can’t he learn everything just by us doing the same thing? So, I heard about unschooling and it was radical unschooling which I heard about first. And that felt right, because I had been going along a bit to La Leche League, because I was overseas at the time. We don’t have that in Australia. And that was very much about partnering with your child, getting to know them. And so, I guess it felt right.
And then when it came to the academic stuff, as he got older and kids started going to school, that was when I think the deschooling really started. It felt pretty natural up until then. Then I was like, whoa. Hang on a minute.
And at first, I thought, oh, unschooling must be that we teach them stuff, but in a tricky, fun way. So, the kids at school are starting to write stuff. So, I can just make it fun somehow and make him write his name or whatever. And just seeing that he had his own ideas. He was just not going to, in a four-year-old way.
I remember that when I was like, let’s learn to write your name and we’re going to make it fun and we’re going to sing songs, and he was like, “Nope. I want to do drawing and then I want to go and climb that and then I’m going to go over on my scooter.” And I would get frustrated. And then I would go back and read about stuff. This is not working. It’s not right for him. It doesn’t feel right for me, but I feel like I should be doing this thing that others are doing. So, I guess that was how it started.
And then we kept going, because life is awesome. And I knew that school was there, if we needed it or if he wanted to go. And with Quinn, very different kid, but also similar beginning to his life. But I thought, well, he’s probably going to go to school, because he’s just such a different person. I thought, he’s going to love it. He’s going to love school. And then, as it got closer to school age, I guess why would he go? Because he saw his brother was having fun. And then he didn’t really want to go either.
It wasn’t a formal discussion, but I did want them to know that school was there if they wanted to go. And I didn’t want to badmouth it or anything, in case they ever needed to go. But I guess we do make a decision for them, in a way, don’t we? Because we know a little bit more than they do. But they haven’t ever really wanted to go. They’ve had friends who have gone to school. They’ve heard about it. They ask me what happens. I try and answer their questions and stuff neutrally. And they’re just not that super interested in it, I guess. And that’s fine. Probably they won’t be.
I mean, they’re 14 and 10 now, and we’ve been unschooling all this time and just having a really good life and enjoying. And we’ve moved around a bit, which I guess helps. If they did go to school, there probably would have been several different schools by now, which wouldn’t be much fun. But I guess that’s how we got into unschooling and we’re still doing it.
PAM: I love your point about not speaking bad or demonizing school, as well. Because that can take away their feeling of choice. They ask you questions about it. You guys have conversations about it, so that they understand. Even though it doesn’t need to literally be a choice that you talk about, it’s just that they know it’s there. And they know they can come to you and chat about it and have those conversations.
Whereas, if we were super negative about it, then they might feel less willing to come to you to talk about it. They might feel like they don’t really have a choice, that mom thinks it’s really bad or whatever. And then, plus, if your family circumstances change that you can’t predict, and school becomes part of your lives for a while, if it was demonized, they may be fearful of it.
Or they may think that they’re taking a down step. But it’s something, as a family, you can work through as well. Because you don’t need to bring all the whole school thing home, as well. Do you know what I mean? I thought that was a super cool piece of the story.
And very interesting how you came to it. The “should” piece. That was the other thing I wanted to touch on.
Because when you’re feeling like you should be doing something, there’s that dichotomy. I know I should be doing this thing, but it doesn’t feel right to me. I find when I’m phrasing something with, “I should be,” or, “I should do this,” or, “I should do that,” that was a great clue to me that I need to look deeper at this.
Because there was some sort of disconnect, because I was feeling I should be doing something, but I didn’t know why I didn’t want to. I just knew it felt uncomfortable. So, like you said, that was a time when I’d go back, I’d go reading, I’d go talk to people. I’d dive into that piece more. So, yeah, I always found that to be a wonderful red flag for myself. When I noticed I was talking to myself that way, it was time to dig into it a little bit more.
DONNA: Oh yeah. For sure. And that reminds me of that wonderful article. I think it’s from your website. It’s about, Are You Playing the Role of Mother? Is that the title?
PAM: Yeah, yeah.
DONNA: I love it. I don’t know when I first read it. It was a good while ago. And oh my gosh, I just loved it. It so resonated with me. And I felt like this is the root of so many issues. I don’t want to overplay it. It’s not a big thing. But you know that whole thing, that “should” thing?
Whenever there has been something that has come up and I was feeling like, I know other people do this and why do they do it? Am I missing something here? But I really feel like the right path is different for my kids and I, because I know every family, totally different, and we make choices for what works best for our family. And then, I would come back to exactly that and thinking, there’s that “should” and that doesn’t have to be the truth. That’s not necessarily the truth. It’s, what is right for us? And often it’s different with each kid, because we’re different personalities and different circumstances.
And from month to month, things change and so, I’ve always found that, if I wasn’t sure about something, all I had to do is look at my kids and spend time with them, connect with them. If I was worried about something or whatever, the answer always seemed to be, just hang with the kids, connect. Which we do a lot anyway, but you know when you’re with them but you’re not with them? And that’s when I’d catch myself going, oh, I’m worrying about something. But they’re right here and then I would really reengage with them.
And I think I remember, was it Pam or somebody wrote something where, when you’re with your kids, but it’s like when you’re watching them play a game, you can be doing your own thing, which sometimes we do, and that’s cool. But then other times, it’s like when they kick a goal in soccer, really when they achieve something, and you’re like, yes! And they’re like, oh no.
You know those moments? When I’m in that moment and it’s just going and I can just see that they’re fine and whatever the thing was I was worried about, I can just turn away from it and see it’s not something most of the time. Honestly, I’m sure there are times where it’s something that we could change, but a lot of the time it’s just me being concerned about something for outside reasons, and it doesn’t apply. I can just connect with them and see that they’re fine and they’re loving life and I’m loving life and we’re learning and it’s all good.
PAM: I love the way you described it. That is exactly, completely my experience, as well.
I get faster at noticing, oh, you’re worrying about something. And that’s when I realize I was more just almost phoning it in. Because what happens when you’re worried, you start thinking about it more and more. And your head starts spinning a bit, projecting into the future. Oh, but what about if they never do this? And then, every single time, without fail, what helped the most was reconnecting with them, just like you were saying. Like actually connecting with them, doing stuff with them, purposefully hanging out with them, cutting out the rest of the noises, and just connecting.
Because really, like you said, they’re happy. This moment is great. Just keep stringing this moment together, over and over and over, and you’re going to be six months down the road. You’re going to be a year down the road, and things are going to be as good as they are in this moment. And this moment is awesome.
And that’s when you see, oh look! They are learning things. They are doing things. They are happy. Because you don’t know when you get sucked out of that connection, you start hearing those other, more conventional, voices louder, and you start spinning. And then all of the sudden, you want to think about it more. You want to worry about it more. And you’re stepping away from them a little bit, which just makes it spin harder. So, always going back to them whenever I was worried was the answer. I love that.
DONNA: I love how you said this moment is great.
PAM: Yeah. So, you were talking about some of those “should”s that you encounter every once in a while, and that deschooling really came once Liam, your eldest, hit school age. Because now, that’s when those voices are coming in stronger. Because now, there’s real expectations on school-age kids. They have their job to do. They’re learning to write their name and all that kind of stuff.
I was just wondering if you could chat a bit about what you found one of the more challenging aspects of deschooling and how you worked through that.
DONNA: Yeah. I think when I look generally at deschooling, I think it’s been really great. Learning about how people learn is really fascinating. It’s really cool. Because you come from this place of, yeah, school is where you go to learn. But then, when you take that out, you think, hang on. How do we learn? When I think of it overall, there’s definitely been tricky parts. But I think that is really cool.
I remember my husband and I talking about stuff like, how did we learn to ride a bike? Or, how did I learn to crochet? Or even computer stuff. We didn’t learn it in school. A lot of that stuff, we started uni and they don’t say to you, “Look. This is how you use a computer.” You just dive in and you get stuck, you might look on YouTube or whatever. And I was thinking, oh yes, we can learn that stuff.
I remember thinking, like I was saying before about Liam writing, and a lot of it was coming from feeling that he might feel ashamed or something that he wasn’t able to do it. And I didn’t want to be causing that. But then, when I dug in deeper, I thought, what was my experience at school of writing? And I thought, actually, that feeling of shame is only for me. Because I remember being at school and just wanting to run and play, but having to write. And it was quite strict.
I remember one of the teachers was quite strict, so pens up, and you’d have to hold up your pen like this to show you had the correct grip. Because there’s only one way to write, you know? And then I remember sitting next to a boy who found writing more difficult. And then, I was supposed to show him what to do and tell him. And that fed back into why did I feel these feelings that I had to pressure him into writing stuff. When I dug back into my own school and stuff, I thought, there’s stuff there. It’s my stuff. It’s not his stuff. I’m not going to put it on him and could step away from it.
And I remember one deschooling hump, I guess, for me, was Sandra Dodd actually came to Australia and this was probably about the age that Liam would have been starting school. And you think you get it. We’re doing it. We’re cool. We’ve got this. And then you go, wow. You get shocked by something. So, I was going along and chatting and listening to her chat, and I met Jo Isaac there. I think you chatted to Jo. She’s really awesome. I think I knew her online before that, but I actually met her there. And she was fantastic. Kai and Liam are similar ages.
And then talking to Sandra, I brought up the handwriting thing. And of course, it’s different layers. There’s actually being able to hold the pen and actually write something. And then there’s the actual composing and putting your thoughts. And I wasn’t so concerned, interestingly, in being able to write papers or whatever, because I could see that was conversation and developing ideas and thoughts and then putting them onto paper would probably be a computer, because that’s what everyone does. But the handwriting thing, yeah. That was interesting.
I remember about that time, I saw an actor and he was holding his pen in a really unusual way and signing stuff. And obviously, doing that, he’s an adult now, and doing that for a long time. And I just started to notice different people hold their pens differently and actually form their letters in different ways. There’s not one right way. And I was like, come on. I can chill out about that. And how often do we actually hand-write stuff, really?
And now, of course, he can write stuff. And a lot of the time, he’s typing. And I see his typing skills are really amazing. He’s 14. I certainly wasn’t able to type like that at 14. He’s quite fast and he can type things. And I look back and think, it was really internal. It wasn’t about him. It was about me and my experiences and stuff. And I’m glad I don’t think I did really put much of that kind of stuff onto him. But it would have been awesome if I could have avoided all of that. But of course, you can’t. That’s the journey, right? We do go through these things.
Reading, I remember, in school, reading for me, I remember them saying, “You’ll get there. You’ll get there.” They said, “Your reading is going great.” And I was probably 12 by the time I was actually fluently reading. I know a lot unschoolers say they feel reading is when you can read most things an adult would. I guess I was about 12 and just feeling really inadequate about that in primary school. There’s so much focus.
I’ve met people who learned to read at 2, 3, 4, 5. But then, seeing Jo Isaac did that informal research and seeing that unschooled kids learn to read at about similar ages to school kids, but it does look different. And then seeing that my kids, just seeing their reading process, I’m glad that I didn’t step in like, “That’s it. We’re going to do something about this.” If you’re not reading by whatever the age is, 8, 9, 10, or whatever, that if you’re not reading fluently, we have to do something.
It’s just a wonderful process when they’re really little, noticing letters and stuff. And then, starting to read words, and then it’s whole sentences, and then it’s books. And it’s really beautiful to see. But I do remember that was a thing. And it was the same like we were talking about before. I’d get worried about something. And as you said, you notice it sooner. But I would be worried, and I would be like, no. I’m just going to go hang out with my kids.
And I would see them in games, they were doing a lot more reading than we realized. And if they were in school, they would probably be doing those books where they just have ten words or something that they know. And they would just be reading. And I was like, well, they’re doing that in games. Even when they were quite young, there would probably be five or six words that they knew. And that was the foundation that they built on with sounds or whatever. I think those were school things which were challenging for me. It is tricky.
You know the whole life stuff? We were talking before about the “should”s. I know when my son was under one or under two, I was like, yeah. He’s going to eat organic food, because that’s going to be healthy and safe and there’s not going to be any TV, no tech, and the wooden toys. That was the starting place for me. My husband went, “Really? Okay.” And he would say, “Look. I think TV is fine and games are fine.” And I would be like, “Really? Are they? You need to look at the research.” And I would look at the research. I would want to read it critically.
There’s really not any good evidence that any of this stuff hurts our kids, like TV and video games and things. That was difficult. Because I was really attached to that idea, when they were really little, that video games were bad. But it really was coming from that place of, good mums don’t let their kids do that. They limit things, things that are bad. And it didn’t seem true for us. I could see, once we started watching shows together, started playing some games. I’m watching Sesame Street and I could just see it brought more into their world and it really inspired me to play with things differently. And we just got so many ideas. I was like, how is this bad? It’s not bad.
And then we went on to Minecraft and then other games, and Call of Duty. When I was really honest with myself and had been really authentically connected to my kids, it was all fine. It was better than fine. It was awesome. So, I could see that there was no need to limit stuff, which was fun, and where there was learning and everything.
PAM: It really is that, going back to them and seeing them in action because then you notice those words that they are reading, instead of standing five feet away going, “Oh, you’re still playing that game.” You’re right there with them and you see them putting together the clues. You see the next thing that they choose to do in the game. You see the critical thinking in action. You see the early reading in action. When you actually are with them, you see unschooling in action and that’s when you get comfortable again. And you can understand where those words come from.
It’s so much our work to do when we come across those moments. It is for us to figure out, because our kids are doing what they’re drawn to naturally. And that’s what really is working with unschooling, right? So, it’s just so fascinating to be digging into that and those messages. And I see where you’re coming from, because you’re looking at school kids. You’re looking at kids that don’t have a lot of choice in their life, that are controlled, that are expected to do all these things. And they’re expected to do them on the parent’s or the teacher’s timeline.
There’s just so many constraints in their lives that you can see how they came up with the conclusions that they did. But they don’t fit our life, because that’s not the way we’re living our life. That’s not the way we’re choosing to be together. We’re not putting those extra constraints and controls on. And we’re loving where it’s taking us. We just need to see that fresh again each time.
DONNA: Yeah. And I can totally see why. If my kids needed to be up early to go to school, yeah, I imagine they’d need to get enough sleep. So they’d need to be in bed at a certain time. And maybe they were only home for a few hours in the afternoon, but there’s a lot to do, like eat and maybe spend some time together. And then, they want to be gaming? I can see how it’s necessary to allocate time for different things and to make sure they get enough sleep so they can get to school and things. Also, they’re at school not able to do the thing. Maybe it was something they wanted to be doing at home. I remember that, just wanting to get home to build my go-kart or something. And then you’re just like dive in, then you have to stop again.
It does create that marginal utility that Pam Sorooshian talks about. If you can’t get it, then you want it more. So, I can see how it creates that cycle. Do they want it so much? That means that there’s something wrong and I have to limit it more. Then limiting it more, they’re wanting it more. I can definitely see how it happens and how some of those things are necessary. But they’re not. If you don’t have school, then you don’t have to be in bed at a certain time. You don’t have to eat at a certain time. It’s different.
PAM: Yeah. At first, you just think, oh, we’re not doing school. But, over time, a few months, years, you realize how pervasive that school mindset is in just about everything. Your life does a complete 180 eventually, when you take that piece out. And that leads so nicely to our next question.
I wanted to talk to you about something that comes up pretty regularly in unschooling circles, which is building an unschooling nest.
So, now that we don’t have all those constraints on us, and the world has opened up for us, what are we doing instead? Because, at first it seemed so simple, like I’m just going to build this nice environment. But there are so many different aspects to it, aren’t there?
DONNA: Yeah. Oh, definitely.
And I love the idea of a nest. Now, we talk about nesting, that means someone’s pregnant. I just love the idea of that and I think of birds making a nest and they’re making it all safe and cozy and nice, and also practical, right? So, it works. I love that idea.
And I remember, I think Joyce Fetteroll, she has this great definition of unschooling where she talks about how we create an environment where natural learning can thrive. And for me, that is about the nest because the environment we create is why they can learn so well. And with humans, that’s how we tend to learn really well is when our basic needs are taken care of and we’re comfortable. And yeah, that’s the nest for me.
And I guess because we’ve moved a lot, too, it’s been a reoccurring thing of recreating the nest. And it’s always looked different, depending on ages and where we live and what kind of things we’re into at the time. But there have been those reoccurring things, where there’s been physical things of having enough, like an abundance. So, enough computers so that we can play a game and Google something. So, having enough of everything.
And maybe they want to play that game, but this game they want to have running in the background so they can be earning XP or something. Or maybe I’ll do some of the farming for them sometimes. You know on games where it’s that really boring farming component. Like, “I’ll do that and you go and do that game,” which I guess is one of the elements of support. That’s often a thing where they feel supported in their interests and knowing that I see it as important to them. I guess it might not look it from the outside, but to them it’s super important. And I’m loving it and connecting with them, which is great.
But I think a lot of the nest. I often think about it not so much as the physical—even though it is a physical space—but it’s also the emotional stuff. I keep coming back to when I was attachment parenting, and it doesn’t stop: creating an environment where they feel really respected and safe. It feels like this bubble, or I guess more like this really strong foundation.
So, when they feel safe and respected and heard and validated and really emotionally secure. And knowing that we’ve got their backs. We’re their cheerleaders. We’re this partnership, a really good team. Then they feel safe enough to take those risks which often happen with learning. Sometimes you need to take a bit of a risk or you just feel comfortable enough to explore whatever it is.
And there’s all that emotional stuff, which is something that I think we really build as parents, as unschoolers. We build some really great listening and noticing skills. Kids, especially when they’re little, they’re not necessarily saying, “Oh, gee. I feel like I’m getting a little bit hungry. And I might be getting into the hangry soon. So why don’t you grab a snack?” You’ve just got to notice the little things and go, oh, I think I might be grabbing some snacks pretty soon. You might just slide in a little platter with some noodles on it or something.
Or you might just feel like there’s a little bit of tension building and you think, they’re a bit frustrated. But I’m here. Whether it’s in a game or something, that’s part of learning. You get to that part where you’re frustrated. And you’re not going to necessarily jump in and stop it. But sometimes, they do need more support. And sometimes they don’t. And feeling that and learning, because we learn, too. Should I step in? Or is it just my discomfort that makes me want to step in? Should I right now be here with them? There are so many different options.
Sometimes it is right to step in and say, “Hey. Do you want me to look for a walkthrough?” Or often, as they’re older now, they’ll say, “Oh, mum. I’m really stuck on this part of the game. Can you have a go with it?” Actually, that doesn’t happen that much. It used to. I’ve got some pride there. It used to happen that I could actually help them in a game, do a tricky bit.
Nowadays, it’s like I’ll look up a walkthrough or I’ll watch it on YouTube or something. And there will just be that little piece that they might have missed or something, because the games they play now, my goodness. They’re hard. They’re challenging. And it’s all those little things that we do to support them. It’s the emotional stuff, but it’s also the food or sometimes they’re getting a bit antsy and you think, do you want to duck outside for a bit? Sometimes a change of scene is just the thing that we need. Or it might not be.
And so, they know they’re free to be like, yeah, no, or whatever. And then seeing them as they get older, like Liam is 14 now, seeing that he’s doing that more. He’s picked that up over time. He’ll notice if he’s feeling whatever. He’ll say maybe he’ll want to go for a walk. Or he’s really looking forward to going to martial arts because he wants to get some of that energy out. Or if something is feeling uncomfortable in a relationship kind of thing, he’ll just be like, “Oh, I’m just going to duck out and get some air.” There are some things that they can take a moment. I really, really love that.
But I often think of the practical things. I was just thinking about that with my kids, how they’ve got their rooms set up differently. And then we’ve got shared space. I guess it’s the problem-solving stuff, as well. Because maybe one person wants it to be a bit cooler, or a bit warmer, or they like the blinds open or shut, or they want bright light.
Those things are often a big part of creating that good learning environment, aren’t they? And it’s often different. So, it can be one person wants this. Someone wants something different. So, yeah, the problem-solving skills and being creative and finding a solution that hopefully can make everyone feel comfortable.
PAM: Yeah. I love that. I love that. And I think that emotional space you were talking about and for us to offer ideas, the piece I want to get to is the nonjudgmental piece. As in, we’re not bringing our judgment. They don’t feel judged. Because that’s when they feel free to try things out, to play, to explore this thing. And it’s okay if it goes wrong. Nobody is going to judge them.
Having that safe space where they can explore without feeling like somebody is watching over them and judging what they’re doing, that, I think, is a huge piece of it. And also, like you said, so that they can say, “No. That’s not going to work for me.” “Do you want to go for a walk?” And so, we can offer up all these different possibilities. And it is so beautiful, isn’t it? Because they pick and choose the ones that work for them in the moment, and they’re learning the things that work for them. And eventually, they start to recognize it and do it for themselves, like you were saying. You’ll see Liam make these choices now without you stepping in.
I think of it as that dance with them. Because any given moment in the exact same situation but different days and even different hours, we do different things in that moment. Because each moment is unique to us, to what’s going on. Even if on the outside, it looks the same, we are in different places. So, how we react, where we come, and just knowing them to that level of detail, in your nest.
Knowing that they haven’t eaten in a while. Knowing that they didn’t get much sleep last night. Knowing that this is something that they really, really want to accomplish. So, they may be able to push through some more frustration than they typically would. All those little pieces, and understanding that, that is the nest that you’re making. And that’s that dance.
And the great thing about not having that judgment piece is that, it’s okay when there’s a misstep. There’s going to be missteps. That is totally okay. And when you don’t have that judgment of the misstep, you can take another step and see if that works out. You may step back for a little bit and try a different way. It’s just so beautiful to see it in action, even when it goes wrong, even when we’re not quite sure what to do, because we keep connecting and we keep trying.
DONNA: And for sure, we get it wrong. One of my kids appreciates a bit of a lighthearted approach and a bit of a joke. And the other kid, no. But then also, it changes. So, it’s just feeling around and sometimes I say something and I’m like, oh my gosh. But then later, I can go back and say, “Look. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I said that.” I was distracted or I was worried about something or whatever was going on. Or I don’t even have to explain. I’m just like, “Hey. I’m really sorry.” And it’s authentic. And a lot of the time, they’re like, “It’s fine.” Because, I guess it’s not all the time. So, it’s like, “Yeah, it was a bit unusual, Mum, but it’s fine.”
And I think developing those kinds of skills, whether it’s communicating it and being able to apologize and even with things like listening to them, I found that’s something I’ve developed and it’s been really great. And I think it’s one of those things that makes it sometimes feel like I’m not doing anything. I’m just kind of flowing, because I guess it’s over a decade now of just doing it all the time, it started to become second nature.
But we’re always fine tuning. I don’t know if you find that. Even I’m seeing to my kids, I guess as they’re getting older, there’s some things that they want to talk about which I’ve been through and I want to tell them how to fix it. But, I don’t. It’s like listening and things. Because, I remember being a teenager. It wasn’t that long ago. Yeah, it was quite a while ago. But, I’ll be looking and thinking.
After a while, not interrupting or anything, I’ll say, “Did you want me to bounce some ideas off you? Or are you happy with me listening?” Or maybe I say, “Do you want a hug?” Or maybe we’re hugging and I’ll just be like, “I’m so glad you were able to tell me that.” Or whatever. But it’s always that fine tuning and I want to sometimes step in and give advice. I’m finding that’s coming up a lot for me recently, and I’m thinking, no. Sometimes it comes across as judgment because you’re saying in that situation, you could have done this. But, often the thing to do is listen.
And they find solutions which I wouldn’t even think of. And I’m learning from them. The way they set boundaries may not be to say it out loud or something. They might just be like, “Oh, I’ve got to go do this now.” But they’ll remove themselves from the situation or they have different ways of dealing with things, which I think I notice a bit of judgment. Like, hang on. This is working for them. And maybe I can learn something from this, as well.
PAM: Yeah. It’s that level of trust that we have for them that we fall back on in those moments. Because when you take that moment to think, you realize that may have worked for me when I was around that age in a similar situation, but it was a different situation. It was different people. I was a different kind of person. They’ve grown up very differently from the way you have. And they have a level of self-awareness of themselves and their needs and lots of experience with interacting with other people, just from interacting with you and your husband and siblings over the years.
It is important to have that open space, so they know they can come and chat. When they’re ready, they can bounce ideas off. But, yeah, to not step in while they’re still thinking and figuring it out. Because then we take over. And yes, absolutely, they can feel judged, even if we’re not meaning to. We just want to share it. It can be taken that way, just because, well, why are you sharing it right now? I’m still thinking about my situation. If you’re sharing what you did in what you think is a similar situation, maybe you’re expecting that I should do something similar.
So, thinking about how they received it, how they might receive it, is an important part of choosing what we’re going to share, isn’t it?
DONNA: Yeah. Absolutely.
PAM: Now, you’ve been unschooling for a few years, since before they hit school age. And life definitely has its ups and downs. And you mentioned that you guys have traveled quite a bit.
I’d like to hear a little bit about how you found unschooling when you’re going through those bigger changes or those bigger challenges that life throws at you. Have you found unschooling to be helpful in those circumstances?
DONNA: Yeah, I think so. Definitely. I guess there’s that traveling when you’re on holiday, which can bring up stuff. But then, that moving interstate or moving to another country, it’s quite a lot.
When I think of ups and downs, I think it’s usually us as parents, when our resources are stretched, because not enough sleep or just having too many balls in the air and trying to do all those things, and then noticing that we’re not quite as available for our kids as we normally would be. And often, they’ll be fine. Because they get a lot of time with us. And then, if there are moments where we’re feeling a little bit distracted or doing other things, it’s very brief.
But usually, I find it’s noticing within ourselves and taking care of ourselves whilst we’re also doing our normal family stuff and being with our kids, which is like that article we had mentioned before of yours, is that we can look after ourselves and our children at the same time. It doesn’t have to be a separate thing. Because I think when we get this idea of, we’re feeling stretched and we need to go away or be away from them, but this is our life. We don’t need to be away from our life, hopefully. We can still be really engrossed in it.
And I’m imagining for a lot of families at the moment, this past year, it’s been pretty full on, hasn’t it? So, people are probably in different places of feeling stretched emotionally and mentally and stuff and finance stuff. And we’ve definitely had that going on, and other families I know have, as well, and probably people all over the world who are doing that.
Unfortunately, my dad passed away this year and also my husband’s father passed away. So, my children lost their granddads. And my Nana passed away just recently, so this year, it’s been full on to begin with, and then having some family losses and grief. I’ve really been able to appreciate the life that we’ve created, that nest that we’re talking about, making it a really great, cozy, comfortable, safe place to be.
I’ve been really thankful, at times, to myself, thinking that this sounds silly, but there are moments when I’m really grateful. And I think, oh, that’s so cool! Because I remember that I bought some new card game. You know how you just have things all over the house? And when we were in lockdown, I was thinking, oh yeah. What are we going to do? And I was like, oh! There’s this card game or there’s this board game. Or, let’s pull out the piano. We have an electric piano which is lovely to play, with nice weighted keys and stuff. And we put it away because no one was really playing with it. I was like, oh cool! We can pull that back out again.
And all those little things which, over time, it’s just become natural if you see something interesting, you grab it. And maybe it’s not interesting at the time, but you put it away, and those things really helped when I was feeling like things were hard or whatever. I was like, I’m not really sure. But still knowing that I wanted to be present and available and playful and keeping things light to support my kids and myself and my husband as we went through some more challenging stuff.
I think still finding moments of gratitude. But being really compassionate and patient with ourselves as parents, I think, is really cool. We can give that to our kids. And sometimes, it’s harder to give to ourselves or other adults in our life. So, that’s definitely been something that I’ve been learning about and getting better at. And it’s really helped.
But I think just having that really fantastic life and being grateful for it. I know you hear people, sometimes they go and do something difficult, and then they appreciate all the moments with their family even more. And I think I found that to be true. I just want to spend, if possible, even more time with my kids and enjoying them. Which, this year, we’ve had a lot more of that because we’ve been home more.
But it’s been good. I love spending time with my kids. They are my best friends. And we have fun together just doing all kinds of things. Even just hanging out is fun. I just love those little things. I’ll make a pot of tea and I’ll put some biscuits out or whatever and someone will come or not, and we’ll sit down and chat. Or we’ll be on our devices and sipping some tea and dunking some biscuits. I might be doing some Duolingo. And I was like, this is so funny. It wants me to say, “I am a cat.” And we’ll have a laugh. And just these little moments are really special.
And the big stuff is cool, as well. I love some of the cool big adventures we go on. But then those little things are really nice, and just being in the moment. Like as you said, this moment is great. And having people like you and Pam Sorooshian, Joyce, Meredith, Sandra, the kind of people I see as that wisdom, and have been through ups and downs and challenging times and not knowing. You never know what’s going to happen for yourself, but just knowing other people have been through it and that we can get through it and that unschooling is a really great place to be in when things get a bit tough. And I think a lot of people probably have had that.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a great point.
That foundation that we’re building, I think it buoys us through those hard times. Like you said, it’s okay and it’s so much easier. It can be easier in unschooling families to find those moments of joy, even in the hard spots, even during the hard times. Playing that card game for 15 minutes, sitting down and having that cup of tea and a conversation, and just laughing over something that’s passing through one of your lives in that moment. Those little connections are just little bursts of energy, I think, so often in those challenging moments, and just help you, even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes, and it’s a little bit of weight off and a little bit of energy back to get back to processing. Because it’s okay.
That compassion you were talking about. It doesn’t need to be, oh my gosh, I need to focus on this hard thing until I solve it or until I work through it and then I can get back to my life. No. With unschooling, you’re used to having more flow, that it’s okay to have that laughter during hard times, those one-on-one moments. And reconnecting or connecting with each other really does so much here.
And I think all those little moments of connection that seem so small and simple every day, I really think that’s often what helps the bigger moments be so fun, too. Because you’re already connected, and then this is just something super extra big fun that you’re experiencing together. You don’t have to be trying to reconnect at the same time. Do you know what I mean? It’s a beautiful lifestyle, isn’t it? We’ll just leave it there.
DONNA: Yeah. We’re very lucky. I feel so lucky to have found it and to be able to live this life. How cool is it?
Right now, what is your favorite thing about your unschooling lives?
DONNA: Oh gosh.
PAM: If you had to pick one thing?
DONNA: One thing? No! Honestly, it’s such a cliche, but just being able to spend time with these awesome people. Because they’re so cool and so much fun and it’s just having great relationships, because that’s life, isn’t it? Being able to have really good relationships with my kids and my husband. Our relationship is better than ever because being more generous and kinder with our kids and then with ourselves and then with my husband, that’s really great. I think it just sounds like it’s not that huge and exciting or anything, but it’s just spending time with these cool people.
PAM: That’s it. That is the foundation in which everything else happens. Yeah, I love that so much. I love it. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Donna. That was so much fun. Thank you.
DONNA: I loved it. I loved it. I’m so glad that we were able to meet. Can I say meet? Online, but yeah. But I’ve admired you for so long. I’ve gotten so much inspiration and everything out of what you write. Your books, I’ve got your books here somewhere, and your podcast has been so, so helpful. Being able to listen to other parents, whether it’s new unschoolers and unschoolers who have been doing it for a while, I’ve always got something out of their lives. So, I’m really glad to be able to do that for other people and share so generously. So, thank you.
PAM: Well, thank you so much. That’s beautiful. And I know you’re helping unschoolers, too. Where can people connect with you online?
DONNA: I don’t know. I don’t have much of an online presence. I’m on Facebook. I kind of check in once a month or something. I’m pretty slack. But sometimes, I’ve got more time and I could be on there more. But there are some really great unschooling pages there. I get a lot of inspiration. There’s Sandra Dodd’s page and what are some of the other ones?
PAM: You can send me some links and I can share them, if you want. No problem.
DONNA: I don’t know if they can find me on Facebook. But we’re friends, aren’t we? So, they can do the thing and find me there.
PAM: Oh, definitely. I can share your Facebook page and I’m sure people wouldn’t expect an immediate reply. But if anybody wants to connect.
DONNA: Yeah. Right. I love meeting new people and stuff, so really happy to connect with other people.
PAM: And, we’re unschooling first with our families.
DONNA: Yeah. Absolutely. For sure.
PAM: Well, that’s beautiful. Thank you so much. And, although I’ll be off to bed soon, you have a wonderful day!
DONNA: Thank you. Have a good night’s sleep.
PAM: So fun. Thanks so much, Donna. Bye.
DONNA: See you later!