PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today, I’m here with Ali Walker. Hi, Ali!
PAM: Now, we have gotten to know each other over the last few months on the Network, and I’m so excited to learn more about your unschooling journey. To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and what everybody’s into right now?
ALI: Yeah. Absolutely. So, we live on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. I am originally from the States, as you can hear, though sometimes a few Kiwi words come out. So, forgive me. I get confused. So, it’s myself and my husband, Glen, and our two daughters, Lila and Hazel. Lila is four and Hazel is two. And then, of course, we have our dog, Ziggy, and our cat, Djinn, who are also integral members of our family.
And, yeah. Let’s see. What are we all interested in? Glen is a computer programmer and he works at Weta Digital. So, that’s pretty fun having the movie side of things, because we both love storytelling and movies. Right now, I think his biggest hobby is probably following all of the COVID-19 research. He is very up-to-date on all of the science and all of the latest studies, and he regales me with the latest research every day. And so, that is, I think, probably his biggest interest at the moment is following a lot of epidemiologists on Twitter, things like that.
And then also, we both love traveling. I asked him, what are your interests? And he said, traveling and hiking. So, we’re both very outdoorsy. We met living in Guatemala, so we’re both big fans of travel. Not this year. But most years.
And then, Lila, she’s four. And I say that she has a storyteller’s heart. She just loves story in all of its forms. She loves books and she loves TV shows and she loves imagination play. And she just has this incredible, vast imagination. We see her getting with her toys and all of the stories she creates with them. And she’s also a word lover. She loves finding the perfect word for things. She started talking really early and it’s the funniest thing. When you find the right word and she discovers a new word, it’s like you’ve given her this little trinket, this little gift. And she receives it as such.
I think yesterday, she was talking about being hungry, and the word we said was “ravenous” and you could just see in her brain, like, “Ooh. Ravenous. That’s great.” And she’ll just tuck that one away for later, which I just love about her, that love of words.
And Hazel, who’s two, is the complete opposite. She just really doesn’t care about talking. She has a couple words, but she’s just not really interested. And yet, she’s a great communicator. She doesn’t use words, but she will tell you exactly what she wants. She’ll go to the front door, and she’ll get her shoes on. Or, she’ll go to the rocking chair and bring back a snuggly blanket. To the point now where, in the kitchen, we know if she goes to this part of the countertop, she wants a piece of toast. And if she goes to this part of the countertop, she wants this snack. So, she’s very good at letting us know what she wants.
And she is an in-her-body kid. She just experiences the world so much through her physical body. And so, she’s exploring, running, jumping, climbing, loves going on walks and hiking, and she is such an astute observer of things. She will watch someone do something once and then she knows how to do it. And it’s incredible to watch her just really tuned in and watching people.
And lately, I think her big thing is exploring really intricate, detailed things. I have a bag of old jewelry I found at an op shop, and she’ll just take each piece out and really inspect it, and then lay it out very methodically on the table, in the same order each time, and then put it all back again. And I just want to know what’s going on in her head in those moments, because it’s incredible just watching her really inspect each piece and really be thinking about it. And she does that with books, too. She’s not really interested in being read to, but she loves inspecting each page of the book.
So, yeah, she’s a very detail-minded child. And also, just a very physical child. She explores through her hands and through touching and through running and moving and dancing.
And then, for me, I’m a bit of a hobby hopper. I’m always picking up interests and leaving interests. But I think probably one of the themes through most of my hobbies is storytelling. I love reading. I love writing. I love watching movies and TV shows and theater and music and that kind of general storytelling vibe.
And I also really love reading about the latest animal research. I used to be a wildlife rehabilitator, so whenever there’s new news in conservation, locally and globally, I love keeping up to date. And a good animal fun fact or some new discovery is always super exciting for me.
But I think my biggest hobby is probably unschooling. So, I think that’s probably the thing that I spend the most of my mental energy on is exploring what my children are doing, observing them, seeing what they’re doing, participating in the Living Joyfully Network, and just connecting with people who are also unschooling.
And yeah, I think that’s probably my biggest hobby, when you have two little kids, is just thinking about unschooling them.
PAM: Well, I can’t fault you on that one. That has been one of my big hobbies for many years. But, thank you so much for what you shared. I love, first off, seeing everybody’s different interests and just imagining and envisioning you guys just all flowing together in these different pockets. I love Glen’s focus right now on COVID-19 research. How things flow through our lives, just depending on the context of our lives in the moment. And it’s all okay. It doesn’t have to be a job, or it doesn’t have to have some bigger purpose other than being super interesting to us.
And then, listening to the way you described your kids, oh my goodness. What hit me so much is that unschooling piece. You’re observing them and you see so much of who they are through what they’re choosing to do, knowing that a new word is just delicious for Lila. And being able to have that conversation and bring that to her, and recognizing Hazel’s clues. Like you said, she communicates so well physically as a whole different approach to the way she engages with life.
So, being able to notice those and value those just as equally as words from somebody else, saying, “Oh, I want to nurse,” “Oh, I want to go outside,” “Oh, I want this from the kitchen.” There’s no judgment as to a better way to communicate at all. They’re both really embracing who they are and just living that fully. That sounds so wonderful.
I think what’s so important is really just valuing the things they value and communicating and interacting with them that way, instead of trying to make Lila more like Hazel or Hazel more like Lila. Both of them talking more or both of them doing more physical things. It’s like, just letting them each shine in their own way.
PAM: Yeah. And it doesn’t preclude them picking up the other things, but what it does is it really shows respect for who they are and letting them go with their strengths that are right now, without any judgment. Because you don’t want to put them in that box, either. That’s the wonderful thing is you can fully embrace who they are and respect that and work with it and be with that and also give them the space to grow. That’s one of the things I love about the focus on curiosity is it’s just so interesting to see where they go, what they do when they wake up the next day, because you just never know!
ALI: Yes. It’s the most exciting thing.
I would be curious to learn how to discovered unschooling and what your family’s move to unschooling has looked like so far.
ALI: Yeah. It’s been an interesting, backwards journey almost. Because we’ve been coming at it in little steps in my mind for years, even before having children. So, the first real awakening for me was Glen and I used to be big fans of the Wellington International Film Festival. And so, we’d go see 30 movies in two weeks, and I would get the brochure and I’d select all these ones. And there was one that we went to go see called Being and Becoming. And it just blew my mind. It was all of the sudden.
I had never asked the question, why do we go to school? I hadn’t really even begun to think about that. And it was one of those things, and I have experienced this many times in my life, that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Once that question is asked, you can’t un-ask it.
And it turned into a month-long deep dive for me of reading about why school is set up the way it is, and reading How Children Learn, and just all the books and videos I could find. And I was fascinated by it. And we didn’t have children yet, but I just thought this would be so cool. I just kept thinking, doesn’t this make so much sense? And of course, I come from a primatology background. And so, I’m a very big fan of the natural way of rhythms of life and family dynamics. And so, all of that was already very appealing to me.
And so, it was kind of like these two worlds collided, so I had that percolating in the back of my mind. And then it got put on the shelf and life carried on, and then we had Lila. And at the time, I was living in the city and almost all of the mom friends I had made when she was born were all very focused on their careers and going back to work. And so, I was a little bit left of center in that group and being like, “I’m just gonna raise her like a monkey,” a little bit different in my priorities.
But at the same time, I was living this dual life where I was on the treadmill a bit of what is expected of us with Lila. And at the same time, I was listening to your podcast and I was reading your books and watching YouTube videos and doing all of these things about unschooling and kind of having almost this living daydream of, wouldn’t this be great if we did this? But not actually doing it.
We were kind of doing it at home a little bit, because I was so focused with Lila when she was a baby on listening to her rhythms. And she’s never had a bedtime. She’s very much been in charge of what she eats and how she goes about her day. And so, it was already appealing.
But then when she was a little before three, she started going to a daycare preschool. They call it preschool or Kindy here, but you have a daycare thing a couple of days a week, just because it just felt like what you were expected to do. That was the next step for us. And I remember thinking, there was just this resistance in me at the time, thinking, well, maybe when she turns five, we’ll start unschooling. We could do this. I’m listening to all these people and I find it really appealing, but I’m not actually doing it. And it was really Lila who flipped the switch and pushed us over the line.
She wasn’t unhappy. Well, I think she was, actually. But it didn’t seem that she was unhappy. Knowing her the way I know her now, I know that she’s not a big fan of big groups of people and loud noises, and she doesn’t like her flow being interrupted to go have a snack or go read a story. So, it makes sense now why daycare wouldn’t have been appealing to her.
And so, we were walking home one day and I was feeling every time I left her there, just icky about it really. Just this feeling of, this doesn’t feel like what we’re meant to be doing. And I remember this vivid image of looking at her through the window as she was sitting in their little circle and she just seemed a bit deflated. It was just like that light with dimmed a bit. And it just made me feel like, oh, I don’t know. I don’t want to be doing this anymore.
And so, when we were walking home one day, she said to me very matter-of-factly, very logically, “I don’t want to go anymore. I think I’d rather stay home.” And she said, “I’ll be really quiet,” which kind of broke my heart, because Hazel was a newborn at the time. And she obviously got the idea, I think, in her head that we were maybe sending her to school so that she wouldn’t interrupt nap times and things. And in my head, I’m thinking going to preschool was way better than sitting on the iPad and watching videos during nap time. I mean, little did I know, but at the time, I’m thinking, oh, she’s painting and building blocks. This is vastly superior to just hanging at home with us.
But when she said that, and she said, “I don’t want to go anymore.” Pleading her case at two. A switch really flipped in me in that moment where it was like that feeling when you’re so in love with someone and you love them so fiercely, and that just immediately superseded any idea of perceived judgments or expectations from the outside world. All of a sudden, all of that just didn’t matter. And I was like, right, okay. This is what we’re doing.
And it was like that switch flipped and we were on our way. We called the school the next day and, bless him, Glen, I was like, “We’re unschoolers now! Come on board. I’ll show you this backlog of five years of research that I’ve done.” And away we went.
PAM: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. And you know what? I totally feel you talking about when it’s for our kids, all of a sudden, it’s just so much easier to do. We see it in our heads. You were learning about it and it’s like, oh, I could see us doing that someday. But to get over that hump of doing something so unexpected and unconventional, you often need that push, that reason. But as soon as we get that little clue from our kids and they say, hey, it is so much easier, I feel, to just say, okay. Yeah. Now I can do it. For them, I’ll move heaven and earth just so that we can do the thing that works best for us.
So, I’m glad you mentioned that, because that is often an interesting piece of the journey, how much easier it is when you’re doing it for them. Because I can see how all those pieces of the puzzle you put together, seeing her through the window, seeing those bits, even thinking about, wouldn’t the day be more fun for her there than being here? But the minute she says, no, being with you guys. And her reasoning that she had thought out, “I’ll be quiet.” All of that is just so beautiful and so human and so wonderful that you reacted to that instead of poo-pooing that. You could reinforce for her that feeling was valid and helpful and useful. That’s awesome. And I’m glad Glen came along for the ride.
ALI: Story of our life. He’s always coming along for the ride.
PAM: So, did you just share the information with him? Have a conversation with him? Did he come to understand what was going on pretty easily or what did that look like?
ALI: Yeah, well, we were really lucky that we saw that documentary together and then, for every hobby or interest I have, he just had to listen to my brain dumps on him about, “Oh, did you read this and listen to this thing? And isn’t this fascinating? What do you think about that?” So, I’ve been talking his ear off about the idea of it for ages.
And he met me when I was a wildlife rehabilitator in Guatemala, so I’ve been talking about primatology and parenting for our whole relationship. So, he kind of understood. I think he knew. He got the clue very early on that I was probably going to raise our children in a primatological way. So, I don’t think it was a huge shock to him that I wanted to do this.
PAM: Well, I mean, that leads so beautifully into our next question.
I would love to hear some of the ways that your primatology experience has influenced your experience with your kids. How have you brought that in your lives?
I mean, it’s the lens through which I see everything, really. It’s very hard for me to shut it off, actually. “Oh, primates do this. This reminds me of this thing.” I’m constantly just, *insert comments about primates here* with people in general, but particularly my field of interest and what I was researching and studying was maternal care in primates.
So, I particularly was interested in the influence of maternal care on orphan primates and their later success in life. So, what happens quite often is that people think baby monkeys make good pets and they get taken from their mothers. And when they’re rescued and rehabilitated, you have to create some form of maternal care for them or they won’t be successful.
And so, the best-case scenario is that you can pair them with another member of their own species who will kind of act as a surrogate for them. But if you can’t, then that’s when humans get involved and we create that bond for them. So, a lot of rehabilitation centers are islands unto themselves and they don’t share this information. So, that was really what my research was on, was trying to help them connect and share that information.
But there were some fundamental principles that everyone just seemed to reach this conclusion on their own. And that was that that connection, that bond between parent and infant, is the most important indicator, or one of the most important indicators, of success later in life. So, that bond is really important.
And so, we’re talking all the time about how can we create that connection? How can we create that interdependence? Because that is what is important and nobody is ever talking about independence. That is not valued at all. We really want to see that there is a bond there, there is a connection happening. That’s the foundation upon which everything is built.
And so then, fast forward to having humans. And everybody’s talking about, are they a “good baby”? Are they a “good sleeper”? And it’s all about how little do they need you? If they don’t need you very much, then they’re somehow better off than if they do need you a lot. And that just completely confused me, because my whole life I’d been working under the assumption that the more they need you, the better they do. That need and that connection is so important.
And so, it was very strange. I couldn’t reconcile those two notions at the same time. That parental care is so important. And connection is the center around which all of society is built or all troop structure is built.
And I would hope that connection would be the foundation upon which our more Western societies are built, too, but it’s not. It’s really an independence-based one, where we separate everybody out. Each parent goes to a different job. Each child goes to a different class and grade. They’re separated out by age and it was very strange to me, because here we are being together. Togetherness is one of the most important things to development and success.
So, that was the first thing that really struck me when I had Lila, because I really felt unsupported as a mother. I felt like I was a failure, because this baby in front of me wasn’t by the book. She didn’t follow the systems that were laid out in front of me. And it just didn’t make sense.
And I remember at one point saying to a friend of mine, “If I had never read any of these books, I would have thought we were doing really well, but instead I feel like we’re not, because she just doesn’t stack up against this advice that I’m being given.”
And late one night, I was up feeding her and I was watching a documentary, a nature documentary, and troop of baboons was on and it was so familiar to me. I so recognized them. And I thought, ‘Oh, wait. I do know how to do this. This is just that being together, that togetherness. Just start there.’ And that’s kind of my default now is when I don’t know where to go or what to do is just be together.
That’s another thing that I think that the primate world does is they really value mothers. And so, as soon as a female has a baby, her rank within the group goes up, because she’s creating life. She’s creating the next generation. And so, she’s immediately more valued within the group. And here I am, as a human mother, feeling like I’m almost devalued, because I’m not as an important part of society anymore. Kind of, go into your corner and raise your children.
And that felt really strange to me, because I’m like, no, I have a baby now! Look how important I am! I’m higher ranking now. And also, females who have babies are also more attractive. So, I think we need to bring that back, too. Mothers are the most attractive group among the bunch.
So, with Lila, it was almost like a hearkening back to that inner knowing and that stillness of being. And I think that when you cut out all the noise, that was the biggest thing. Cutting out all of the external advice and just listening inward of, what is my body telling me right now? What is it needing? And most of the time, it was just needing to be close to her.
When she was crying or she was far away, my heart rate would go up. There’s a biological reason that when our kids are upset, we can’t listen to somebody else talking to us. Our brain just shuts off. There are reasons for that. We’re designed to be tuned into our children.
And so, that was my default, that tuning in and that connection and just going back to that when I didn’t know where to go from there. Because I could see these primate mothers doing that so beautifully. They were just so intrinsically tethered to their children, even when they were far away from them, they just were connected. You could feel it between them. And so, that was something I knew I wanted to cultivate with my own human children.
And then the last thing that I really think about when I think about primates and those principles that all of the different rehabilitation centers knew work, was that parental care is a learned behavior. So, even though we have this biological inner knowing to our infants, as they get older, a lot of what we learn is through watching others raise their children. And so, you really wouldn’t, in a zoo setting or in other settings, have any females breeding if they haven’t known how to raise an infant, because they would probably need a lot of intervention.
And so, that was a piece that came back into play for me about a year ago, when I realized the examples of parenting that I had seen were not the ones that I wanted to emulate, the environment I grew up in and just the general parenting around me.
And so, when the Living Joyfully Network started, and all of a sudden, I was hooking into all of these other unschooling families, and seeing them raising their children the way that I wanted to be raising my children, that was like the missing piece for me. And I think it is true for all primates. We want to see others raising children the way that we want to be raising them.
And so, that was a huge step for me, a huge unlocking, was watching and reading about all of these other families and what they’re doing and the challenges they’re facing and how they went about it, because it reinforced for me what I wanted to be doing. And it made it so much faster to access that place when I felt a little bit out of step from it.
Seeing other people talking about their connections made me go, oh, right. Yes. Okay. I’m in this too. And it made it much easier for me to go back and re-access that place that I wanted to be parenting from, because I had those examples.
So, I could go on, but those are just some of the ways.
PAM: At some point, we’ll just give you an hour, two hours, because I could listen to that forever. That is so fascinating. I do love the piece about wanting to learn and see other families with this in action, because I’m remembering when I was newer too, at the time they were email lists and stuff that unschooling families were connecting through, and I just insatiably wanted to read about families with older kids, families with kids with different personalities, different interests. It didn’t matter, because you were discovering what’s at the root.
I just love it that you went to all these different rehab centers and they had found the roots independently. That connection, that maternal bond. They had found those roots by themselves, just by watching their troops or whatever animals in action. And that was what I was getting by seeing all these other unschooling families in action. I was seeing the really important roots, the relationship, the connection, that all these things that were happening in all these different families, that’s what was working for them.
That’s what was helping them move through these moments when we’re like, something’s weird. Something’s off or something’s not working, getting back to that connection, getting back to engaging with our kids. Because we can get stuck in our head when we start to worry about something.
But, yeah. I’ve never heard about it in that context. That’s brilliant, Ali.
ALI: Well, I think, we do get stuck in the more, not superficial, but top layer of it, where we look at other people doing things like painting or whittling or some cool activity with sea glass or whatever it may be. And you think, oh, well that’s really cool. That’s what I should be doing.
But no. It’s not what they’re doing. It’s who they are to each other. It’s that deeper level of that connection, that regardless of what they’re doing, and for us, a lot of the times, it looks like sitting on the couch watching YouTube videos together. But it’s that connection to each other, that tether that I was talking about you see these primate mothers have with their children. And so, it could be any activity, but it’s that being, that stillness of being together, that I love seeing other parents doing, and it just helps me click back into it so well.
PAM: A few things bubbled up for me there. Number one, it took me right back to your story about Lila and thinking, oh, she should be having more fun there because they’re doing the painting. They’re reading stories. They’re doing all these cool things, that surface level stuff that we think, oh, that’ll be fun. That’ll be fun. And yet, she was pulling and wanting the connection. So, that’s a really cool piece.
And it’s also why I love the intro parts, because, with different families sharing what everybody’s interested in, I love to see the variety. I hope that it helps people realize that the cool individual things that they are interested in, that’s what the value is. When everyone is not coming with all the same things, there’s no expectation. There’s no judgment of what the interests are. It is a beautiful way to look at who they are. The things that they’re drawn to help express who they are when they have that judgment-free space to explore on their own.
ALI: Exactly. Yeah.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. That’s so beautiful.
So, in the Network a few months ago, you shared this really great idea that I was hoping you could talk about here. And it was the idea of Very Important Sitting. Can you explain what that means?
You know, this is another thing I’ve stolen from the primate world. But just that being, that art of the stillness of being together. And I think you can find a lot of people who work with wild animals are very good at at least faking that deep, inner calm. You don’t want to be moving a lot. You don’t want to be doing too much. You want to be quite still and just present and aware of what’s going on around you.
And when we are weaning baboons into a troop, what happens is they start to go for almost day visits, where they go off your body and they go start playing. And they’re excited to be in the group with other babies. And then, what happens is the second you stand up or move to even shifting into a standing position, they’re like, ‘What?’ And they run back to you and jump back on you. Like, ‘Where were you going?’ It’s that tether, that anchor to each other.
And so, it was really funny to me, because it interrupts their flow. It interrupts their play. And I did that a bit with Lila, where I realized that just sitting, just sitting and being in her space and in a designated spot so that she could just orbit around me and do things, I did a bit with her.
But with Hazel, it was very clear to me. I could just see it was like that baboon. It was the same exact behavior of, I need you to be in this spot on the couch so I know that you’re here. No more running about. And I’m going to play with my toys or do whatever I need to do, and I just need you to be here.
And so, I kind of intuitively knew that that’s what she was doing, because I spent a lot of time looking at nonverbal communication. And so, I knew that’s what she was looking for. But I started calling it my Very Important Sitting time, because it was a way for me to signal to myself that what I was doing was very important.
And it’s so easy to be internalizing that I’m being lazy by sitting here and just reading a book or knitting or doing something instead of, there’s dishes in the sink. There’s laundry to be done. Dinner is not finished. All of these things that somehow feel like they’re more important, but aren’t really. So, by calling it my Very Important Sitting, “It’s time to go do some Very Important Sitting.” Usually right around dinner time and in the evenings are two pretty guaranteed, Very Important Sitting times.
And so, I started calling it that, because it gave me permission to just let go of all the other things and go, this is what’s important right now. And so, I was very intentionally and vocally calling it that, so that I would know that. And then it also helps Glen, I think, because he calls it that. He’s like, “Oh, I think it might be time for some Very Important Sitting.”
It was his way to signal to me, “This is okay, what you’re doing. I also agree that it’s important what you’re doing right now.” And so, it was just almost like a little signal to each other, between us, that this is where I’m needed right now and this is the most important thing I can be doing right now.
And so, that was how the phrase came about was so that I would feel like I’ve given myself permission that this is the space that my children need me in right now.
PAM: Yeah. I loved that so much. And it’s so interesting, because we know it’s very important in the longer term. That’s how you got to the very important piece. Being with our children, that connection, supporting them how they need support, or else she’d be following you around, trying to grab your attention as you’re doing the dishes, following you into the laundry room, trying to grab your attention. It’s like, okay, I’ll just sit and be.
Yet, it’s so easy to get caught up in those short-term productivity things like doing the dishes and the laundry. Like, I should be doing those, because those give me that short-term hit of accomplishment. Or, I can prove to my husband or partner or my mom when she calls that I got all the things done. But, to give yourself permission for those things that are, in the longer term, more important.
Because the dishes will be there. The laundry will be there. Whatever will be there. But those times to connect with our kids in the way that they’re needing it in the moment, that’s long-term building of trust and of connection and respect. Just by sitting there nearby her, when she’s wanting just your presence, how much respect for her needs does that show? And that is so valuable and so important.
So, I love the tweak of just calling it Very Important, because it’s just a reminder, even for yourself, as you said, this is an important thing for me to do. Even though, from the outside looking in, people would think I’m doing nothing, or being lazy, or having an excuse or whatever, but it is such a great reminder that these moments are really valuable.
ALI: Yeah. And that’s the thing is that the laundry could be done later and you can order takeaways, if you need to, or whatever it might be. But when you miss enough of those opportunities for connection, it’s really hard to rebuild that.
And the most important thing to me is that my children feel like they can trust me and rely upon me and that I’m there for them. And that I don’t want to have to try and dig into that when they’re older and go backwards. I want to already be there as they move forward.
And I think I’m quite lucky, because I’ve raised so many monkeys that I know how much they need me. And I came into parenting with the expectation that I would be needed and that they are my first priority. And also, from a biological perspective, that they are the most important thing in my world. And so, that connection is everything. And, when they’re older, I’m sure laundry will be easier. There will be future times for all of those things, but I don’t want to miss those opportunities for that connection and that safety and that confidence now. It will be much harder to do that than it will be to get into a cooking routine.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. And it all goes back to what you were talking about before, too, which I loved is paying attention to them. You notice the cues and put together the clues of what was going on to realize that this is what she was looking for, because often our kids, even if they are actively verbal, might not get really what they want is for you to sit. Some will be able to say it. Some might process it and figure it out that way.
But it is so valuable for us to be watching for the clues to look at the motivations behind what they’re saying, the words they’re choosing. But we know our kids and how they’re using language and what they mean more deeply than just the surface, again, of what the words are, right?
ALI: Yeah. Well, with Lila, she has an excellent vocabulary, but sometimes when you’re in those heated moments or just emotional upheaval, she can’t really ask for that level of energy and attention. And so, she doesn’t want me to give her a hug, and she doesn’t want me to touch her, but she doesn’t want me to go away. And so, it’s that Very Important Sitting thing.
It’s that holding space and just sitting there and being there and not giving too much energy and attention on to that, but just being around and being aware of the whole environment that’s happening and just kind of sitting there. And it was such a strange feeling for me when I realized like, oh, this is what I’ve been doing for so long.
When you’re sitting in an enclosure with a whole bunch of animals, I mean, there weren’t phones really back then anyway, like cell phones the way there are today, but you couldn’t have a book. They would pick the book up and rip it to pieces. You couldn’t be doing anything else with your energy other than just sitting there and being, and how quickly you just tune into that space. You know the dynamics of everything that was playing in there. And it’s so easy to hold the energy and emotions of someone else when you’re just sitting and being in their presence.
And I found that it looks like I’m not doing anything. Usually I’m doing something right, because I’ll just be sat there with her while she’s just going through this roller coaster of feelings, and I’m just sat there very calmly, very still, and letting her go through that and knowing that having me there, that tether, that anchor that’s holding that space for her, is what brings her through that moment. Yeah. That’s definitely something, when I get out of step, I look at other primates doing, and they do that very well.
PAM: That is so cool. And that reminds me, because my kids went to school for a few years. I guess Joe was in grade four, Lissy was in grade two, and Mike was in JK. But anyway, that was very much the way that I discovered was best for helping Lissy through large emotions for a while. Like you said, if I don’t do it now, I’ll have to do it later. So, we did.
That’s what we discovered and probably another reason why we cocooned for months, basically, when we first came home, because we had all that work to do. We had to really learn about each other, learn who we were, what we love to do, how we were going to relate to each other, how we were going to help each other through those hard moments.
And I discovered those very similar things, just being with them, without the touch, without even the words, but still needing to be there with the energy, with that calm presence that they could feel even while they were storming. So, yeah, that was really fascinating. Thank you for sharing. It is really, really interesting and that being, it’s almost like creating that space for them too, to be who they are in our presence. It really gives them that space.
And you mentioned the word safety. I think that’s another piece of it, too, even the safety to explore their world or their play or the things that they’re doing and knowing that you’re right there. That safety can also help them push their own boundaries, as well. Even if it’s just the boundaries in their head, the boundaries in their play, putting things together in new ways, that can feel scary. So, having that presence can be helpful that way, as well. So interesting.
So, with two younger kids, I know that days can feel long and it can feel hard and sometimes you get takeaway and sometimes the place is messy and we just drop on the floor or the couch, fall asleep, and whatever. Our self-care, too, is also important for ourselves during this time to help us. It would be hard to do that Very Important Sitting if we have no energy reserves left to have that calm presence, to help ourselves settle into that moment.
I would be really curious to hear your thoughts around self-care and what that looks like for you right now.
ALI: Yeah. I used to have a very strange relationship with even the term self-care, because it conjured up images for me of going to get a massage or something, like something external.
But actually, the biggest part of self-care for me has been a lot of internal work. And one of the biggest things for me has been just giving myself permission and kindness to just be okay when things are all over the place. And we don’t need to be in a constant state of flow and happiness and excitement and the next thing, and that sometimes things are hard and there’s quiet moments and just sitting in that stillness and being okay and not chasing after this Pinterest dream of what my family should look like, or these false expectations of what I should be doing, and actually being okay when things aren’t really okay.
And just being calm and knowing that it’s a rhythm and it’s a cycle and that it comes back again and I don’t have to chase after it, that it actually will be. And I think settling into that stillness in those quieter moments has been a huge part of my self-care and mental health, because it makes it so much easier to access that happiness again, when you’re just letting those expectations go and not expecting yourself to be happy as something on a to-do list, like one more thing that you have to be doing.
PAM: I better get that bath in there if it kills me, right?
ALI: Yeah. But I better also be super excited about it. But it’s okay to not do that. Don’t put it on your to-do list. And that was huge. And it just was a huge weight off of me and it made it so much easier for me to dive into those moments and appreciate when they came back again, because they always did. And that, let it be, it’ll come, feeling was huge for me for my self-care.
And then, on a more practical, day-to-day standpoint, a lot of the things we do are just doing things in very, very small bits. So, I have really simplified cooking and things like that for me, where I know Mondays is some sort of pasta thing, Tuesdays is a curry thing. And when I wake up in the morning to get my coffee, I’ll take out the rice and the tin of beans and a few things and just put them on, then that’s it. Like two seconds, just put them out.
And then, throughout the day, I might be making someone a sandwich. Or I might be doing something else, and I might just pour those things into a saucepan. Or I might chop one piece of broccoli. And every time I’m walking down the hall, I might grab a piece of laundry. It’s just little, little bits and not making them big goals and just taking them as they go, because by the end of the day, a meal has appeared.
And also, because that time right before dinner is usually a Very Important Sitting time, it would have just been making me feel so stressed and anxious to try and be cooking and trying to give that attention to Hazel. And that wouldn’t have worked out at all and it would have just caused so much more pressure on my day.
So, I’m just doing things in little bits, and then also being okay when they just don’t pan out. Like, we’ve got 90% of a meal made, but let’s go get just fries from the fish and chip shop or something. That’s going to be dinner tonight and we’ll finish cooking this tomorrow. So, yeah, just being really light and really easy, very little to-dos and the expectations, doing things in tiny bits.
And then a big piece that’s recently come in for Glen and I, we were kind of re-puzzling our days and thinking, how do we, Glen and I, want to feel good in our bodies? And one of them was exercise. And so, Glen started going to the gym again, and we found times in the day that would work well for him to do that.
And we got an elliptical cross-trainer machine for me, because I knew I could, but I didn’t want to be away. I didn’t want to go to the gym and I wanted to be here so that if people needed me to pop in, I could. And so, usually our routine now is that Lila will be in the office, because Glen usually works from home. And she works from home with him and she’s got her little set up with snacks and she brings the activities she wants. It’s so cute. And she’s super excited about working from home with him while Hazel has a nap. And I go have a little workout, and there’s really no expectation on what I do. I just enjoy putting on some music and just going for a bit.
And I found it’s made a huge difference to that tail end of my day, where I just have a lot more energy and a lot more, like you were saying with summoning that energy to give, because I feel like I filled up the well of it. My cup has been filled up a bit with that time.
And what’s beautiful about having the elliptical, we waited for ages to get an exercise machine, because we thought, oh, well, we’ll just go to the gym. We can maybe get a babysitter. Finally, we were like, no. Let’s just do it the way that we know will work for us. And even on days when Lila can’t be with Glen, we have the bed. Our elliptical is in our second bedroom, guest bedroom sort of place, and so she’ll just hang out on the bed and watch a show or do something else. Some days, it doesn’t happen till later. And we have all this freedom to puzzle it in the way that works best for us.
It’s really exciting that we’ve given ourselves permission to also take care of ourselves. I know that sounds strange, but we were so focused on this unschooling life being amazing for our children, that it would be giving them permission to follow their joy and follow their passions. But when we realized, oh, wait, we get to do that, too. It’s for us, too. And we can find ways to find joy in our days and make the days work for us. And we can all make it work, as an unschooling family, not just unschooling children, that was when everything really clicked into place for us. That’s a huge part of self-care.
PAM: Oh my gosh. That is brilliant, Ali. I have goosebumps listening to that story. And those were so many of the pieces that came together for me. The big one of not giving everything a big job, doing it throughout the day. It’s like, oh, I need this time for the laundry. I need to put it on the schedule and give myself this time to do this thing. And then you get frustrated when something else comes up during that time.
I went through that cycle of learning so many times those first few years, and even now. Don’t make it a thing. Don’t make it this big thing that I need to dedicate this time to. There really are so many ways that you can do a little bit here, a little bit there, just as it flows through. And it takes the pressure off of it.
Even as you said with the exercising, sometimes it doesn’t happen at this time. And sometimes, it doesn’t look this way. But it’s something that you’re enjoying and you’re giving a priority to. And then, you’re seeing where it flows in. And maybe some days it’s five minutes and other days it’s 20 minutes.
And it’s that whole judgment piece, working through that not only is it okay for us to do it, this is the family that’s unschooling, because that’s also a great example for your kids eventually, just to get the message through the way your family lives and learns together that it’s not just something that the kids do. It’s a way of living. Like, I’m going to be able to live like that as an adult, as well. My interests and the things that I would like to do have value, no matter my age.
ALI: And not only that it’s important to meet your own needs, but you can meet your own needs without sacrificing the needs of others.
That was the big bit is knowing that my children still need me to be here or we might still need that, and so it’s not just about setting these boundaries that we need to meet our needs instead of meeting their needs, but together meeting all of our needs. And I love that, because it’s giving them permission as they get older to take care of themselves, but also being respectful of the people around them and the way that they do it.
PAM: Yes. And I love that you talked about it as a puzzle and putting the pieces of the puzzle together. And I think of a day as a puzzle and just see how the pieces fit. Sometimes you don’t get pieces in and again, it’s okay. At this point, it’s just so fun, to see how your day unfolds, to see how those pieces of the sitting come up. And that reminded me, because Lissy, for a year, used to really love me to go in in the morning when she woke up with a coffee and just sit with her. Sometimes it was 20 minutes. Sometimes it was an hour. We’d just put music on and chat. She’d come running out, “I’m awake!” and run back into her room so that I could get coffee and bring it in. It’s just so beautiful.
ALI: I love that.
PAM: You’re paying attention and giving it value, right? Yeah, it was beautiful. And I had those same things, because I was in the middle of doing something when she came out and I would remind myself, no, this is important. This is connection. This is just space.
And very often. we weren’t talking about big things or anything like that, but we were just having that time together. Maybe we would have music, maybe we would be talking about the musicians, just whatever conversation bubbled up, but it was that space for it.
But anyway, that was part of the puzzle of how that day went together. It was just so fun to see how things unfold.
What is your favorite thing about how your days are flowing right now?
ALI: I mean, I think we just talked about it, right? That we can live out our days without the rushing is huge for me. We are not morning people. Lila can sleep till 10:30 in the morning sometimes, and Glen is the same. So, it works out really well. But we’ve got nowhere to be out the door at a certain time. And if the best part of our day is happening at 11:30 at night, we have no expectation that we need to go to bed. There’s just no rushing to get places and be doing things.
And we’ve intentionally set up our lives right now that we don’t have a lot of external commitments. So, the day can just kind of flow however we want it to. And I love that you just never know what the day might be. It could be anything. And one day we’re exploring the solar system, and the next day, under the duvet is under the ocean. You just never know what’s going to happen. They might say something or watch something and that just leads us down this incredible rabbit hole. And so, I love that on that one layer.
And then my favorite thing about that flow is what it means on a deeper layer, which is that there’s that safety that you were talking about, I’m seeing them have the confidence to just navigate their lives and that feeling that we’ve got them and we’re in the supportive bubble where they can be themselves and they can find out what they want and that they’re supported and are bolstered up by us.
And it’s that feeling of seeing them, and I think I see this with pretty much every unschooling child I’ve met, is that they are just so different in interests and hobbies and everything, but there’s this common thread that they are just these bright, shining beams of light. They are just so close to their authentic selves and know themselves so deeply. And I love seeing that in my kids.
And I also love how, as a family, even when days are hard, we just have this really easy access to joy. It’s always right below the surface. Even when we’re having a hard week, we can just access this joyful, playful space so easily. And I always look forward to every day, because even if we wake up and we’re having a rough time, you never know when it’s going to change or be different. And they have the tools to find that, because they’re in this safe, confident space.
So, yeah. I love that.
PAM: That is wonderful. Yeah, I really do think that safe space, because you imagine more conventionally, there is so much of the, “No, don’t do that. Come do this. Right now. You need to do this,” and it’s about shaping them into another person, like the parents’ expectations that now they should be able to do this. “Now you need to listen to me, do what I say,” all that versus the exploration of who they are and expressing that and being able to explore it. You just see them exploring.
They are just the most curious scientists in that safe space. Like you said, one day it’s space, one day it’s under the ocean. It’s just incredible to watch them in action, isn’t it?
ALI: And the insights. They’re both philosophers. They just have this incredible wisdom. And I think that for me, that they have the confidence and safety and feeling that they can come to me with those things is so exciting. And I want to keep that. And I think when you put that control in, then the control piece, automatically, there’s a judgment system on their time, regardless of what it is. And then it creates that disconnect. And I want them to always feel like I’m the person they want to come to and tell these exciting things to. And that, if they’re having a hard time, they can come to me and I’m going to be someone who will hear them and not judge them.
And so, I think all of that is foundational right now, going back to the primate thing, that connection, that’s the foundation for everything that comes in the future. And so, feeling it, it’s almost this physical bond between us, this connection that we have with each other and how we all dance around each other throughout our days, it’s super magical.
And I remember a year ago, listening to your podcast, thinking, will I ever feel this way? I don’t know. Is this something that we can do? Everybody just seems like they’re in on the secret of joy within their families.
And when it started to just flow, we started to let go of all of these perceptions of what we should be, and just started being ourselves with each other, and letting go of all of that other noise, is when it just started to all just flow together.
We were just reacting to the people in front of us, and not the people we thought we should be to each other. And that was it. That was the best bit.
PAM: That is amazing. Thank you so much, Ali, for taking the time to speak with me. It was so much fun.
ALI: Thank you.
PAM: Before we go, where can people connect with you online?
ALI: I’m not really on very many social media platforms anymore. I found it I didn’t have the energy for it, but I’m definitely in the Living Joyfully Network.
PAM: There you go.
ALI: You can definitely find me there. And, yeah, I can give you my contact details, as well, to put in the show notes, if anybody wants to get in touch.
PAM: Yeah, sure. That’s what I’ll do. Yes. If somebody finds your primatology background very curious, which I loved hearing about how those things weave together in your lives. It’s fascinating to me. I can just imagine you just excitedly sharing all these little bits and pieces and connecting, with Glen. “There she goes again.” That’s awesome.
ALI: Yeah. It’s nice finding other parents who actually go, “Oh, that’s cool!” And Glen is like, “Oh gosh. Oh no, not again.”
PAM: Thank you so much, Ali. Have a wonderful day!
ALI: Thank you. You, too.