PAM: Hi everyone! A few weeks ago, I happened to notice that the first episode of the podcast went live on January 10, 2016. That makes Exploring Unschooling five years old this week! That seems like a milestone worth marking.
And how to do that? Definitely by digging into this rich treasure trove of unschooling stories and highlighting a few of the many beautiful nuggets of wisdom that guests have shared over these five years.
It’s been such a treat to revisit episodes as I gathered and organized this lovely collection, and I ended up with four distinct sections: parenting, seeing learning in action, making our world bigger, and the ubiquitous question of college.
I imagine it surprises no one at this point that the flow of these sections aligns pretty closely with our unschooling journey. Because that’s my jam.
So, let’s get started!
PAM: First up, let’s look at parenting. Once we have kids, parenting becomes one of the jobs on our plate and we want to be good at it!
Makes sense, right?
But I love how, in episode 29, Meredith Novak turns the idea of seeing parenting as a job on its head.
MEREDITH: That is funny because that is something that gets said a lot about how parenting is a job. It is only recently that I thought, that is really not a very good metaphor. The idea of “parenting as a job” goes hand-in-hand with the idea that parenting is teaching. “It is OUR job to teach our kids what is right in the world.” Those are the ideas that distract us from our kid’s personhood. Unschooling reconceptualizes the whole parent-child relationship as a relationship first and foremost, and that changes so many things.
Imagine just for a second if you were to describe having a baby in terms of getting a new best friend, as opposed to starting a new job. How does that change your whole attitude about this other person? Naturally, you want to do right by your new best friend. You want to be a good friend. You want this friendship to be a strong and healthy one that you can value your whole life long, even knowing that people grow and change, and that different people bring different things to relationships. That all feels really, really different than trying to figure out how many diaper changes until your new employee will be ready to take out the trash without supervision.
PAM: Bam. That job-like focus encourages us to look at things like productivity and to get to the next milestone as quickly as possible. Because our kids are a reflection of us and how good we are at parenting, right? That’s certainly the conventional way of looking at it.
That image of trying to figure out how many diaper changes until your new employee will be ready to take out the trash without supervision is so powerful to me.
When you put it that way, it seems crystal clear that our children are not our employees. Instead, we can bring our relationship with our child to the forefront. We can focus on cultivating a strong and healthy relationship that lasts a lifetime.
If this is where you are on your journey and you’d like to dive deeper, check out the book, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, by Alison Gopnik. And you can listen to Emma Marie Forde and I talk about the book in detail in episode 81.
It doesn’t even mention unschooling specifically, but it beautifully explains the challenges of approaching parenting as a job, aka the carpenter. Carpenter parents are working with a goal of producing a particular kind of adult. They are essentially trying to shape their child into a final product that fits what the vision they had in mind to begin with—so for them, parenting is about control.
On the other hand, when we garden, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. She explains that a good garden is constantly changing as it adapts to the changing circumstances, and a good gardener “works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties too.” In this way, “being a good parent won’t transform children into smart or happy or successful adults. But it can help create a new generation that is robust and adaptable and resilient, better able to deal with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.”
Unschooling won’t thrive if we are trying to mold and control our children to create a final product. In other words, if we see parenting as a job.
Rather, we focus on the relationship, on connecting with our kids. This way, we see how they are growing and changing, and we can adapt to better support them along the way. Be the gardener.
And what happens when we stop trying to control our children so much?
Jessica Hughes and her husband decided to give it six months and to slowly start saying yes more. Because control is all about saying no, right? So, what happened when they started saying yes more? She shared this beautiful nugget in episode 136:
JESSICA: At the end of the six months—I mean, probably six weeks in—the difference was already so incredible. We could never have turned back after that. We were so much closer to the kids already and they were so much happier and calmer. They weren’t stressed. They weren’t like little adults who were worried about paying the bills. And that’s what they were like before. I mean, not that they were really worried about paying the bills, but you see adults with stress about things. And they weren’t like that any more.
PAM: Oh my gosh! They weren’t like little adults who were worried about paying the bills.
Yes! We’ve all seen children who are worried about getting in trouble. Or are sad that they can’t do the thing they really want to do. Who are stressed because they don’t know when a parent is going to come up and insist they do something. It’s that same uncertainty that many adults carry, which we can see in their demeanour.
Without that weight of uncertainty and lack of agency over their lives, they were so much happier and calmer. They weren’t stressed any more.
Now, what might that “saying yes more” look like in action?
In episode 27, Teresa Graham Brett shares such a clear and beautiful example of this transition away from control and toward freedom and connection, and it has to do with rules. We put rules in place to keep our kids safe, to define our—and their—comfort zone.
But does that really work the way we think?
Let’s listen to Teresa’s story.
TERESA: When Martel was very young, I decided, “Well, we’re going to let him watch PBS Kids.” That’s what he has to watch because, of course, it’s educational and it’s non-violent. Right. So, I’m going to give you free access at any time to PBS Kids. If you’re going to go on the internet, you get to go on the PBS Kids website and play those games, because they’re all educational. That where I started.
Then, as he got older, we would branch out. Oh, what was safe? “Let me watch this movie and make sure it’s safe. Okay. You can watch this. It’s safe now, but let me fast forward past the parts that I think are going to be too scary for you.” This was my process, was to do all of those things to determine what was within his comfort zone. I’ll tell you, after the video incident where I got to watch myself being recorded interacting with him and I decided, “That’s it. Things have to change.” I remember Martel, of course, he was fond of Elmo because he could watch Sesame Street, but he would watch this one—there’s this one PBS show called Caillou. Do you know Caillou?
TERESA: Okay, so every time Caillou would come on, there would be a point in almost every episode where Martel would say, “Shut it off.” So, I’d shut off the TV. Well, I never thought about that. When I was still in this dominant mode of, “Everything on PBS Kids is fine, because it’s not my version of violence.”
What I realized, I started doing exactly what you talked about, really watching TV with him. This is the thing about control. When I controlled his access to everything, food, media, whatever it was, I was uninvolved, because I had deemed everything he had access to to be safe, so there was no partnership. He would watch stuff, but I would not watch with him. That was, in some ways, if I think about that control responsibility dynamic that we talked about earlier, I had abdicated my responsibility because I had controlled the environment.
So, what I did was, when I started to just dive in and say, “I’m not controlling anything,” I started watching with him. I observed him, exactly what you just said. I started really paying attention to who is he, not my version of who he is, but who is he really. What I notice in that show, Caillou, is that Caillou always “gets in trouble” at some point in the show, which I had never paid attention to. Then, when he starts to get in trouble, a parent then chides him or somehow you know the parent or teacher is stepping in to correct Caillou. Every point when that started to happen when he was watching that show, he wanted me to shut it off, because he couldn’t watch that sort of, maybe, emotional violence being imparted on the child.
It was fascinating to me that his self regulation was occurring and the violence that I thought was violence, because of course I was perpetuating that violence on him. The emotional violence of control, he already saw it. That blew my mind. Blew my mind, Pam. I was like, “Wow! What did I refuse to see before that I can now see?” My conceptions about what I thought were safe were so different. They met this narrative, this societal expectation, but what he needed was for children to be emotionally and, of course, physically free and safe. The violence he saw was not the violence I saw. If I could point to one thing that so expanded my view of media access, that was it.
PAM: Yeah. I love, love, love that piece where you think you’re being a great parent by controlling their access, but what it does it those rules, you end up relying on those rules so much, you just leave them on their own to do everything. “You stay within these rules, you’re safe, and I’m a good parent.” That’s it, right?
PAM: Then, if inside our comfort zone, our child gets upset or whatever, conventionally, they’re shamed for that. It’s like, “Why? don’t worry about that. That’s okay. You shouldn’t be scared about that.” They get it on both sides, don’t they?
TERESA: Oh, it’s so true. It’s so very true. I just started watching so many things with him. We’d watch Teen Titans. At one point, oh my gosh, we were on this marathon of Family Guy. If any of you’ve watched Family Guy, for a social justice person, it was so challenging for me to watch Family Guy, because they are offensive and derogatory towards every group, right, but it was so fascinating, because I saw the shows he would watch. They were when youth were empowered. He loved Teen Titans because the teens save the world, every time, every show. They do something to save the world.
Then, as he got older and we were exploring Family Guy, he would ask me. I’d be sitting there uncomfortable thinking, “He’s learning all these stereotypes. He’s learning all these things. Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.” You know, he didn’t. He didn’t pick those things up. Does he internalize stereotypes? We all do. Of course, there was a degree to which that happened, but we could critically talk about it. “Oh, what did you think of that? What are you seeing?” Not in a way for me to manipulate him to believe what I believe, but as a way to understand his experience with that media and that show or that video game. To just be in it with him changed how I saw his world and opened it up. Then, it paved the way for me to do it with Grayson. I talk a lot about Martel because Martel was the first. He helped me through it.
PAM: Brilliant insight, right? It gave me goosebumps when we were talking and every time I’ve read it since.
“When I controlled his access to everything, food, media, whatever it was, I was uninvolved, because I had deemed everything he had access to to be safe, so there was no partnership.”Teresa Graham Brett
No partnership. No connection. No observing and adapting the environment so it works better for him.
And after choosing to drop the rules, the control, and instead join him as he watched what he was interested in? What he was capable of blew her mind!
As she said, “To just be in it with him changed how I saw his world and opened it up.” Being WITH him opened up his world. Remember that bit for later.
The challenge that often bubbles up now is how much time it takes to be with our kids. Watching shows with them, playing games, hanging out. And if we aren’t using rules and control, it can take longer to move through challenges.
But that’s a choice too. How do you want to invest your time and energy as a parent?
Jan Fortune shared this insight in episode 111:
JAN: I can remember one day somebody saying to me after I’d spent a long time with one of my children negotiating a decision that they needed to make and they said, “Well, why did you spend all that time? You could have just solved that in five minutes and told them this is what you’re going to do, get on with it.” And I said, “Well, when you do that with your children, what happens?” “Well, they might have a tantrum, they might…”
So, you pour your emotional energy into an hour of a child being hurt and upset and feeling dismissed and you think that it’s a bad idea for me to pour my energy into an hour of everybody winning. It’s like, you’re going to use the energy, why not use it creatively instead of destructively? All parenting takes a lot of energy and I think if you agree with your children together to use that well, I think the benefits are fantastic.
PAM: Absolutely! The benefits are fantastic. We learn more about each other. They feel seen and heard. Our trust in each other grows. We are more connected after, not less.
And when it comes to the fantastic benefits of choosing to use our time to support our children, that happens even when our children aren’t struggling with something.
I just love how Ali Walker explained Very Important Sitting in episode 257.
ALI: 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: If it helps, I give you permission to set aside your to do list for a while and do some Very Important Sitting with your child. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when you start looking at your child through this lens, you discover that it’s something they would deeply appreciate. Your quiet company.
Okay. Now let’s throw a sibling or two into the mix!
Pam Sorooshian was on the podcast way back in episode 2, and, with three daughters, she shared a plethora of solid insights and ideas about navigating sibling conflicts.
PAM S: Looking back now, how I think I could have done better is to just pay attention really closely and head things off when you see frustrations starting at the very, very beginning. Try to offer more, because frustration often comes from a scarcity of some kind of resource. You know, both of them want the same stuffed animal, or both of them want the same piece of fabric, or they both want to play the piano. Or one wants to play the piano while the other one wants to watch TV right next to it.
A lot of times conflicts arise from wanting something that conflicts with what somebody else wants, so trying to offer more, right away, before they dig in their heels and they’re already engaged in some sort of stand off. So, if you see a kid eying the piano and another kid is watching TV, before they open the piano and start playing it and start having a fight over who’s going to get to have that space, head that off really fast. That requires paying really close attention and being pretty in tune with your own kids so that you sense what’s going on before it really breaks out. So that’s the biggest thing to do.
And then the other one is, sometimes when they get older is, to stay out of it. Not with little kids but with much older kids, is to let them use the skills they’ve developed and figure out how to work it out. You know, while you’re paying attention and making sure they are okay. As they got older, I stayed too involved and I think they would have been better off if I let them work things out a little bit more.
Some people stay out of it too much and they just have this attitude of, ‘Let the kids work it out,’ and they need the advice to get involved a little more and a little earlier. Other people are too involved. For me, it was a changing process over all those years. My three daughters are still extremely close. They are definitely each other’s best friends. They hang around together almost every single day. They talk to each other constantly. And they still fight.
Now, at this point, I need to stay out of it entirely because they are all grown-ups and I don’t need to be around at all. But it’s still kind of hard for me, I still want to get in there and solve the problems for them, but I think when you have that intensity of relationships and you are together that much that some level of conflict is really inevitable.
When they were going through different stages where one kid would be harder to get along with, or two kids just were having trouble with each other, my solution to that is to give them more space. Not to try to force it, but to give them more space from each other. Have one visiting friends much more often. Let them do overnighters somewhere else and give the kid who is having problems with them a little more opportunity to get over it and relax. Also, having friends over helps to change the dynamics. A lot of times they would get caught up in some kind of conflict but then they would kind of make up but that same conflict would just keep rearing it’s head. Having friends come over and change all the dynamics of how everybody’s interacting would sometimes break that cycle, and then they’d be better off.
Another thing is to take one of the kids with you and go somewhere. You know, separate them in a happy way. Not separate them because, “you guys can’t get along so you have to be separated.” For example, take one of the kids and, we couldn’t do this in those days, but these days you can say, “Let’s go to the grocery store and stop at Starbucks” or something and make it a fun trip. In those days it was: stop and get an ice-cream cone or something like that, so that the kids could have breathing space from each other.
Having more spaces in your house helps a lot, I think, because if they have their own space that they can retreat to, that really just is theirs, and that the other kids can’t go in and interrupt them. I think that can really, really help. I have two pretty outgoing, extraverted kids and one very introverted and for her to have her own space was really critical in everybody getting along because she needed downtime way more than the other two did, so she needed to be able to get in there and relax and just be on her own, sometimes for hours.
PAM L: I found that to be a really important thing here as well. I think we’ve got two out of three that are really quite introverted. Just to be able to realise for themselves, that ‘this is kind of enough’ and have a place that they can go to re-coup themselves.
The other thing I wanted to point out, because I thought what you were sharing was great: I found the same thing when you don’t know how much support they might need and it’s different for each child too. Sometimes they want lots of your support; sometimes they’d prefer you’d to back off. For me, what helped the most was just looking to them to see what their reactions were. Like you said, some people maybe needing one kind of advice and somebody else, the opposite. It boils down to, looking at your own child and yourself and figuring out what is working in the moment and paying attention, because that changes over time too, doesn’t it?
PAM S: Yes, it changes a lot.
Also, don’t keep doing something that’s not working. Don’t think that you’re not doing enough and do more of the same thing. Try something completely different. Try the opposite and see if that helps a little bit. If that helps a little bit then do more of that. For example, there was a time period where I just aggravated all their conflicts. They would tell me that. They would say, “Mum, stay out of it.” So, two things there: yes, take their word for it; if it’s not working, stop doing it and figure out some other alternative.
Also, the other one is to not think too much in terms of black and white. It’s not one thing or the other. It’s: try a little bit and see how it works. Then try something else. Small changes are ok. Just make a little change to how your reactions are. Just make a little change to anything and watch them and see how that works. See if that leads to anything slightly better.
The other thing is, don’t get upset. The thing that I did the worst at was that it upset me when they were having conflict with each other. I was upset by it instead of just being accepting and it’s a matter of fact that when you have three kids growing up together that they are going to have conflicts. I wasn’t that accepting of it. I had some kind of an ideal in my head that they would all get along all the time. So my own emotions got connected to that, you know, got attached to the idea. That’s just not realistic, so if parents can just stay calm and confident. The kids might be screaming horrible things at each other because they are kids, or teens or whatever, and they can say really awful things sometimes. They don’t have the same meaning to them that they do necessarily to us. If a kid turns around and screams at another kid, ‘I wish you were dead!’ It totally freaks out the parents to hear that kind of thing, but it’s not the same for them. It’s just an expression.
[Child thinking:] ’I had these extreme, strong emotions that I don’t know what to do with and I’m so angry. I’m trying to say the worst possible thing I can think of to say.’
If the parents can hear that kind of thing without getting their own emotions caught up then they can help them a lot more. They can help them with problems. If you immediately react to that, and start going, “Don’t say that kind of thing. It’s so awful!” If you get your own emotions involved, then you are part of the problem too. Get it in some kind of perspective, remember they are kids.
PAM: So much wonderful food for thought in there! If you’re struggling with sibling conflicts, I hope you found something helpful to play with. Try out a new perspective or a new approach and see what happens.
Okay, let’s move on to our next section.
SEEING LEARNING IN ACTION
PAM: And we’re going to start by playing with what we think learning looks like. I mean, we know what it’s supposed to look like in school, and we probably have a good idea of what it looks like for us. None of that means we know what it will look like for our children.
In episode 36, Lauren Seaver shared a great story about releasing her baggage around what learning looks like.
LAUREN: When I think about it, the first few months I think my biggest concern was that our unschooling life didn’t match the picture of what unschooling looked like in my mind. I had these unschooling fantasies about what my own personal unschooling path would have looked like if I were unschooled as a child.
I’m one of those people who throws themselves into whatever they are learning. When I was a kid I was into pioneer days, the mid-1800s and Westward Extension, and when I was into that, that was my whole life.
I had a pioneer dress with a bonnet I wore and I had the American Girl Doll and I read all the books. And all the books I read were about the Oregon trail and that time period. And I played the Oregon Trail Video Game and made food from that time period, all that. So I am the type who throws myself into stuff and it becomes my entire life. Then River and I started this unschooling path and I was noticing, “Wow, River doesn’t learn exactly how I learn.”
You’d think that wouldn’t be a big deal but, for whatever reason, I had envisioned something like it. When he was really interested in tornados and lightning, he didn’t want to be thrown into a world of weather. And I could get all the books out from the library about weather and he was like, “I’m not looking at those. I don’t care.” It was a really big deal for me to learn, “Oh wait a second, just because this is how I learn it doesn’t mean that’s how he’s going to learn, and just because I thought it was going to look this way doesn’t mean that’s what it’s going to look like.”
I think just letting go of expectations was so huge for me to be able to really relish what was actually happening in our unschooling lives. So letting go of those shoulds and just being there and actually witnessing what was happening was what helped me to see “Oh my god, he is learning so much and look at the way he does it. It’s so fascinating. And what he is interested in.” So that was big for me.
So, I don’t know if it’s as much fear as it is just letting go of baggage. I think that’s kind of a key piece in my unschooling experience and in our unschooling experience. Me letting go of baggage.
PAM: When we come to unschooling, we definitely have a picture in our minds about what our days are going to look like. It’s really helpful to realize that our utopian vision is not only unrealistic, but also only utopian to us! Our children are their own unique selves.
And from there it can take a while to release our baggage and begin to see things from our child’s perspective. To recognize how much school-ish thinking is clouding our thoughts.
In episode 89, Jan Hunt shares a funny, yet telling, story about how deeply school was woven into her thoughts and the value of instead choosing to trust both her son and herself.
JAN: I have to laugh because there is this funny story that I tell my clients when that topic comes up. One day, when Jason was maybe 18 months, he was in a corner of our living room sitting on our floor playing with blocks. He was extremely verbal I should add; he had a huge vocabulary by 18 months, which is fine, but not necessary. I am not bragging, that is just Jason; that was his schedule, and everyone has their own.
So, he had this huge vocabulary and he had just been learning about colours so I got really smart and thought, ‘I am going to give him a test question.’ He was playing with a red block and I was really curious to know whether the word “red” was in his vocabulary yet, so I pointed to it and said, “Jason, what is that?” And he looked at it, and he looked at me, and said, “Rectangle.”
I had no idea that he knew that word and I just remember saying to myself, ‘Ok, I guess I do not need to test him; I guess I can trust him to figure things out on his own.’ I do not remember ever telling him that word. He probably got it from Sesame Street or something, but it was just a lesson to me that I could trust him.
It is funny; it was just one little experience, but it had a big impact on me. It just made me feel very silly and wrong. It showed me how school had gotten me into thinking that, of course, you have to test them; of course, you have to know what they know and what they do not know.
PAM: I still remember how freeing that early a-ha moment was for me, realizing that, of course I don’t need to test them, I’m hanging out with them all the time and seeing their learning in action!
Eventually, as I continued to learn more about the nuances of unschooling, I moved beyond it being about my children’s learning. I get to experience the wonder and joy of learning too!
Sandra Dodd explains this deeper level of unschooling beautifully in episode 71 about the changes in parents that unfold with unschooling.
SANDRA: I think becoming an unschooling parent is about recovery, and like you were just talking about, it’s different at different stages. They might be totally happy with a child who’s elementary school age but when they become the age of whatever kind of school system they were in—middle school, junior high—then the parents might get nervous again, “Well, shouldn’t you be doing this and this and this?” Based on what? Slow down!
So, the parents, if they keep up with their own progress, they should be still learning about learning, either learning or trying to remember that they once knew long ago when they were little that learning can happen wordlessly. From sound, from images, from touching and playing with things. And even with adults. There are some things you don’t learn through looking at, you know, sand toys or slime, you don’t just look at it, you have to touch it and see what it does. Rocks and shells, they’re no good to just look at. And by the way, if anyone has a rock or a shell collection and you get bored, get a bowl of water, they look so different wet. The plainest little granite rocks can look beautiful when they’re wet. But who’s going to do that? That’s not on the test, not even on the geology test.
Clay, soap, oil, those things need to be touched and messed with to learn about them. And it doesn’t hurt for adults to do that either. Different oils feel different ways. So, looking away from book learning for a while, and not only believing and understanding that learning can happen other ways but prove it by living with it and doing it. Instead of batting away questions and curiosities because you don’t have to know, you’re not in school, you’re grown up—instead of batting them away, turn towards it. And be still in wonder. You don’t have to wait for your kids to ask a cool question, you might have your own cool question then at that point. And then sometimes you might share it with your kids and sometimes you don’t.
And this is another level of unschooling where at first the parents are so excited they want to know everything the kids have learned and they want to share with the kids everything they think of, and after a while the kids can get crowded with that and the parents can go on automatic and get a little maybe monotonous. If they get to the point where they can discover something fascinating, go look at it in person, read about it and look at a video about it and not tell their kids, that’s kind of another plateau of unschooling. Where the flow of learning in the house is not just between parents and kids. Learning becomes part of the substance and the air of the way that family lives and that’s going to help again as the kids get older. Set the example of living as a learner.
PAM: Unschooling becomes a lifestyle for the whole family, not something “the kids are doing.” We are living the idea of lifelong learning. I love how Sandra put it: learning becomes part of the air. Like water is to fish. All-encompassing.
Now let’s move on to our next section.
MAKING OUR WORLD BIGGER
PAM: So far on our journey we’ve moved away from seeing parenting as a job and instead chosen to focus on our relationship with our child. We’ve moved away from control as a parenting tool and embraced connection, choosing to invest our time and energy in working through challenging moments with them. We’ve worked on releasing our baggage around our vision of what unschooling and learning “should” look like so we can see what’s actually unfolding in front of us. And we’ve peeled back even more layers and embraced being a learner ourselves. Learning is deeply woven into the fabric of our days—adults and children alike. Unschooling has become our family’s lifestyle.
Now what? Well, we’re no longer focused on learning, we’re focused on living.
How do we want to live? We now start to contemplate making our world bigger.
This doesn’t mean going out into the world more—unless, of course, that’s what your family loves. It’s more subtle than that. And in last week’s episode, episode 258, Anna shared this nugget of wisdom that fits beautifully right here: learning the language of our children’s lives. How that starts by joining them in their activities. And we have so much fun talking about how that can make our world bigger!
ANNA: I think families starting out can get frustrated thinking, “Well, we don’t have these connected relationships that you’re talking about.” And so often, I think this is the issue. We’re trying to connect on our level, in the way we want it to go, instead of truly being open and curious and going to them and learning about them and valuing what they love and seeing that spark and understanding why it’s there.
And when you’re really listening, you learn the language of their lives, whether it’s related to games or books or hobbies or their passions. And so, then you can ask real questions. You can follow up on things that you heard about. And that just shows them that you’re interested.
‘She remembered I was on this level. She remembered the name of this Comic Con place that I wanted to go, or this thing that really interests me, or this World War III craft that I was talking about.’
These things excite someone when you realize that they’ve heard you. And so, I think when we see that frustration from new families, definitely look at this. Are you connecting in the way that makes sense to you? Which is totally understandable. That’s what we know and that’s what we do. But just this little switch, this little paradigm shift, can make a huge difference in those connections with another person.”
PAM: Yes. Yes. I love all those pieces. That being able to go to them says that we see them for who they are, like you said. And we value what they’re choosing to do. So, it becomes about the connection and less about us and our perspective. And sometimes we think, well, we’re giving ourselves up to do this, but that’s not it. We’re making our world bigger.
ANNA: Bigger. Yes!
PAM: Yeah, exactly. We’re making our world bigger when we still hold our stuff and the things we like to do, but we’re growing it by seeing the stuff that they love to do, too. And seeing that that can all live side by side, all valuable. So, it really is about making the world bigger when we go to them.
And the other thing I love you mentioned, seeing what lights them up and learning that language and the things that they’re interested in. Because also that helps us bring more of those pieces into their lives as well. So, not only are we validating for them that this has value, because they’re interested in that, their world gets bigger too, when they see in our eyes and in our reactions that what they’re interested in is valuable. It just helps them feel much more seen and then they’re sharing more with you and then you’re learning so much more about them.
And then, you can bring more things that you might not have thought about beforehand that they would be interested in, but when you see the bits that light them up about the thing. So, it may not really be just about the game or whatever it is that that they’re doing. It can be a deeper thing. Like what aspects?
There are so many different aspects to even a toy. Is it the color? How do they use it? How do they play with it? How do they engage it? Are they bringing humor to it? Are they creating art with it? Are they setting up tableaus with their stuffed animals? Are they telling stories with them?
There are so many things they’re doing with anything that they’re engaging with. So, you’re learning more about them when you see what bits light them up as they play with whatever it is.
ANNA: And like you said, that helps us expand their world, because if it is the art that’s attracting them, you might know a way to find some other art that’s in a similar vein. And if it’s the story, then it’s like, oh, we could try this. Or maybe you want to write your own story and I can help you with that. Or whatever it is, but when you have that true connection, when you’re sitting back and really listening and hearing, then that’s when the ideas can start flowing.
Because I think so many times parents think, well, but I know more. I have a bigger view of the world or whatever. And of course, you and I have both seen that actually, no. They really lead the way.
But when you’re really listening and see them, you can bring your experience to that in a really authentic way that is well received, because you’re listening and you’re hearing and you’re understanding.
PAM: Everyone wants to feel seen and heard. Full stop. When we can meet our children where they are and steep in their joy and excitement as they follow their interests, they see that joy reflected back. They feel understood. They learn to trust themselves. In those feelings of safety and security, they are open to expanding their web of connections, to exploring more bits of the world.
And why do we want to make our world bigger? Well, as Jeremy Stuart shares in episode 154, the tendency is for things to get narrower and narrower. Because it’s comfortable there.
JEREMY: I think as we go through this journey of life, things tend to get narrower and narrower—or they can. We are forced into these little funnels. To me the challenge is to break that funnel down and actually get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and let more and more of the world in. You know let more of the world in not less. The more of the world you let in the richer your life becomes. It is hard because we have all these messages. “Oh, you are not supposed to do that,” or “You are supposed to be doing this,” and it is hard. Break down those barriers and include—even include that—include all the messages that say “you should be doing this.” Allow those messages in, then question them.
JEREMY: Right? Do not try to push them away because I think that actually funnels you and gets you more narrow-minded.
PAM: It does because you are trying to ignore.
JEREMY: It is like okay, so society or this person or my parents or whoever is saying, “Oh, your kids should go to school.” Ok. Let us allow that in, allow that discontent in and sit with that and now just expand it and make your container bigger. So, that now you have got room for those things in there too. You keep making your container bigger and more stuff comes in and you make your container even bigger.
I think that is the journey of unschooling. Is just allowing as much of the world in as possible and seeing what works and discarding what does not. But at least allowing it all to percolate together in one big pot.
PAM: You are building your view of the world. You have learned so much more and you make stronger connections that make more sense to you when all the bits of the world are in there to consider. Rather than just having this narrow, narrow focus and like back to when we were talking about the questions that you were asking for Self-Taught, if you do not consider those, if you feel like that is a failure and you are trying to avoid that, you are (like you said) just narrowing your experience, you are narrowing your view of the world.
Not only does that not do yourself a service because you are not learning you are totally focused but the energy that it takes eventually to try and keep all that noise or all those other voices out means you are going to have to do that forever. Whereas, if you open up your world and you connect that and you figure out why they think that and you understand where they are coming from, you understand how that makes sense to them. You understand why it does not make sense for you. Then live in the world with all of it.
JEREMY: I think you said something really great there about the energy that it takes to resist and to push away these things that do not fit or are sort of encroaching upon our world view or whatever, take so much energy that you end up robbing yourself of that creative spark that we talked about. Igniting that spark that we all have in us and so it gets snuffed out and then your life is tiny.
If you’re like, “I don’t want to,” and you push this away and push that away … no, no, invite all of it in. Just keep making the container bigger because we all have the potential for just vast amounts of compassion and empathy, but we don’t use it. We want to separate ourselves, “They are different from us,” or this, or that. And we just become narrower and narrower and narrower, and I think we should be doing the opposite.
That is what I love about unschooling; in a sense it forces you to do that. Because there is no road map, as I said. You are sort of winging it sometimes, and learning to trust. Ultimately, the rewards are so much greater because, as you begin to go through this process, you see that things miraculously work out. You know, these kids turn out great! They are amazing human beings! How could that be? It’s mind-blowing. “What do you mean you never went to school and now you are doing like a PhD in Biology? What? That makes no sense.” But it does make sense. When you really start to see. “Oh yes, that does make sense!” Then, all of a sudden, it becomes easier to navigate that sense of unknowing or not knowingness.
PAM: I love Jeremy’s insight that we all have the potential for vast amounts of compassion and empathy. That’s been my experience as well.
And his point that it’s important to notice how, in trying to define ourselves, we are often pulled to separate ourselves, making our world smaller.
With unschooling, we don’t have a map, a well-trodden path to follow. Over time we become, well, maybe not more comfortable, but more experienced, with sitting in that space of not knowing. We don’t need to run away from discomfort. Instead, we try things out and see what happens. We tweak things and try again.
In episode 241 exploring race, racism, and diversity in unschooling, Erika Davis-Pitre does a wonderful job of expanding on the idea of not running away from the discomfort of bigger, societal problems. That doesn’t mean we need to bring fear and unease into our children’s lives. Instead, we can choose to make our world bigger and emotionally safe.
Here’s part of Erika’s answer to a listener question about the idea of cultivating a safe unschooling nest and protecting our kids from scary news stories while wanting to actively work to dismantle white supremacy.
ERIKA: I feel that you’re not creating a nest of peace, calm, joy, and tranquility if you ignore that these people are going to grow up. It’s fine to think about a six-year-old as being six and being tender and delicate and needing to be protected. But it doesn’t do anything for the sixteen-year-old, if they’re suddenly thrust into all of these dilemmas and they don’t have the emotional social, or even educational options to navigate that.
And I think you do children a disservice when you pretend that they don’t know what’s going on around them. It’s pretty hard even in an all white, suburban community, it’s pretty hard to ignore what’s going on in the larger world, unless you’re completely detached from all media, from all technology, from all opportunity to hear people speaking of it.
So, it’s not a matter of making your nest less safe and less stress free. It’s making your nest rich and full so that when things come, they have a context in which to handle them.
I don’t believe, because of my experience, shielding children from the outside reality is actually safe for them. And it’s actually stress-free for them because they’re very aware when people are tense. It’s actually the youngest of kids, all of their knowledge comes from exterior forces coming in. So, it’s not what you say, it’s how you move. It’s how you act. It’s how you react and unless you’re going to stay in your in your home, in your bubble, they’re going to go out into the world and they’re going to experience the shock of that stress and they won’t have any context to put it in. So, rather than protect them from protests and things that are going on, I would include them in the conversation and do it in a way that you most understand it.
So, if you are a reader of a certain magazine or a watcher of a certain news program, or you follow something online, find ways to include that experience in your conversation. I just read an article about a protest downtown. The people are protesting because they don’t think it’s fair that they’re treated so badly when there’s a police altercation.
And I wonder if there’s something I can do to help lessen the likelihood of harm? Now that conversation doesn’t bring any undue stress into the nest. But what it does say to your little chicks, I’m paying attention to what’s going on in my world and I want to offer solutions and I want to make my nest grow. I want my safe place to be larger, not smaller.
So, a lot of the unschooling circles that stress peace and harmony in the nest really don’t unschool to me because my ideal of unschooling is making the world bigger, not smaller. My ideal is making my nest of safety and clarity larger. It’s including the world, not excluding the world.
PAM: So many great nuggets of insight in there! It’s about making the world bigger, not smaller. About making your nest, your lives, rich and full so that when things come, your children have a context in which to handle them.
It makes so much sense, doesn’t it?
There’s so much value in making our lives richer, our world bigger.
And again, it doesn’t need to be literally going out in the world when our kids would rather be at home. We can make our world bigger, and understand our world better, through conversations. Through the things we watch and things we read and the things we listen to. That way, when our kids do choose to step out into the world, they aren’t blindsided.
And now to our last section.
THE QUESTION OF COLLEGE
PAM: For some families first coming to unschooling, going to college isn’t even a question. But soon enough we’re encouraged to really look at how we define success. Must college be an integral part of our children’s lives, or can it really be a choice?
I love this short and sweet comment on unschooling poster children shared by Ronnie Maier in episode 130.
RONNIE: People who are new to unschooling look for poster children. At any given moment, my kids could have been poster children for unschooling. There was that moment when both my girls were at the University of Washington, top-flight public university, and it’s like, ‘Okay, there are my poster children for unschooling.’ By the following winter they had both dropped out. Different reasons, and then suddenly, does that mean they’re not poster children anymore?
I think that means they are poster children EVEN MORE because they recognized something that wasn’t right for them and they were able to move toward something that was more right for them.
PAM: So much yes! Being able to recognize when something isn’t right and moving toward something else that is more right is such a valuable life skill.
Another fear around unschooling and college is the idea of knowledge gaps. In episode 90, Phoebe Wahl, a grown unschooler, shares her perspective.
PHOEBE: To talk about gaps is to box yourself into a certain way of thinking about learning because I definitely have gaps in my knowledge but, like you said, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.
I resisted doing math pretty much my whole childhood. I had a lot of anxiety about it. I still have some amount of anxiety about it. I built it up as this thing I was terrible at and so I avoided even trying to do it and I put up a wall. Later on when I was in high school—I went to high school part-time—I decided on my own to take a math class. I was in the bottom tier, I was kind-of embarrassed to be so far below my peers but the drive was all my own so for the first time in my life I was actually open to learning it.
It’s interesting now because I think a lot of my friends at the time who were in AP Calculus, unless those people are in a math or science field now I honestly think probably, our skill level has probably evened out. I kind-of doubt that those people ended up retaining massive amounts of information. Maybe they would be able to pick it up quicker than I would, or something, but I don’t know. I guess I feel like that’s a gap for me but also I don’t necessarily think I’m that much worse off than anyone else who had to suffer through learning lots of things that were not applicable to their lives.
Instead I was doing a lot of other things that were applicable to my life and spending a lot of hours honing a lot of other skills and then also developing that understanding that, you know, if you trust yourself, if you build up this confidence, you can learn anything any time upon demand. It’s all based on the context of, “Why do I need to know this thing?” because I think I’m a very hands-on learner and so once something becomes concrete, like, ‘I have to measure this piece of paper because I’m going to make it into a book,’ or ‘I have to balance my books because I run my own business.’ I am much more motivated to learn how to do things when they have a context.
PAM: Phoebe chose to go to college, attending the Rhode Island School of Design. She explained that she chose to go to college to improve her work, not because it felt like some kind of obligation. She said she felt like her entire unschooled childhood was training for art school and then adulthood as an artist.
Choice is the key.
Speaking of the value of choice around going to college, in episode 141, Alec Traaseth shared his experience. He left school in grade 3 and began unschooling, including through the teen years. He worked for a few years, and then at age 22 decided he wanted to go to college and pursue engineering.
ALEC: The biggest transitions were definitely starting college and getting my math caught up, which I want to stress, anybody can do—if you want to. If you go to high school and you do all that math and then you take a five-year break—if you didn’t do any math in those five years—you would start in developmental math. Just as I was going to, had I not done any. It’s something that I see all the time now as a tutor of two years now.
And also, no matter what situation you’re in, you can go and catch up. There’s no reason that you can’t learn everything that was taught in high school faster and more efficiently for yourself because you can cater to your own learning style. You can cater to your schedule. You’re also doing it for your own interests. You have a goal you want to accomplish, you can do it so much more efficiently, and you are going to retain it better than someone who is told they have to learn it.
PAM: Alec hadn’t done any formal math since he left school in grade 3. He knew he could just start by taking the developmental math class, but he decided to see if he could test out of that. He chose to spend about four hours a day working his way through math videos online at Khan Academy and after about two months he wrote the placement test, passed, and was able to start in the precalculus class.
And it turns out, he fell in love with math, changed his major, and is now in grad school, working toward his doctorate in math.
He shared lots of details about his journey if you want to check out our conversation.
At “college age,” comparing schooled and unschooled kids’ knowledge is comparing apples and oranges. While schooled kids have learned the standardized curriculum, unschooled kids have their unique life experience and their own web of knowledge.
What’s so valuable to realize is that unschooling teens haven’t been doing nothing while their high school counterparts were busy with classes. They were busy learning other things. Things that mattered to them. Just because they weren’t things that could be used to check off these particular math boxes, doesn’t mean it was time wasted. With a lifelong view of learning there is no ahead or behind, there is stuff you know and stuff you want to learn. Regardless of age.
When Alec wanted to learn math, he did. And as he explained, he did it so much more efficiently because it was something he wanted to do. His choice and the resulting intrinsic motivation was the key.
If they’re interested in college, at whatever age, they’ll start learning that stuff. Maybe they prep on their own, maybe they take “remedial” classes—they’re only “remedial” based on a conventional school kid timetable.
We’re not unschooling to specifically get the school body of knowledge.
Katie Patterson is another grown unschooler who spent her teen years deeply involved in other things that mattered to her. Her mom, Sue Patterson, and I talked about the teen years in episode 166 and here’s how she described Katie’s experience when she chose to go to college:
SUE: One of the things that Katie said, when she went and she did what she considered really poorly on the placement exams, because this was a kid who had jobs, she was making money and out in the world, but she also spent a lot of time on acting and dance and voice and theatre, and so she was doing nothing as far as that kind of prep that people would do for college, and so when she went to take the placement exam, she did not score that well.
And at first, she really felt bad and I was trying to figure out how to handle this, so we went back the next year, and the counselor said, “You know, you can just take the classes, you do not even have to retake the test, and she said, “Well, that is what I will do” and she did. And she said, “Mom, I traded three semesters of developmental classes for 12 years of school, and I sat in a classroom filled with people who never got to be in a theatre production because they were so busy in school. And there they are, sitting in the same place that I am sitting.”
PAM: There is no behind. There are apples and oranges. There is no value in comparison. There are choices and a lifetime to explore and learn new things.
College can be a real choice. Some unschooled kids choose to go and some choose other paths. They are all equally valid and worthwhile.
So, here we are.
I hope you’ve found this episode helpful. Or at least interesting!
I’ve really enjoyed spending five years engaging in conversations with so many wonderful unschooling parents and grown unschoolers. I’m so grateful to them for sharing their stories, their experiences, and their sparkling nuggets of wisdom about unschooling and their unique journeys.
I want to leave you with one last snippet. Adrian Peace-Williams is a grown unschooler, and in episode 163, she shared what she values most about growing up unschooling.
Have a listen.
And have a wonderful week living and learning with your family!
ADRIAN: I think the things that I have valued the most from my experience of being unschooled was the tools that I have now. I think being an unschooler got me—and the parents that I have got me—those tools. Like how do I listen? How do I communicate my needs? How do I listen to other people’s needs? How do I know how to ask questions when I do not know the answers? How do I go into a new situation feeling okay and feeling that I can do this?
Even if I do not know how to do it, I know what next steps are; how to figure it out. Okay, this did not work where do I go from here? How to live and how to love too. How to love myself and how to love other people. How to figure my way around a city and how to take care of other kids. How to have a conversation with an adult when I am there. I think knowing how to learn is much more important than knowing math or knowing how to write an essay perfectly.
Because if you know how to learn then you can go into most any situation and figure it out. And know how to have the confidence that that is okay. You know, teach your kid that it is okay to not know something, it is okay to be wrong or make mistakes and it is okay to do these things. Those are the situations where you learn. Because if you know how to learn and if you know how to fail, then you can do anything, I think. Because if it is okay to keep failing, eventually you are going get it and you are going to learn.