PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Julia Triman. Hi, Julia!
JULIA: Hi, Pam!
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 and experiences. To get us started ….
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and what is everybody into right now?
JULIA: Definitely. So, we are a family of four humans and two cats. It’s myself and my husband, Dan, and we’re basically like twins. We’re both 38. And our son Cody is five and a half. And our daughter, Nora, is three. And then we have two cats, Pupusa and Manatee.
And Dan and I met quite a few years ago now in college at the University of Maryland. And our big moment of this past year, in 2020, we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. So, in a year that was otherwise really, really tough, we had just such a beautiful family day celebrating that time and that special occasion.
Yeah, so I think I’ll probably start with Dan. He and I met on a Habitat for Humanity spring break trip in college. So, we wouldn’t have met otherwise, because our interests were very different. We both have always loved being outside and working with our hands. But he even more than me. Now he’s really into cooking lots of plant-based meals and he’s kind of exploring a diet or two to see what feels good for him. One interesting thing to note is he and I are both vegetarian, but our kids are not, actually. The kids, when they are interested in meat, they will find it and eat it or we’ll find it for them.
Back to Dan, he’s a very outdoorsy guy. He loves hiking and kayaking and camping, exploring. In the past, he’s worked in environmental education and I think that will be coming back again in his future. He also loves very chubby animals, like manatees, which is why the cat is named Manatee, and really chubby groundhogs. Any creature that’s really chubby and fuzzy. And he just loves spending time with the kids. And it’s neat, because the kids and Dan have their special things they do together. They tend to be very physical and engaged, and it’s really fun to be a fly on the wall for that.
So, Cody, he is a person with very strong and focused interests. And I didn’t necessarily know that before I had a second child and noticed like, wow, there is such a difference in the way that they explore their interests. And it’s neat to see already. I mean, he’s only five and a half, but how I can already see these threads and themes emerging in new ways now that I saw a couple of years ago.
So, what I would say about Cody is that 2020 was the year that he really came into his own as a gamer. So, even just a year ago, in early 2020, he would casually play games, but now that is his main focus and his main way of learning and being and playing. So, for now, his big games, the thing that he’s really into is Roblox. So, he and I will play together as much as we possibly can.
And he likes games like tycoons and simulators and games related to these things called SCPs, which are really kind of odd and unusual. And they’re these scary creatures that in the games you can either role play as the creature or try to contain them and protect the world from these creatures. And that’s one of those threads. When he was around three, he got really fascinated with ghosts and witches and zombies and anything Halloween-y and kind of dark, skeletons. And so, it’s really fascinating to see how that’s evolved from that interest into something new and maybe even a little scarier.
He also loves Minecraft and he and I, and Dan also, will play in our family realm together a lot. But he also spends a lot of time watching YouTubers play through and do build battles and all sorts of different things. And what I’ve noticed is it’s so amazing to then play with him and he will just be spouting this knowledge and showing all of these amazing things that it’s hard to even imagine how he’s gathered all this information. But watching those expert- level players has to be where he’s getting it all from.
He also loves animals. And right now his favorites are sloths and llamas. For quite some time now, he’s also been very interested in money, acquiring it, talking about it, spending it, and that’s been also a theme since he was around three. And then, the last thing I’ll say about Cody, it isn’t an interest per se, but he’s just a very musical person.
So, he is just amazingly sensitive to sound and certain types of music. It’s appeared in the past in ways like he was really into drums and drumming for a while, and then really into the electric guitar and rock music. But at the moment, it’s more that he’ll pick up on the songs or the scores in the games that he’s playing, or he’ll find a favorite song and just dance to it the same way every time. So, it’s really, really fun to see that same thread or theme flowing for him in different ways.
And then Nora, I would call her a maker. She’s a very creative and very hands-on person. She loves all of it. Painting, drawing, cutting with scissors, which she’s been doing since about 18 months. She’ll just cut and just make these amazing things. Stickers, clay, watercolor, glitter glue, any kind of material.
She loves babies. And one of her favorite things to do is either take care of baby dolls or role play as a baby. And we’ll be the parent and she’s the baby and she’ll make these baby lists. She’ll tell me exactly what the babies are going to do. And so, we say, “One, playtime. Two, nap time.” And we have to run through the list with her as the baby. So, that’s a lot of fun.
That interest, too, recently has evolved into she’s really into families right now. So, she’ll draw or paint our family again, and again, and again. She likes shows like Daniel Tiger and Bluey that are about the family and what the family is doing. But the funniest and just sweetest part of her family interest right now is that she will make a family out of anything, any material. So, screwdrivers, like we were organizing the toolbox the other day and she found screwdrivers of different lengths and they were a family. And then we role played the family. Markers, little animal figures, pinecones, anything. Any material that we’re interacting with becomes a family play.
And then her one of her interesting threads, too, has been she’s been, I’d say maybe since she was one and a half to two, really interested in being a doctor. So, it started with like doctor role play, like we would be the patient and she would be the doctor, or vice versa, but now it’s kind of evolved into doctoring her stuffed animals or her dolls or her figures. But it still emerges a lot.
And she, for a long time, has loved the show Doc McStuffins, which is about a little girl who helps her toys, doctors her toys. And she also likes apps related to that. Like, there’s one called Toca Pets, where you go through a sequence of what’s wrong with the animal and you have to sort it out and figure out how to help them feel better.
And then, the last thing, I would be remiss not to mention that she loves playgrounds, scooter rides, walking along our creek, any kind of water or sensory play. And she also loves, we have these new hammock swings, and she is loving just swinging in it. And she is starting to get really creative physically with how she’s using it, which is so fun. So, that’s Nora.
And for me, I think my strongest current interest by far is in being with my kids as much as possible and just diving into all of those interests with them. It just lights me up. I love it. And I love finding things I think they’ll like, like books or DVDs or new shows or materials or some sort of surprise, anything. And I also find that I am learning so much from them and with them every day.
And the biggest lesson that I’m still learning is about being present in the moment and they are the best teachers of that. But then I’m exploring that interest through lots of audiobooks and podcasts about meditation and mindfulness, and it’s definitely a practice and something I’m still cultivating and thinking about a lot.
And like Nora, I’m also a maker. So, I really love thread-based crafts, like cross-stitch and I’ve recently started embroidery. But I also love making handmade cards, just taking found materials and creating paper stuff. And I like yoga a lot when I have the time for it and hiking and exploring outside. And then lastly, I love cities, walking in cities, but most especially, our current city of Frederick, Maryland is just my favorite place in the world. And I have a lot of fun just walking around our city and getting to know it better, because we’re still pretty new to the area. So, that’s it.
PAM: Oh my goodness, Julia.
JULIA: It’s a lot.
PAM: That’s you guys in a nutshell, right? But, oh my gosh. I love how it ties together, your interest and your pursuit of presence, how that ties into how you’ve observed your kids and your husband. And seeing those threads. And the way you described seeing how different interests have popped up in different ways over time. Because when you get to that deeper thread, you can appreciate the new view or the new lens they’re bringing it. I can just imagine how seen they feel by you.
And also, you talked about being able to bring new things into their world. When you deeply understand them that way, the things that you bring in are often just so appreciated by them, I imagine. There’s no judgment there in whether they like it or judgment of you if they’re not interested or whatever. And in fact, I remember it’s just so fun when they’re not interested in something, because then you’re like, ooh, I have more to learn.
But, oh my gosh. I just, I love that there was just so much love and insight that bubble up through what you shared about each of them. That was really fascinating to me. So interesting.
I mean, I just want to go back. The scary stuff, noticing how that’s bubbling up in different ways. And the family, how that’s bubbling up for Nora. It’s just so fascinating. And like you said, kids are so interesting. So often, conventionally it’s like, oh my gosh, I have to hang out with kids. They’re so boring. When you are actually, they are not boring. They are great fun to hang around with, aren’t they?
So much so. I love that. I love that. That really came through. Thank you.
I’m curious to know, how did you come across and discover unschooling and what has your family’s journey to unschooling looked like?
JULIA: So, I started off my journey before we even became parents really interested in the idea of attachment parenting. And I do think that some of that stemmed from my parents incorporating some attachment parenting principles when I was a baby and a child. So, it was sort of the way that I knew. And so, we definitely practiced what you would call attachment parenting when Cody was really small and Nora, as well.
But then, I became really interested in Montessori when Cody was probably 12 to 18 months or so. And what that meant for me at the time wasn’t school, per se, but it was reading and incorporating these different Montessori principles, if you will, into the home environment, some of which I would certainly let go of now.
But there’s one thing I remember from that time, which was some of her writing or some of what I was reading wasn’t necessarily the original texts, but about concentration and allowing the child to fully finish what they were doing and trying so much to be quiet and to not talk over them. Even if they’re in the middle of something, rather than narrating or talking, just being still and being quiet and letting them finish what they were doing.
So, that interest, Cody and I explored that quite a bit when he was very small, which then led me to be curious about, well, what would it look like? Do we want him to go to a Montessori school? So, it was right around, it would have been January of 2017 that I toured a Montessori school in our area at the time. And it was a really interesting experience for me, because it did not feel right to me at that time.
And this was not a primary school. This was like a very small children place. I don’t know a better way to say that. But I just remember sitting in that room, and how it works is the observer does not interact with the kids. They literally just sit and watch. And I just had this feeling like this wasn’t the place or the experience that I had maybe envisioned in my mind.
So, I remember coming home from that and thinking, okay, this Montessori idea doesn’t seem like the right direction. And Cody was so small. He wasn’t even two. So, it wasn’t necessarily that we were putting him in a school then, but I took that idea of the Montessori school all the way through and it felt like a dead end.
So, right around that same time, I think I was on some sort of listserv, like a natural parenting listserv. And I came across this idea of unschooling and was curious, because now this idea that I had about Montessori didn’t seem like it was the right one for our family. And that was when I discovered your podcast, this podcast. And I dove in deep.
There’s someone, actually, on the Network who was talking about her experience with your podcast. And she said, “I listened to it like it was my job.” And I said, yes, exactly! That’s what it was like for me that year. It was basically the whole year of 2017 that your podcast, different Facebook groups, different websites, books, I just dove headlong into this, what to me was a new idea of unschooling, and how that then tied so beautifully back into a lot of those ideas from my beginnings in attachment parenting, not all of them, but a lot of them.
So, over that year, that was the year Nora was born, I slowly brought these ideas to Dan, little drips and drops along the way. And we never had a big decision moment. It wasn’t like we took the kids out of school or sat down as a family and made a big decision. It just sort of happened very, very slowly over that year. And as we made life decisions the next year or two after that, where were we going to move? How are we going to do things?
And one of the things that I considered when we were moving is the flexibility of the state that we were looking at. We were sort of debating between three states, and this will be the first year, actually, that we are efficiently reporting as homeschoolers in our county. And Maryland actually has this great umbrella program so that we’re able to actually report directly to them and not through the county. So, I think it was a good choice. It feels like it was. So, we’ll see. But yeah, that’s how we found it.
But I think the fact that it wasn’t a big, grand decision was good, but then there are also some moments that Dan and I are working out together now when it makes me think, gosh, there could have been value in having it be a big collaborative decision. So, it’s just an interesting path to then look back on and think. There are times now when I think, how did we get here?
PAM: Oh, no, that is wonderful. That’s why I love hearing everybody’s stories, because it is so different.
And we can always look back and it’s cool to look back and wonder, because that is just more information that brings us forward, that we can bring in to the next thing that comes up. But it’s also helpful, I think, not to judge ourselves for the path we took. And think, oh, gee, if I had done this different, life would be perfect now. We look to the past, so that life would be perfect now. And that is something we definitely explore on our unschooling journey, the whole idea of “perfect.“
And, for me anyway, I learned so much of that through watching my kids, how they do things and things go wrong or they don’t work out and it’s not a big deal. And then, I realized how much of it is just ingrained in me that things should be perfect, that things should be easy, that I’m not done yet. I still have work to do, because my goal is for things to be easy and perfect. So, it is so fascinating to hear different people’s journey there.
I love how you talked about Montessori, because that was me, too. And I think it’s a lot of people, because the idea of diving in when it’s a new idea and learning all you can about it, I think that’s awesome. Because that’s just more information that we can sort through and see what resonates with us. The Montessori ideas were resonating with you. They were working well in your life. It was working well in your relationship.
I love the idea of observing rather than jumping in, because we really truly don’t know what’s going on in their head. We don’t know which piece is connecting for them, but it’s so curious to infer that through the choices they make when we’re observing. So, it’s not about leaving them alone to do their thing. As much as possible, as you said, being there to observe and see helps us understand better, which helps us connect with them better when we’re having conversations about the thing.
We don’t mention this random thing that is about the topic or the area that they’re curious about, but it was nothing related to where they were taking it. And also, when we’re there, we’re there to help them in the moment. If something comes up and they want to ask a question or they want another set of hands up, “Oh, can you hold this for me? I’m trying to do this.” We’re there to engage with them, versus feeling stuck in that observer role. You know, it’s a really cool but important nuance. It’s a dance that we do with that throughout our time with them. So, it’s beautiful. I love the way you brought that up.
The other piece that I loved about the whole journey is how you mentioned you and your husband, you talked about the moments. You were saying instead of a big decision, it was just part of our moments and seeing what was working for us in those moments and those considerations, like if we’re not going to do school, how easy is that going to be in the various states?
For me, that’s why I emphasize playing with ideas a lot. And the idea that it’s a step, it’s a baby step. Because when you take the next step and then it doesn’t feel right, you can take another step. It’s not a be all, end all, this is our decision. And now we must live with this decision for the next 20 years. You know what I mean? It is so helpful to just be in the moment and bring what we know and what we’re thinking about and bring that with us and make the best choice we can.
Now, I know you don’t want to move again in this moment. I learned to never say never because I thought we were in our forever, “Let’s raise our kids here,” home and place, but then all of a sudden, it didn’t feel comfortable anymore. So, that is one thing I’ve learned over time is to never say never, because I don’t know what’s going to come in, what changes are going to happen, how other people are going to change.
When you’ve got a family, there’s lots of people who may change their perspective, their needs may change. So, there’s an uncomfortableness to, we’re here for the next 20 years. I can relax. I don’t have to think about that anymore. So, there is that hand, but the being curious and being okay with, this is how it is right now and it feels really good. And I still don’t have to think about it right now, to realize that you don’t need to decide your whole life from now, but that you can be fully in it.
And it ties back to your mindfulness, too, and your presence and all those pieces. I love how it all weaves together. So, with younger kids, you talked quite a bit about them both and how their interests are weaving through.
I would love to hear maybe if you’ve got more stories that you can share about how you’re seeing learning unfolding, because that is a big paradigm shift for a lot of people.
I mean, it was for me, because when we grow up with school, we are so used to the idea that kids need to be taught things, and that there’s a certain set of information that they need to be taught. And other things that they’re learning aren’t as valuable if it’s not in the curriculum. There’s a value to the different things that they’re learning.
Anyway, that paradigm shift where you’re just playing around with, oh, what is the value? All the other things that they’re learning, learning about themselves, what they like, what they don’t like, that is super valuable learning. But that takes time to look at. And the whole timetable of a curriculum and the whole, they need to be taught because kids don’t like to learn. There are just so many questions that bubble up when you’re exploring this new way of learning, aren’t there?
JULIA: So, this question was actually really neat for me, because it gave me a chance to reflect on how, in many ways, I have stopped thinking about or looking for the learning. Because I do remember, when Cody was three and Nora was one, and we were first testing all these ideas out, I can even look back in my notebooks where I had written down, “Oh, Cody did this with numbers,” or, “Oh, we were playing with shapes,” or whatever it might’ve been at that time for those ages. And I realized, gosh, it’s such a good question, but I’m not thinking about the learning in that way any more. So, that was really fun. It wasn’t such a big thing.
And I think two things related to that is, like so many families, we’ve had nearly a year now of being almost exclusively at home together, the four of us. Dan actually already worked from home before COVID. And I think having that focused, I won’t say insular, because we are very connected to the world, but having that physical continuity of us all being together and all being here, I think that has to be part of why I have maybe let go of old ideas about what learning is or what it should look like.
And then I also wanted to just say, too, that I think being part of the Living Joyfully Network has been a huge part of that, as well. Just being connected with all of these people all over the world and watching and listening and reading about what they’re doing and just forgetting all these old ideas about learning.
But the other thing I wanted to say though, is I noticed now, because I’m not thinking about their learning, so now what I’m noticing is what I’m learning with them and from them rather than the other way around.
And I thought that one really good example would be Roblox, because I’ve observed, to some degree, that it’s something that a lot of parents, mainstream or homeschooling or even unschooling parents, can be very afraid of or very cautious about and nervous around.
But because I’m playing with him so much, playing with Cody that is, we have gotten Nora to play once or twice, but she’s not really into Roblox just yet. It’s more of Cody’s thing at the moment. So, I had written about a month or two ago, because there was this exchange in an online group that I was in about the dangers of Roblox and blocking your kids and keeping them away, I just, for fun, for myself, just wrote down, what are all the things we’re learning from Roblox, just for fun.
So, just a couple of examples. One for me is the different uses of different kinds of weapons. In my whole life, I had never really fully understood the difference between like a close range, like fighting with your fists, or with swords, as opposed to guns or the nuclear weapons, like longer range. And just learning how that works as a combatant, as a player, is such so rich. It’s so interesting. And it’s new for me.
And then another would just be the physics of explosions. And I don’t mean to say that Cody and I play a destruction game and then we sit down and have a chat about physics, but more so that I, and he I suppose, we’re actually learning, when we use this type of explosive and we’re trying to destroy this particular thing, this is what it takes and this is how it gets destroyed and how it works. And it’s just been interesting for me.
I actually never took a class in physics in my life. It’s just interesting to see him inferring things and us having these conversations about it, all within the context of this game. And then another really popular game on Roblox is called Natural Disaster Survival. And there’s all these different disasters. You don’t know what’s going to come. And so, you have to sort of strategize as a little person, to figure out what am I going to do when there’s acid rain or an earthquake or a flood? You get high if there’s a flood. So, that’s been really fun.
And then one last thing I’ll say is more related to Minecraft. And with Minecraft, oh my gosh, we could spend a whole hour talking just about Minecraft, but building and constructing and designing and testing things.
And one quick little story I wanted to share around that is that there have been moments, one in particular I remember, when Cody and I were in a very relaxed moment. He was talking me through a build. So, he had observed something on YouTube and then was trying to execute what that YouTuber had done himself.
But in this conversation, he was telling me about what he did, how well he did, and the parts of it that he felt he could have done differently or better. And he was telling me, completely unprompted, about what he would do when he got back to this project, and how he was going to work on it and test something new to make it better.
I remember just sitting there with him thinking, this is amazing, that he is totally into this game. It’s his passion. It’s his interests. But he’s going through these, what I would call very adult ways of thinking and processing how he is performing with the tools that he’s chosen to use. So, that’s been really, really neat.
And I’ve been, from him, just learning about that. Because for me, for many years, that sort of rubric or that way of judging one’s performance has been externally imposed. And I’ve learned over many, many years in school how to respond to that and how to work with that. So, it’s just fascinating to learn from him, given the tools and the time that he has, that he has this innate desire to do it better and work harder on it. So, it’s just really interesting.
And then the last thing I wanted to note was more related to Nora and her art and creativity. I’ve just learned so much about the creative process and flow. And she truly, she will take my hand and guide me through her day. There is never a moment when I tell her what to do. Well, I mean, I will set up an activity for her and she asks me to, but there’s never a moment when I’m like, okay, now let’s do X. And so, part of that has also been enabling her vision of how she wants to use materials, which isn’t always my vision, like how I would have in mind.
So, one little story about that is when she first started playing with glitter glue, we got her a huge thing with all these tubes. And I want to say this was maybe before she was very verbal either. She took the top off of each glitter glue, glued around the bottom and stuck them each top onto the paper. So, in my mind, I’m like, oh gosh, it’s going to be a mess. I’m gonna have to unstick all of them, but I just let it go.
And being able to just observe, she was basically making a sculpture out of the tops of the glitter glue. And so, there are all sorts of examples like that. She’ll use a half a bottle of bath soap, cleaning each animal, cleaning herself, painting with bath soap, and lots and lots of tape. Painters tape. We’ve gotten basically economy packs of painter’s tape for her. And currently, she’s more into Scotch tape. So, she’ll make designs.
The other day, there were some spots on the wall and she was taking individual pieces of tape and putting them on each spot. It’s just so fascinating. When I let go of my idea of these materials and saving them and not wasting them and how they should be used, it’s so neat to see and then learn from her about the different ways that one can make and create and be in that way. So, that’s been a lot of fun.
Oh, and my last thing was just to say, when they do display what one would consider to be more curricular knowledge based on these eight important subjects, I’m often surprised and tickled, like, oh, that’s so interesting! And I’ll sometimes, not to make a point of it, but I’ll sometimes casually ask, oh, where did that come from? And they certainly don’t always know, either. So, that’s been really fun. It’s as though the learning comes to me and not the other way around. So, that’s been really, really fun to go through that kind of transformation.
PAM: Wow. I love those stories so much, Julia. There were so many in there, but I didn’t want to interrupt you. I mean, Nora’s piece about the maker side, right? Because we don’t know what they’re envisioning. And she’s exploring and figuring out so much. She’s answering the questions in her head. “This is what I’m trying to create. How is it going to work with all those different materials?” So, I love that piece.
And when we give them that space to do that, like you said, you learned so much about them. At first, it’s like, what the heck? But then, after, you can see the pattern. And maybe not even in that moment, maybe over time, like the family piece you were talking about with Nora, right? You would not have seen that if she didn’t have the space to play with the screwdrivers, to play with the pine cones, to play with all the different materials with what she’s exploring. So, that was super fascinating.
And the piece about how they cannot often explain what they’re learning. Your stories with Cody just brilliantly show how learning is just absorbed through the act of doing. The things that they’re interested in, there’s just so much learning that’s absorbed and there is little value in being able to name it. You know what I mean? The learning is what’s valuable, yet the learning just comes. Like you said, you’re not looking for that anymore. It comes, because you’ve seen it so often when they’re pursuing their interests and doing the things they want to do, the learning just happens. It’s just absorbed through the exploration.
And then the other piece that was so brilliant is that, when we don’t have that external judgment on ourselves of the things that we’re doing and how we could do it better, et cetera, as human beings, when we have full agency and control, so often we’re thinking about how we might be able to do it better next time. Because it’s something we’re wanting to do. We are just so used to learning not being a choice, the things that we do, the things that children do, and with adults with work. We’re training them as kids into this more conventional adult world where you don’t have choice, you do what you’re told to do. And then, in your free time, you can do your own things.
But with that agency, you really do want to do your best and you want to learn more and you want to get better. And it is so fascinating to see that these are more human traits, because we just see them spontaneously in our kids. And it’s just so fascinating, when they’re free to do the things they want to do, I was going to say how seriously they take it, for lack of a better term, but they throw themselves into the things that they’re really interested in. Don’t they?
JULIA: Yeah. How important it is to them.
PAM: Yeah, it’s just brilliant to see them in action. And then we’re back to that observer role. Because how do we see unschooling working? How do we see that learning unfolds? How do we see that eventually we don’t really need to look for the learning, per se, we just be with them in their interests and help them pursue them and bring them the materials, be there with them to have the conversations, to help them explore? When we’re there, we see all those things.
We see unschooling in action and that helps us build trust in unschooling and trust in our kids and trust in the lifestyle. And then you can get to that place where you can release that hold on looking for learning, because it’s not all about just replacing school. It is so much bigger and deeper and richer and all the things, right?
PAM: That’s awesome. So, you said that you and Dan just eased your way in, and I mean, that is great when you can do a lot of this deschooling really even before having kids or when your kids are very young, whenever it pops up and becomes an interest that you want to dive into.
I’m just curious what aspect of your deschooling journey was more challenging for you? I thought maybe you could share a little bit about how you worked your way through that.
JULIA: Definitely. I think for me, so far, because to be fair, my kids are very young and we haven’t hit those milestones yet. There is plenty more deschooling to come. I am nowhere near deschooled, not that that exists.
But I think for me, to this point, my challenge related to deschooling has been mostly related to the parenting side and my programmed ideas or whatever’s in me, that is this desire to control. And I think it was really interesting reflecting on this question. I think that I had ideas about what it was going to be like to be a parent. And I think, if I’m being totally honest—and I’m sure many parents could laugh at this—I think I imagined that my kids would do what I wanted them to do.
And so, deschooling has been a process of peeling back those layers and letting go of some of that ego and discovering more deeply what is it that I thought that being a parent and being in relationship with my children would be. And then practicing loving and embracing and supporting what is with the actual kids that I have in front of me.
So, I have a couple of really quick examples. One that’s that’s going way back, several years ago, is I took Cody to baby yoga. And it seemed to me like all the other little babies were just cooing and chilling out on their mats while their moms gracefully went through their yoga poses. Cody was not having that. He did not want to be on the mat. He did not want to be in that place, which reflecting on it, may have also been because we were attachment parenting, because I barely ever put him down. So, there were other reasons that may have been true, but I think, then, for me, letting go of, I’m going to take the baby to yoga and he’s going to lie there quietly on the mat. That wasn’t happening with this particular baby.
Another really, really sweet moment with Cody was when he was less than two, my vision of taking a walk with him was, we’re going to go for a walk around the block and we’re going to see things and see birds and do this. Cody’s vision on this particular walk that I’m remembering was 18 minutes on one sidewalk tile watching a worm slowly cross the sidewalk tile. So, yeah, just letting go of these ideas and my adult or my Julia way of thinking of what does it mean to take a walk? And totally just deconstructing, reconstructing that idea.
And another example, much more recent, would be Cody’s interest in money. Letting go of my vision, just like with Nora and her materials, letting go of my vision of how he should or shouldn’t spend and whether he should save and whether he’s already spent too much recently. So, what I’m doing with him now is trying to find and provide to him as much money as I can, so that he can then make the decisions about how he wants to spend it and when and how much. It’s been fascinating, too, to see. He can be very discerning about how he wants to spend it. And he can also spend it all in a day, which is true of any person.
But I think all of that just is to say, taking their interests seriously, even when it’s maybe not something that I value. And all of that, for me, deschooling has been about slowing down, which I wrote in all caps. SLOWING DOWN. Which is something I’ve made progress in, but I still have so much more work to do.
But the idea of the art of pausing. So many of the things that I do regret or that I have moments when I look back and think, “Oh, darn I wish I hadn’t done it that way,” almost inevitably have to do with not pausing or trying to rush us through something or get us somewhere quickly or do it my way.
And so, deschooling for me has been a process and is an ongoing process of slowing down and finding space for that pause and finding space for the kids to be so much more of what they already are. And then, in connection with me and who I am and how I work in the world and having these honest conversations about my energy and my ability to support various activities.
So, I think the biggest thing for me then, is how that moves us or has been moving us into this much more collaborative and consensual flow, which then, of course, makes it a much better life for us, with Dan, with our neighbors, in our city, and all of that stuff. But definitely, as I mentioned, always an ongoing process of deschooling.
PAM: Absolutely. Absolutely. And yes, there will forever be pockets of deschooling that come up as different life circumstances come up, as they get older, new things will come up that you just haven’t really had to think about before now. So, yeah, to not see that as failure when things bubble up and you need to ask yourself questions again and work through that. Thank you very much for sharing how you were thinking those things through, because yeah, that parenting shift, that paradigm shift from seeing like parents and children almost like a power struggle. Even through attachment parenting, you can still be seeing, “I’m the parent. And they’re the child. And I know better.”
In the smaller choices, even when my choice is to attachment parent, there’s still that level of, “Their signals are important and I’m choosing to value them.” But there is a whole new layer. That’s how we talk about, there’s always another layer to peel back, always another layer to peel back. So that when you start to see them as these whole people, and consider that in relationship, what they’re needing and thinking and wanting to do is as valuable as what we want to do.
So, I loved your point of us also being ourselves in that moment. So, it’s not about giving them a whole bunch of power and now we’re down here. It truly is about, we’re all equal human beings and all our needs are important, are valuable, and to find the way to meet them. And you mentioned consent, which is a beautiful lens to look at that through for all of our needs to weave together.
And then also, as adults, as you said right from the beginning, wanting to dive in, this being an interest, this being my job for the next while is learning so much about that. So often, if I was feeling tired, I was also able to choose to support them in the moment. “I was just about to go to bed. You really want to share this video? You know what? I would like to see.” But taking that moment to realize it’s a choice, not like, “Oh my God. Yes, of course. I’m unschooling. So, I need to go watch their video.”
No, because that isn’t a real choice. You don’t feel like you’re making a choice in the moment. But if you take that five seconds to process it through, you can show up with such a different energy. You will pick up. There’s not a lot of value in going to watch that if you’re not even paying attention. You’re just looking at your watch, waiting till you can go back to bed. There is just so much when we’re all equally considered and we try to find a way through it and understanding each person’s level.
If I know it’s going to really upset my child, I’m going to do my best to try and create an environment where he’s not going to be upset. I’m trying to create this environment and I’m doing it for myself as much as possible. But we are different ages. It’s not like kids are little adults. Kids are kids. And as we were saying earlier, kids are awesome and they’re really fun to hang out with and we learn so much when we’re present with them.
But the deschooling piece, the paradigm shift to get to that point where we’re comfortable, fully considering their needs as being as important as our own, it can be really hard. We feel like we’re giving up so much. But we discover, Julia, that we actually get so much out of it. We’re not actually giving up anything. We actually gain. I felt like this. I gained so much more by being in relationship with them this way. My life was just so much richer.
Have you found that?
PAM: Yeah, which we could see right in your stories. That’s beautiful. Okay.
You finished your PhD a year or so ago, so I would love to hear about that journey and how that wove together in your unschooling lives.
JULIA: Yes. And it has certainly been taken as a bit ironic to people who know me that I was in school for so long and am now a devotee of unschooling.
So, I was one of those people who I did always enjoy school, but I really came alive in college. I just remember this feeling of expansiveness like I can take any class I want? I can learn about genetics and the philosophy, religion, and just all of these things. I didn’t take a major that first year in my undergraduate work. And so, it was at that time that I just decided, basically, this is the life. This is too amazing. Having this flexible schedule, I was able to exercise and socialize and pick courses at times that worked for me.
So, it was actually 20 years ago now, that I made that goal. It wasn’t so much that I made a goal for myself, but it infused into my psyche that I was going to get a PhD and become a professor. And it was on the back burner though for several years. It wasn’t a straight path. Dan and I traveled quite a bit after we graduated from college and had jobs in interesting, weird places. But then I landed at Gallaudet university in Washington, DC in their campus design and planning department.
I was there actually taking a master’s course, then ended up working in this place where I was learning all about urban planning, and how cities work, and how decisions are made. And just as I dove headlong into unschooling more recently, urban planning, was it. That was all I wanted to talk about. All I wanted to read about.
And so, that led me to the University of Virginia School of Architecture. The program title is actually The Constructed Environment. That’s my actual degree, but I was focusing and studying with the urban planning department there. And when I started, on the way there, I was still quite sure that being a professor was the plan. But I also had both of my kids. I gave birth to both kids during the timeline of that program. And it was so interesting, because both things that were happening for me at the same time were incredibly transformational.
Becoming a parent, as we kind of already discussed, physically, emotionally, mentally completely changed me as a person, or maybe not changed, but deepened and strengthened and helped me just become frankly less selfish and a different person than I was before I became a parent. So, there was this incredible transformation happening for me at home.
But the process of getting the PhD was also a process of unlearning or relearning that everything is constructed. All of our knowledge, all of these ideas that we have today, came from somewhere. And every fact is inherently flawed and every way that we construct and create knowledge is flawed.
Because I was constructing and creating knowledge myself through the process of doing this intense research, but then having to make these choices, what methods am I going to use? Which population am I going to study? Which archives am I going to go to? So, every step along the way of getting this degree and creating this work, this dissertation, the whole process was then recognizing that, oh wait, if I’m creating knowledge, that means every other piece of knowledge in the universe is also created.
So then also at the same time, discovering unschooling along the way, now that I’ve had at least a little bit of time to take a breath, it’s interesting to just imagine how transformative all of that was and how there was a feedback loop between this transformation of my home life and learning then from these little people about living and life and what all that means.
But then at the same time, having this amazing support and these people critiquing and helping me refine my arguments to the point where it seems at face value, like unschooling and school, they’re not combining or making sense together. But in another way, it was all the same. I was learning that same message or that same idea about unlearning or reconstructing my idea of what it means to learn and to teach, in particular.
So, I do think that I still could imagine academia in my future. But at the moment, it feels so dissonant, because I did teach in the program and I absolutely loved it. I loved the students. I loved being in the class and having that. But right now, in my life, it feels too dissonant to have a curriculum and have things that I’m going to teach. So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens next and where I ended up going or maybe even what age group I end up landing with someday. Because it all, as I mentioned, has been a kind of feedback loop, but there are times then when it doesn’t make sense. So, it’s still an ongoing thing. I’m still kind of trying to figure it out myself.
PAM: I love the way you described it, because you were bringing yourself to that program.
When you talk about the lenses through which you saw it, like that you realize how people construct knowledge. I imagine there were other people doing PhD programs in the same or similar topics who were not picking up those pieces. They weren’t taking away those same ideas. That is what’s so beautiful about us as unique beings. We’re taking away the things that connect with us. And once you get to the college level, for the most part, you’re choosing to be there. You chose to be in that program. You were interested and so curious about the topic. And it’s like being a kid in the candy store. This is permission for me to focus on this thing that I love and to spend the time doing all this research.
I feel like so often in our society, we need that permission piece to allow us to do that. Whereas for our kids, we’re trying to cultivate, “No, it’s fun. It’s cool. Dive as deep as you like.” Like you were saying, there are so many parallels when you have choice in there.
And that speaks to our question we talk a lot about. Our kids going to college. And it’s not a yes, no thing. Like for me, it’s not about, yes, you have to go to college or no, we’re unschooling. You shouldn’t go to college. It’s back to the individual. And it’s back to, what are you interested in? What do you want to dive into? Is that an environment that’s going to thrive for you, that’s going to make your eyes light up, that’s going to make your heart sing?
And sure, no path is perfect. There are going to be some pieces, maybe, a course that you have to take that’s not particularly interesting. Same as somebody else, like Lissy in making that choice, chose to go check out New York and she found her community and that’s where she thrived. It doesn’t mean there weren’t problems with finding apartments or getting visa approvals. Nothing is simple or easy, but when it’s your choice and you’re really committed and excited about it, you do the things.
And that speaks back to when you’re going through that paradigm shift about how kids learn that we were talking about earlier, it’s so fascinating to see. People always worry with unschooling that kids won’t do the hard things unless you make them do the hard things. But when you’re doing the things that you’re so interested in, you put up with the hard things. Like Cody was thinking about, well, next time I can do this, and I can figure out this. And it would work out a little better if I did this. It’s not about avoiding hard things at all. It’s about cultivating that interest in pursuing what they’re interested in.
And when you’re that excited about it, you will move through the hard things, because you want to get to that point beyond that hard thing. It’s worth the effort. Something that’s really hard to figure out, even when you’re frustrated, you’ll keep at it. I imagine there were points where you got frustrated on your journey through that program, but you persevered.
And again, going back to the whole making choices thing, it would be okay if you hit a point where it’s no longer worth your energy to get through that frustrating moment or whatever, and you decide to change your path. That’s okay, too, because you have learned so much, not only about the program or whatever the interest is, but about yourself. Like, what I was thinking I was going to get out of that is not worth what I’m putting into it. That is just so much great knowledge to take with you moving forward. It’s like, I really like this piece and this piece. That piece, not so much.
And so, now you’re looking for where you can get more of this kind of thing and this kind of thing without that kind of thing, which is what you’re talking about, that dissonance that you’re feeling right now in how you’re living your life right now and you can’t yet see how that might weave together with yourself teaching. But there are unschooling parents who are teachers, as well. We like the black and white, the either/or, the this or that. And so much life really isn’t like that.
There are aspects of things that are really, really fascinating, and that just speak to us and resonate with us. And we just want to do more of those things and we can take the baby step towards those things. Maybe if you’re tutoring or whatever, just putting your name out there to help people in the program. There are just so many possibilities. It’s not, yes or no to being a professor.
You can find the pieces that really excite you and find ways to bring more of that in. It’s so fascinating to see people’s paths and how they unfold, which is why I love the journey metaphor for this whole unschooling thing. Because it is unique to each of us and it is about finding and exploring who we are and who we want to be, and just bringing more pieces of that into our world. Does that make sense?
JULIA: Absolutely. Yes.
PAM: Okay. Another story I would love to hear is the one behind your Instagram account.
On Instagram, you go by Snack Plate Mama, and I love following you. I love seeing some of the really fascinating plates that you share. So, I’d love to hear the story behind that.
JULIA: So, this must have been early 2018, whatever the ages were, I was part of this gentle parenting group on social media. And a woman in the group asked a question about food and how to get her kids to eat breakfast before leaving the house to go to school. Well, Pam, I answered innocently. I’d spent a year just immersed in all these unschooling ideas. So, I answered very kindly with all these options and ideas. Could they take food with them in the car? What about this? What about that? Just sort of responding, not with the word “unschooling,” but responding with this very positive, generative energy.
And I was met with a response from her and some others that was so jarring to me. It was like I had been so immersed in this world of treating children with respect and thinking of creative ideas, that I had forgotten, oh shoot! That’s not how everyone is thinking right now. So, essentially the response was, “No,” to any kind of creative ideas and there was, in this particular person’s case, a very firm idea of exactly what, where, and when the kids needed to eat. And this wasn’t a person that I knew personally, and I don’t know now, either.
So, at that time, I had also recently read Kids, Carrots, and Candy, this amazing book about respecting and honoring every person, but particularly kids own innate sense of the foods that feel good to them and what they want to eat, when, and how. And so, I had already started making these little plates, but that little interaction with this person in this group really stuck with me.
And to this day, it’s something that I sort of just wanted to share a different orientation, a different way of thinking, without beating anyone over the head, but just, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to just share these snack plates, which for me, it’s not something that I have on the Instagram. People don’t read the story about that thing that happened, but it’s just gently sharing a different orientation or a different approach.
But what’s interesting is, through that process of making these snack plates, there’s two things that have happened. First, they’ve become this really, really valuable communication tool between the kids and I. So, I don’t make these plates and say, “You must eat them.” I make them, I will lovingly craft them out of foods I think, based on prior knowledge, that that child will enjoy.
So, sometimes I’ll make two of the same, but often they’re very different. I’ll have one plate for Nora and one plate for Cody. And there will be times when Cody especially will eat one of the things on the plate and then say, “I want a whole plate of that thing.”
I will ask, “Are you hungry?” But it won’t be like, “What do you want to eat?” That back and forth of trying to think of what you want to eat. But the plate becomes a tool in which they then tell me. Cody will say, or Nora will say, “I want more of this thing.” So, then I come back and bring the new plate that’s not diverse, but just has that thing.
But at the same time, I didn’t mention this, but I’ve also always loved photography. And so, taking these different foods and textures and colors and placing them on the plate, it’s like a little piece of joy for me to do that. I infuse love and excitement into the plate, but it’s also for me, at the same time, because I love seeing how I can arrange them. I don’t have time to pursue a lot of my creative interests, but I have time, always, every day, to make these little plates and then to take a mostly well-lit photograph and just share it with my friends in the world.
So, I’ve found that that is one little thing that, obviously it’s very important to me and my kids and how I’m feeding them, but it’s also become a special little moment of every day when I am expressing myself creatively in a small way, but in a way that I’ve found can be really light and lovely. So, that’s how it all began.
PAM: I love that you’ve realized that creative piece for you. Again, it’s moving past an expectation that we might be putting on ourselves, and realizing why we’re choosing it right there. And then, once we realize we’re choosing it, then so often we see the other pieces that are actually joyful for us. I can realize, yes, I’m choosing to do this, because I want to help my kids. I want to give them food. I want to give them a variety of foods.
So, I love the idea that you’re helping without words, because putting somebody on the spot and saying, “What do you want to eat?” Even as an adult, that can be hard. So, if you’ve got a few choices in front of you. And, as you mentioned, they’re choices that you think they would like, based on knowing them, not choices that I wish they would eat these things. Totally different lens that you’re putting on it, but then they can also, through that, they discover, “Oh look, this one is really good right now and I’d like more of that.”
So, just think about how much they’re learning about themselves right in that moment, in that situation. “I’m feeling this way. This is what is satiating me in this moment.” And that’s more information that they bring with them, that they learn over time.
So, in that non-communication piece, there’s still so much learning going on there. You’re learning about them, because you learn what more often they seem to want more of, and you be sure to put that on the plate, so they see that as an option. And they’re learning more about, “Ooh, I tried a bite of this grape and that’s not feeling good for me right now. I’m going to try this cheese or this chocolate or whatever. And Ooh, that’s hitting the spot right now.” It is just so beautiful there.
So, that’s the piece where it’s like, okay, I’m choosing to do this because there’s so many great outcomes from this.
JULIA: I had never thought about it before.
It is almost a form of research and data gathering, which is something that I also desperately love. And so, now, part of the research is if three of the items are gone and one is still there, we don’t serve that one again. But I know now, I would not put pistachios on Nora’s plate and I would not put avocado on Cody’s. So, there’s little data points that are gathering over time that then I can make it all work and make sense, which is fun. It’s fun to think of it as not just aesthetic and nourishing, but then also a little research project.
PAM: Well, see, that’s my data information mind, too. That’s what jumped out at me.
Then the next layer, we’re always talking about how there’s more layers to learn and there’s deeper that we can go in everything. But yeah, getting to the point where, oh my, I’m having fun doing this. So, I had all the reasons I wanted to do this. Now, all of a sudden, I’m discovering I’m getting stuff out of doing this, as well. It’s tickling my creative bone, because they probably don’t care in what order the things are there on the plate, but you know what? I have so much fun arranging it so that this color complements this color or this texture doesn’t touch this texture.
And the photography piece, just making it a little bit pretty and sharing it, like you said, sharing it without any judgment or without a big story. It’s just planting seeds. Planting seeds for other people who come across it. They are inspiring. When they come through in my feed, I stop and look and go, ooh. And I think, would I fancy that? Would I fancy that? There’s just so much that’s wrapped up in that little piece. I love that. I’m very excited I asked about that.
JULIA: We have a sort of snack plate culture in our house, too. A couple of weeks ago, completely unbeknownst to me, my husband, Dan, made me a snack plate. And my heart almost exploded with joy, because it was every food I love, like slices of apples and a little bit of chocolate and it was the sweetest thing that he made me a snack plate. And that was just a good reminder, a good reinforcement of how it really can feel like love when someone knows what you love and puts it all together on a little plate.
PAM: Don’t you feel so seen in that moment? Like, they know who I am, they know these pieces. That is so cool.
I would love to hear what is something that you guys have done that you feel you probably wouldn’t have done before finding unschooling?
JULIA: So, this is not necessarily something immediately recently, but over the last almost two years. So, when we moved to Maryland, we were actually moving back home. We’re both from different parts of Maryland. And I have always loved Frederick, but a part of why I love Frederick, to be totally honest, is that our families live nearby. I love being close enough to my parents and my brother and Dan’s family, as well, so that we can have relationships with them.
So, it’s been almost two years now that we’ve been close. We’re only about 20 minutes from my parents. So, what I have been really enjoying, or what I’ve been noticing, is that this time that we’ve had, for the kids in particular, to be able to develop relationships with the family that live nearby. The most examples I have are my parents, because they’re the closest, but we’ve also had amazing time to interact with our niece who lives not too far away. And it is magical just to see the kids play together and how much they enjoy that.
But my parents have flexible schedules. They both work, but they don’t have nine to five jobs. So, they’ll come over once a week or so, and my dad is a storyteller. And when I was a child, he actually used to come into my classes in elementary school and tell stories to the kids and they would get so excited for him to come. Fairy tales and made-up stories and fables and all sorts of things. So now, he’s telling stories to my kids and it is so fun. They’ll sit, rapt with attention, what’s he going to say next?
My dad is also very into technology, so he has a VR system, like a little headset. So, when we go to their house, he and Cody will jam with the VR. My dad will show him what’s new and they’ll play with that. And then my mom is definitely an artist at heart, so she had Nora, almost every time we see them, will make art together, whatever that might be. My parents also are the type of people that really get on the floor and get interested and involved in whatever the kids are up to.
So, it’s just been so fun to immerse ourselves in this. Just imagining if we weren’t unschooling, it would be more occasional. We would be seeing them once in a while. We’d probably all be a lot more tired. And so, that’s just been really neat to see.
Oh, I wanted to mention too that both my parents have now signed up for Roblox accounts. So, they’re both able to play with Cody on Roblox, which is just so neat. But anyway, it’s just been, for me and I’ve observed for the kids as well, so fun that we have the time to be developing these relationships, not every day, but over time and very incidentally. So, they come for the good and the bad.
There will be moments that aren’t pretty, but overall, just that time and the flexibility to know these people who love the kids so much and vice versa is such an amazing benefit of unschooling. And having that proximity and the flexibility, I think it’s something that I will always, always cherish, for sure.
PAM: Oh, that’s wonderful, Julia. And there were so many pieces that tied in with that. You and Dan choosing where you wanted to move to. And considering the unschooling stuff, obviously considering proximity to family, the piece where you don’t have to weave your lives around a school schedule so that you have the freedom to meet up when it works best for people.
Choice can be in there so much, versus when it’s like, okay, Saturday and Sunday are our only choices, and so you have to kind of make it work, when that could be a time when they’re really busy with other things, et cetera. It’s really about the freedom to engage in those relationships on your own timetable. Wow. That’s so beautiful. I love that so much. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Julia. It was so much fun.
JULIA: It was such a pleasure, Pam. The time flew by.
PAM: I know. It really does. I love hearing people’s stories and perspectives. And thank you so much for sharing your ideas. And your lenses are so fascinating. And I love how well you know your kids. That really brings a richness to your story, so thank you so much. And before we go, where can people connect with you online? Is Instagram probably the best place?
JULIA: Yeah, definitely Instagram. @SnackPlateMama. But if they really want to connect, definitely the Living Joyfully Network would be the place to do that, for sure. I don’t have a lot of time, but where I’m spending any of my free time these days is on the Network.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. Thanks so much, Julia. Have a wonderful day.
JULIA: You too, Pam!