PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Laura and Allen Ellis. Hi to you both!
ALLEN: Hi, Pam.
PAM: Hi. I recently came across your website, Why Unschool?, and I got really excited to learn more about your experiences growing up unschooling. You guys whet my appetite with your website there. So, thank you so much for saying yes and agreeing to chat with me. To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
LAURA: Yeah, so I’m the older one. I’m Laura. I’m 34. Allen is 31.
ALLEN: 31 now. Getting old.
LAURA: We’re getting so old that we can’t remember how old we are anymore. When you’re little, it’s like, “I’m 11 3/4.”
PAM: I remember.
LAURA: But not anymore. So, we grew up entirely in the North Pittsburg area. We were in the suburbs for a while and then we moved out into the country. Our family is pretty average, typical. We were white, upper middle-class suburbia until we moved out to the country. Now we’re rural. But one working dad, one stay-at-home mom. So, in a lot of ways, everything was kind of laid out for us in terms of the ease of moving into homeschooling and unschooling, from the outside, anyway. Internally, we of course had our own challenges, because every family does and every family has quirks.
One for us in particular was that our father died in 2001, when I was 14 and Allen was almost 12. So, that was one of our challenges. And then we were also just ideologically pretty different from everyone else in our community. So, we had our own assumptions to overcome, like, “Why are you guys homeschooling if it’s not for religious reasons?” That sort of thing. But those same quirks were how we got into unschooling, then, too. It was a natural flow for us.
PAM: Anything to add, Allen?
ALLEN: That’s the best summary of who we are, put together pretty articulately.
PAM: Oh, excellent.
What prompted your family’s move to unschooling? What did that look like?
LAURA: So, our parents, even though they were both very scientifically and analytically-oriented and had computer science degrees, they were also both pretty creative thinkers. And that was one of our family differences that made us different in the first place.
So, my mom was a computer science person when women weren’t in that field. She got her degree in computer science when that was not something common. And our father was kind of an inventor a little bit. And they were always just by being themselves, being out of the box anyway. They were co-presidents of the League of Women Voters around the time that we started homeschooling. So, they had a lot on their plates.
We went to public school for the first couple of years. I was in third grade when we decided to homeschool and Allen was just entering first grade. And one of the reasons why they decided to make the switch was because I was starting to dislike the math and sciences because I was ahead of everybody. Our whole first grade class was ahead of the curve.
And then, we all got to second grade and our teacher was very by-the-book and was making us do all of that work over again. And I was starting to really dislike math. And my parents, being math and science people, were like, “Oh no! What are we going to do?”
So, our cousins were actually homeschoolers. So, that’s how they heard about this possibility for homeschooling. There were a little bit of twists and turns in there, but the long story short is that they decided to start homeschooling us in that traditional, sit down at the kitchen table and work through textbooks format.
And just because of the way that our family is, again, like I said, we were analytical and scientific, but also just creative and following our own passions, our own flow of life. And sitting at the table, working through textbooks, I think lasted about two weeks. And I remember that, too. I remember that slide pretty well, sitting down and being like, nah. This isn’t for me.
And after a while, about two weeks, Allen and I were allowed to be kids, just play. And of course, we went to historical sites and museums and our parents were mindful of keeping learning opportunities open. And a lot of our games were educational games and things like that. But that move into that freer lifestyle was pretty organic, pretty much just us following our natural leanings.
PAM: Yeah. I mean, I remember, too, I didn’t have any family or anyone I knew that was homeschooling. So, my kids were in school for a few years before I discovered that was even a thing. But I, too, remember those couple of weeks trying to pull out workbooks and stuff. And so quickly, I realized that they were interfering with the learning more than they were helping with the learning, right?
LAURA: Very much.
PAM: Yeah. It really gets in the way of what you’re doing. Naturally, it’s like, I have all these things I want to do when I get up and sitting at the kitchen table isn’t really one of them. Do you remember much of that time, Allen?
ALLEN: My memory of it was just more social-based. I was in kindergarten, so it was simple. It’s not like there was a very structured curriculum at that age.
So, as my mom tells it years later, apparently, I was coming home more and more frustrated and not in a good mood and being more rude and more irritable. She was able to detect that as it was going on and to her, that was one of the red flags that made her ask what was going on and if there’s something we should be doing about it.
My memory at the time was just very easy. It was just, “Hey, we’re going to try homeschooling.” I was like, “That sounds fun.” That’s as much thought as I was putting into it at the time.
PAM: That’s cool. It’s interesting to hear your mom’s perspective, though, that she was getting different messages from both of you in school. So, both of those aspects were playing into her choice to try homeschooling at first. So, that’s really interesting to see. Because, they were different concerns. But at the root of it, it was the school environment. So, that’s really interesting.
Now that you’ve set aside the textbooks after those couple of weeks, what were some of your interests and passions growing up? What caught your interest? What excited you? And how did you guys pursue that?
ALLEN: A big thing that I ended up being interested in was video production. And it was one of those things that I don’t know where it started. I just remember thinking that it was interesting watching special effects on TV and trying to understand how that all worked. Probably one of the big kicks for it was we were visiting our cousins and they were really into Star Wars and they had choreographed a lightsaber fight using broomsticks.
And so, we had a video camera, and so I remember setting that up and recording them fighting it out and being able to put that into the computer. There were tutorials online that I was able to follow to add all the lightsaber effects onto them. And so, we were real Jedi Knights, fighting with lightsabers.
So, from that point, I just remember feeling hooked. This is really fun. This is satisfying. And I just kept getting into all the details of the sound effects next and how music works. And so, I feel really lucky that I had an interest in something that had the good combination of it was easy for me to learn and teach myself online through resources.
My mom was really good about like, books would appear on my shelf about video-making for dummies, things like that. Looking back, I really appreciated how strategic she was about noticing that I was interested in that and then surrounding me with some resources to help.
It’s a good example of an interest that was accessible to me and it turns out it’s something that’s fairly straightforward to build a career on. It’s something that all the people want. So, it’s been awesome.
That point about your mom noticing. For me, that’s a really important aspect of unschooling. You’re not just leaving your kids to learn the things that they’re interested, but to actually connect with them and engage with them enough to know what they’re interested in, so you can use your experience as well to bring in things that might be helpful. I think that’s just a beautiful example of that.
How about you, Laura?
LAURA: Yeah. My interests didn’t lead quite as obviously into a career as Allen’s and I was always jealous of him for that. But I loved to write. I still love to write, actually. I’m still writing a whole lot, but I remember sitting on the couch, writing stories in my notebooks and then obviously later on the computer when that was more of a thing. And, of course, a natural companion to writing is reading.
And I loved the American Girl series. I don’t know how many people know about that anymore these days, but it’s a wonderful series for young girls about girls aged 9 and 10 growing up in different time eras in America. And actually, I recently re-read the whole series because I found them in my attic and I was like, oh my gosh. And I learned so much again. But that was also one of those instances where my parents, my mom in particular, was like, “Oh good. You know, Laura is really interested in these books. Let’s foster that.”
And so, I took a course in embroidery at one point. Didn’t much like it, but out of that love of reading and love of those history books came learning how to embroider. We cooked a whole meal using a colonial recipe book because my favorite American girl was Felicity and she’s from the colonial Williamsburg era. And my mom helped me to sew a costume, a Felicity costume, that was for Halloween, but also, I would wear it to reenactments, like local festivals and history fairs, and things like that. We actually went to colonial Williamsburg at one point.
So, I had this whole history and home-ec coming out of that, too, as well as writing stories. I actually wrote my own fan fiction, like I wrote my own American girl story at one point, too. So, that was how that was fostered when I was young.
And then, I also love fantasy and sci-fi, in general. That got me into the whole internet fandom, maybe at a little bit too young of an age. No one knew at that point how dangerous the internet can be for a kid. But I got into fan fiction online and then I got into fan forums and things like that.
And, let’s see, I was also really into horses and that has actually informed who I am today, as well. But I took horseback riding lessons. I actually worked at that stable where I took lessons for a bit for lesson credit. So, I got some horse care experience and barn care experience through that.
And then when we moved out to the country, we actually have a pasture and we ended up boarding two horses for lady who was also a grown unschooler, which was actually really cool at the time. There wasn’t a whole lot of unschoolers at the time, in general, but for someone like a grown-up unschooler, she was working on her master’s degree in Pittsburgh and she had two horses.
So, she ended up boarding her horses with us and she became kind of a mentor to me, which was a really great opportunity.
And then I also love traveling. We got to travel some, as a family, which was fantastic and of course, as a kid, it’s hard to instigate your own travel opportunities. But as I got older, because I loved traveling so much, I would find my own and have gotten to do a whole lot of traveling and I feel fortunate for that, too.
So, like I said, my interests were a broad range and none of it really directly informed the career, the way that it did for Allen. But I chose my college because it had a lot of traveling and international studies opportunities and that opened up the area that I eventually got into, which was acupuncture, for me. So, even though the path wasn’t clear, just by following kind of step-by-step, “Well, I know I like this and I know I like this,” that opened up into what I do now.
PAM: Okay. So, I love, love, love that you’ve got a deeper, passionate interest with Allen and your path was broader and general, because so often unschooling parents will latch onto one or the other as better. You know what I mean? They need a wide range of experience. Oh, no, they need a passion. It’s really about the child and what they’re interested in. And your point, Laura, was perfect. Just what am I interested in next? What am I interested in next? And just following that.
I loved your examples too, Laura, about what your mom brought in just around your American girls. So, it’s not, “Oh, she’s reading all the time. Okay. She’s busy. She’s happy. I’m going to do the other things,” but the embroidery piece. You discovered that it wasn’t a big interest for you, but you got to explore that and find out.
And a little bit of travel and the costuming and the food and there’s just so many places that you can take even something that seems like a little interest. It’s kind of that window to the world. And then you’ve got the writing, all those beautiful pieces that wove together, is a wonderful way through the world. Just as it was with Allen, he found something that lights him up, and you just follow that because there’s also so many places to take that, so many ways to take that.
I mean, look at YouTube now, the natural variety of the kinds of videos. So even diving into the kinds of videos that you like to produce and put together. And like you were talking about, the sound aspect, right? The artistic component, the creative components, there’s the tech components. All the life skills are bound up in all the things.
So, you’re learning about writing, you’re learning about reading. Allen, you’re reading the books. Laura, you’re reading your fiction books, you’re writing fiction. They are just great examples. I love that we had one of each path, just to really show the listeners that one’s not better than the other, except to an individual person.
LAURA: Yes, exactly.
PAM: Yeah. Oh, that’s beautiful.
So, let’s shift a bit to your young adult years. I’m curious what choices you made and how they unfolded for you guys.
Laura, you mentioned college. So, would you like to start a little bit with that?
LAURA: Yeah. So yeah, I went to college because, quite honestly, I didn’t know what else to do. Because, like I said, I had all these interests and these desires and I knew I wanted to work with people, but there’s lots of things you can do with people. So, I didn’t know what else to do. I actually took a year off after graduating high school. I took a year off and I spent like five months working at Disney World, actually, because we have a lot of family from Orlando and my grandmother had a house in Orlando, so I just moved out of the house for about five months and took my first job.
And that helped a lot with that leaving home part of things. But yeah, I knew that I was going to go to college anyway, because I didn’t know how else to find what I really wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to be a barn manager and I didn’t want to be a writer.
And so, I didn’t have that one thing to look for. I didn’t have a mentor to look for. I couldn’t go and ask for a job or an apprenticeship with somebody who did something that I was interested in, because I knew that what I wanted to do wasn’t quite there yet. So, I decided to go to college.
I went to Earlham College in Indiana. It’s a small, Quaker school. And that ended up just kind of peeling things open for me. I met people who changed me. I discovered this rich inner, spiritual life there and an intellectual life that I didn’t quite think that I had, but I did. I really enjoyed the learning that I did there. And so, I graduated from college and I still actually didn’t really know what I wanted to do, or I thought I did. I decided I was going to go to graduate school after college. I was like, I’m going to go to graduate school. I’m going to learn transpersonal psychology counseling.
And transpersonal psychology is fascinating. And I would actually still love to go to school to learn about it. But it was a counseling degree, like it would have taught me to become a counselor. And I was like, well, that sounds like something I can do. That’s working with people and I’m really interested in this psychology.
So, I decided to do that. And it was actually Allen who brought back the unschooler in me. After having been four years and in an undergraduate program, I think that even though I still had all of the personality and things I learned from unschooling, just being in that structured environment for four years put me on this path of graduate school next. And Allen and I actually moved back to Orlando together after I graduated from college. And I thought, I’ll just spend the summer here and then I’ll be moving off to Boulder for graduate school.
And I remember really clearly there was this one day, and Allen’s nodding and he is like, yeah, I remember this.
ALLEN: Yeah, I remember.
LAURA: We were in the Verizon parking lot for something.
ALLEN: It was a parking lot. It was the most random place.
LAURA: Yeah. And I don’t know why this came up. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but Allen looks at me and he says, “Laura, I don’t think you really want to go back to school. I don’t think you really want to be a counselor.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? Of course, I do. This is my path. I’m going to graduate school. What are you talking about?”
And I took some time to think about it and I went, oh no, he’s right. And I realized I didn’t actually want to be a counselor, even though I was academically interested in this and I would have gone to graduate school for an academic interest, he jolted this inner part of me that realized that this is not a heart interest. This is not something that my heart is really into. It was just my mind that was really into it.
So, I decided to defer from graduate school and I told myself I had to deschool. Which I don’t know if you talk much to your listeners about deschooling, but I think it’s an important process. So, I told myself, okay, Laura, you’re going to deschool. You’re not allowed to think about any kind of career choices whatsoever until September and just take the rest of the summer off. And that’s what I did.
And when September came along, then I started exploring a little bit more and I found acupuncture and got interested in that and got myself a job with a local acupuncturist and herbalist and worked for him for about a year until I decided to go to graduate school for acupuncture out in New Mexico.
And that move to New Mexico was another huge choice that I made as an adult, because I had never been to New Mexico until the day that I moved there. It was a really big leap of faith for me. But it was probably the most important thing that I’ve done in my life, I would say. I blossomed into who I am today when I was out there. I was out there for four and a half years. I met some of my dearest friends in the world out there. I consider them family. I met my soul horse out there and my soul dog. Actually, I brought both my horse and my dog back to Pennsylvania when I moved back here.
I learned a ton of stuff from two different jobs that I held while I was there. One of them was at a holistic pet food store. And so, I learned a whole lot that relates to my current job, which is in the healthcare field, alternative healthcare field. And the other job was I learned a lot about monastic craft brewing, which has less to do my current job, but it’s still really interesting and really fun.
And I was taken under by several different mentors while I was out there. Like I said, I just learned so much, got some cool travel opportunities. It was huge for me. And if I hadn’t had that courage to question what my heart really wants, then I would not have gone there. I would have been in Boulder, which maybe that would have opened up different opportunities for me.
I don’t think it would have necessarily been a bad choice, but certainly reflecting back, being in New Mexico was probably, like I said, the best thing that could’ve happened to me and I needed Allen, really, to help remind me of that inner guide that I learned to have growing up as an unschooler to follow what your heart really is interested in, rather than what your society says you should maybe follow.
So, I credit Allen with a whole lot of that.
LAURA: He’s younger than me, but he’s wiser.
PAM: Oh my goodness.
I remember thinking, it wasn’t so much that you weren’t passionate about counseling. It was more like it seemed like you felt like you had no choice. And that was just why that was a little red flag that I just wanted to tap the brakes on with you, because you seemed like you had to do it and that it was out of your control. And all I wanted to do was give you the space to recognize that you have the control and that that time of your life is a really good time to pause, take a gap year.
I guess you had taken a gap year at one point prior to college, but it’s just good to breathe for a minute and deschooling is a wonderful thing to talk about, because I think a lot of people don’t appreciate it. And I use it plenty of other contexts that aren’t related to schooling, because society gets us in these mindsets where we feel like we have to just do the next rung on the ladder as fast as possible.
And what deschooling is all about, at its heart, is just hitting pause and, if you can afford it, like if you don’t need to be working and don’t need to pay next month’s rent, if you don’t have those pressures, take advantage of it and just breathe for a minute and be yourself. And that can take some time, but it’s magic. That’s kind of the core of unschooling is fostering that when you’re young.
LAURA: Yeah. And it’s easy to forget sometimes, which is okay, but I’m glad that I had Allen there to remind me of that. Even though, I think especially for your parents listening, you can raise your kids in this wonderful unschooling environment and teach them all these things that they need to know about following their interests and finding mentors.
And the fact is that we still live in this society that doesn’t foster that same thing, and there’s always going to be a push and pull between the two. And sometimes people are people and people forget what they know really deep down to be capital “T” true about things.
PAM: Yeah, that’s such a great point.
The pressures for productivity, to be doing, to always be doing, like you were saying, Allen, the next rung, do the next thing. And Laura, you were saying you had that tunnel vision. Okay. Now, graduate school is the next thing. I know I used my kids so often as that guide, that reminder to pause. Taking that space to sit. We are just prone to not want to sit with uncomfortableness and not knowing what we want to do next for sure is an uncomfortableness.
Or as you were seeing a path in front of you, that’s the perfect frame for it, Allen, choice. That it felt like the next right thing, right Laura? And what’s the next right thing on my path? And yeah, I like counseling. I want to work with people. That makes sense. Like you were saying, that’s my brain telling me, versus your heart realizing that no, I really have a choice and I want to take this moment, take this time to see how it feels. But you have to sit with things for a while to really see how they feel in your body, how they feel with your heart.
Are you enthusiastic about the thing rather than being able to perform the next step? You know the difference between those two.
LAURA: Yep. And it took a lot of trust in Allen, too, because I think if it had just been some random person, it would have been easy to brush them off, or somebody that I didn’t trust to know me, but I did. I grew up with Allen. It was just the two of us. We were just the two siblings. And I would have trusted my mom, also, to know me as well, too.
But there’s a different relationship between parent and child who, the parent is always trying to lead to new things. And I think even if my mom had said it, I might have brushed her off, too, just because of that, just because I know her tendency is to say, “Laura, look at these other things.” And it’s comforting to have a path and to know, this is what I’m doing. I’m accepted to this school.
Allen had no other motivation except that he loves me. So, I was able to take advantage of our relationship in that way, too.
PAM: That’s awesome. That’s wonderful. So, Allen, can you share with us a bit about your story there around those years for you?
ALLEN: I’d love to. Yeah. So, I’ll take you to age 13, 14ish next. One of the next things that I did is I was playing around with video production, but there were other things like we had a homeschool co-op where I did magic tricks, sleight of hand was just one of these random things that I thought was really fun and got into for a bit. And it turned out not really have a career. So, I had these various hobbies, city planning is a random thing. I played SimCity a lot. And so, now I can’t drive around my city without just judging every little intersection and thinking about how to optimize the traffic.
So, it wasn’t just the video production focus, but for the purpose of what we’re talking about today, I’ll just kind of focus on those, because they make a little narrative for us. Right next door to us, there was a little church and they had a day camp during the summers. And so, one of the things that I got to do for them was volunteer to video the day’s events. And that night there would be a replay video that I edited for the next morning.
So, I got to practice having a deadline and got to turn a thing out and it’s gotta be a nice little story that you can follow. So, it was probably my mom’s idea, looking back on it. So, yeah, it’s a matter of proactively looking for those opportunities.
The next big thing that was really helpful was I got an internship at age 14 with a little media production house in town. And I didn’t realize until afterwards it was an internship that they had reserved for college students. I didn’t know that. And I do remember my mom saying, Allen, you should apply for an internship. I said, okay. So, I wrote them an email, like, “Hey, I’m interested in video production. Would love to just be around, get you guys coffee, anything, just to see a studio,” and heard nothing. I was like, oh well. And my mom was like, “No, you need to write them again.”
And so, I wrote them, “Hey, just following up, I’d love to make you guys coffee.” And I think there might’ve been a third email a couple of weeks later, after I had totally given up all hope. And they accepted me. Yeah, I don’t know if they knew I was 14, because they asked if I had my driver’s license and I just said, no. But we asked them later, why did you pick me if you had other candidates? And they were like, “Well, you seemed the most dedicated, the most interested.”
And I treasure that memory, because it was easy. I think a lot of people don’t put in the effort of just replying to an email a few weeks later, like, “Hey, I still actually care about that.” So, that was my mom, like, “Hey, you gotta write those follow-up emails.” So, it was awesome. So, I spent a year in this media production internship, got to go out on real video shoots with them, and help them edit stuff, and very tiny bits of little things that I helped on ended up in final products that went on air. And so, it was great. I loved it.
Other things that happened was my mom said, “You should get some structure.” So, there was a local group, Pittsburgh Filmmakers. So, she said, “Pick a thing and sign up for it.” So, I signed up for documentary filmmaking and so she drove me down twice a week or once a week to Pittsburgh to take that course.
And that was great to actually have the structure of, at a certain point, formal instructors and formal mentors made a huge difference. You need to have someone who’s worked in the field for a while, at least in something like that. So, yeah, it was great to have that background, like they said, “Hey, you need to make a documentary.”
It was probably my mom’s suggestion again. It’s funny how I don’t think of these things as they’re happening. But, there was a local movie theater that a gentleman was restoring, it was a hundred years old. So, he had this cool little story about how he got it from the old owner and was working on restoring it for the community.
So, I got to interview him and shoot all the B-roll and take the pictures and make a whole little documentary and stuff. That was my teens was really doing the work and having people who I was working with and who I was accountable to. So, it was just a good way to just start working on it. It was very much a real world experience.
So, it’s hard to imagine that without a homeschooling structure. How does that work in a few hours a day after school? Right?
I think that was really cool the way you were talking about your mom, because in the teen years, too, you’re just starting to recognize what’s out there. You don’t quite yet have the experience in the world to notice these little things. And you trusted your mom when she brought these things up. It was like, oh, okay. That sounds like a good idea. I’m happy to try that.
And I’m sure, too, if you were resistant to it, your mom wouldn’t have forced you to do these things, either. But she’s seeing things and she’s saying, “Hey, you know what? This would bring a little bit of structure. You’d meet some more people in there and it might be a good idea.” And then driving you into the activities. A lot of the teen years with my kids was driving them to the things that they were interested in and driving them to social things and giving them space.
My son’s a stunt actor now and I remember driving him in his friends regularly to the parkour gym in the city an hour away. And then just going and hanging out in the coffee shop. I’d take my laptop and treated it like a little day out for myself as well. And then when they’d text and say, “Okay, we’re done,” picking them up.
That was the fun thing, for me as an unschooling parent, was helping them find those things and helping them actually engage in the things that they’re interested in and not in some martyrly way, like, oh, I’m giving up my day to go drive them to the thing. We’re excited to drive you to the things, because we know you’re excited about it. We’re excited to hear how things go. Plus, we also make the best of it for ourselves too. So, it’s something we also look forward to, you know what I mean?
Our lives intertwine, because we’re living together. And we’re all trying to support each other and we’re having fun and we’re excited about the fun things that we’re doing. Even my son will be like, cool, you got to hang out at the at the coffee shop. He knew I’d be excited to have a few hours of my own just doing whatever I was doing. It was really fun. So, I love that idea.
It’s not an expectation that our unschooling kids should know all the things and be able to figure out all the next steps for themselves. We’re living together and we’re all sharing the pieces that we know. And as my kids are older, they’re sharing things with me that they think I might be interested in that I hadn’t discovered yet. So, it’s not an either/or it’s not a parent/child thing. It’s that I have some knowledge, I have some ideas that might be interesting to you, and we share them.
LAURA: Very much.
ALLEN: Yeah, that’s a great perspective to share. I don’t think I was thinking of it from her perspective that much at that age, but yeah, she was very much my partner in learning.
PAM: Yeah. And the other thing that’s interesting, and you mentioned this, Laura, a little bit. When you were out in New Mexico, and you were talking about the things and the mentors that led you toward your career. And then you talked about other things that were fascinating, really interesting, that haven’t led to a career, an income. But that’s just as valuable, right?
LAURA: Oh, yes.
PAM: Yeah. It’s about who we are as a person, the things that we’re interested in as a whole person. Some of them are going to make money. Some of them might be career-related. And some aren’t, but they are all valuable. Aren’t they?
LAURA: Yes. Yes. And to your point about partnership and learning here, between parents and kids, I have a really good friend. We grew up together. She was a homeschooler, a classically-educated homeschooler. They not only did their math worksheets at the table, they did Latin and Greek at the table, very classically educated. And she maintained that it’s difficult to have to homeschool your child, because it’s very difficult to combine a loving relationship and an authoritative relationship. She thinks that you have to sacrifice one for the other.
And I can see that. And it’s an interesting discussion to have, and I think I even agree with her that if you go for an authoritative parent/child relationship, there’s less of a nurturing aspect to it and vice versa as well.
But I find that when it comes to the way that we unschooled, we didn’t need any kind of authoritative relationship with our mother, because it was a partnership that was based on respect. And so, when she made a suggestion, we followed it, not because she was an authority figure, but because she was a respected older person who probably knew more than we did. So, there was that kind of relationship that was fostered instead, that can be fostered instead of the authority relationship.
PAM: I love that you brought that out, Laura, because some people might be listening and they hear Allen say, “Oh, my mom suggested this. And my mom suggested that,” and they may be interpreting that as, oh, well she was telling Allen what to do. But, no, that is entirely not the relationship that happens in unschooling families.
It’s not an authoritarian at all. It’s not based on control. It is that nurturing, trusting, connected relationship where she knew, Allen, where you were looking, the direction you were going. And she was noticing things that might be interesting steps along the way. And she was putting them in your path. She was facilitating, helping, connecting. And her knowing you enough to be able to do that.
An authoritarian kind of relationship that’s based in control and telling, there’s not a lot of connecting going on. And then, especially as teens, there’s probably not a lot of sharing going on as to what they’re up to and what they’re thinking. So, a control-focused parent probably doesn’t even know enough about their child to make really useful suggestions along the way.
You know what I mean?
LAURA: Right. Yeah. I agree with that.
PAM: The relationships in the family are fundamentally different than what you were describing with your friend, Laura. That’s the whole thing. When you see all the movies and books about adult children coming home for holidays and all the trouble and challenges that that brings up, that is because you can’t move out of that relationship style just because they’re now adults.
“I’m going to be the authoritarian parent and then, once you grow up, then we’ll all be friends. It’s so hard to change the relationship once you’ve set it, after all those years. So, I think that’s why your friend was saying, you can’t do both, because once you’ve gone authoritarian, that’s the structure that you’ve set up moving forward.
LAURA: Yes. Yep. It is.
ALLEN: I don’t know to what extent this adds to what we’re saying, but I skipped the rebellious teenager phase. I just don’t have a memory of it at all.
LAURA: Oh, me too.
ALLEN: We didn’t have a tense relationship. She was just engaged in what we were doing. And it was just this easy transition from preteen to teen to grown adult. We’ve just become more like friends.
PAM: Oh, that fits beautifully, Allen. Because when you’re helping each other out, when you’re facilitating and you trust each other, and she’s helping you guys try to accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish, what is there to rebel against? Because you don’t have that control aspect. You don’t have somebody telling you what you’re supposed to do or what you have to do. You have somebody who is supporting you to accomplish what you want to do. So, yeah, rebelliousness doesn’t really fit in there does it?
ALLEN: Not really.
LAURA: It really doesn’t.
And I think a lot of a lot of parents get a little bit scared of the idea of being friends with their kids, because that’s part of our society. You’re not supposed to be a friend to your child, you should be a parent to them. You offer them structure. And I really don’t think, especially based on my own experience, that being friends with your kids means you have to give up structure. That’s not at all true.
PAM: Yes. That’s it. I have quite a few episodes where we’ve talked about that shift from control as a parent to connection and how you’re releasing that power structure, but the point is you don’t release it and there’s a vacuum where there’s no structure and there’s chaos and everybody’s just doing whatever, you know what I mean?
You’re replacing it with that relationship, with that connection, with that trust. That’s what you’ve got instead. So, you’re having conversations. So, you know each other and your mom can suggest something that actually looks like a reasonable next step, something to try.
Because you know she has your best interests at heart, not something that she thinks you should be doing and she’s kind of trying to weave that in there. No. You fully trust that she’s thinking about you. Whether or not it hits the mark is not really the point. You trust that she’s got your best interest at heart and then you think it through, and then you choose whether or not you’re going to do it. And that’s the difference.
ALLEN: And for as many examples as I’ve tossed out of ideas that she had that turned out to be great ideas, in retrospect, I’m sure there are plenty others that we’ve both long forgotten about, like, no. Let’s not do that.
PAM: Yeah, exactly. And you don’t remember them for the most part, because they weren’t a big deal. Like you just said, “No, that doesn’t make sense to me.” And everybody moved on. It wasn’t like, oh my gosh, no. She didn’t try to cajole you and convince you. You’d remember that if it became a point of contention, but it wasn’t a point of contention, right?
PAM: Oh, I love that. Okay. So, let’s take another jump forward.
And at this point you have each ended up starting your own multi-passionate company. So, I’d love to hear what that looks like and how you see your unschooling background continuing to weave into your lives now.
LAURA: I guess I’ll start with that one. So, my company is called Bridges Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. What I do, what my website says that I do, is acupuncture, obviously, and then everything that falls under the scope of Oriental medicine in the state, which is Chinese herbs and different body therapies like moxibustion, cupping, gua sha. There’s lots of different modalities that fall under the scope.
So, that’s what I tell people I do. But I named my company Bridges because I’ve always felt like a bridge myself, because our family has been straddling these two ideological worlds for most of my life. I’ve been equipped to show people alternatives.
So, even though we were homeschoolers, we were unschoolers and we were really the only unschoolers in our area. So, I had to be able to talk to my homeschooling friends and tell them what I was doing as an unschooler. And I still had friends from public school and had to talk to them, too. So, from that very young age, I was talking about alternative education. And that’s actually where our website, Why Unschool?, was born, at least for me. I’ve always enjoyed telling people about this alternative.
And also, politically and religiously, we were of a different ilk, as well. So, I had to be able to explain my side to my world, which had generally very different ideas. When Allen and I were living in Orlando together, during that unintended gap year for me, we started a spirituality discussion group that bridged that gap between most of our friends being more conservative, mainstream American Christian, to a little bit more of a new age spirituality, which is what our parents were exploring as we were growing up. So, as young adults, we were bridging that gap and meeting people to help us on that particular journey, as well.
So, my company now, Bridges, is meant to be a bridge between the contemporary Western medicine model and a more ancient, holistic Eastern medicine model. But even more than that, what I really enjoy doing, what lights the fire within me when I’m with my patients, is when they’re ready for some sort of inner transformation and I help them to bridge that, as well. And that makes me so excited to see that happen in people.
And sometimes that means connecting my patients with other practitioners who do things differently than me, or sometimes even better than me, because we have to understand our limitations in some things. And so, I am gathering this web of alternative medicine practitioners in my area who I trust to do a good job at what they do and so I’ll refer my people to them. So, I’m a bridge between people and practitioners, as well.
And then, as an extension of my love of horses now and bringing a horse back from New Mexico, what I learned with him out there, my horse from New Mexico, was how to work with mustangs and natural horsemanship and communicating with horses in horse language rather than human language. And so, now I’m bringing that into my company as well.
And I’m actually taking on students to teach people how to communicate with horses in that way. And as they do that, they start to connect with themselves internally, because when we work with really any animal, but horses in particular, and especially mustangs, especially wild mustangs, because they’re so sensitive and they see so much, they’re a reflection of our inner selves, of what we’re actually projecting into the world without realizing it.
So again, I tell my students that I’ll teach them how to communicate with the horse and how to work with a mustang, but what I’m really showing them is how to bridge the gaps within themselves, how to find their own patterns and beliefs that are blocking them from whatever they want to be doing in their life. So, I do a lot of kind of transformational coaching in that way as well. And I bring what I’ve learned from the horses into what I do with acupuncture and vice versa.
So, I absolutely love where I am now and what I’m doing now. And I see very clearly how I was so frustrated as a teenager, seeing people like Allen knowing what he wants to do and my friend who knew she wanted to be a doctor and she went into pre-med. And I was sitting there being like, I don’t know. I kind of like to write. I kind of like to travel. I guess I want to work with people. Not knowing how any of this was going to work together. And I can see now how all of this has really come together into what I really do, which is difficult to tell people in an elevator speech. So, I tell them that I do acupuncture, but I do much more than that.
PAM: Oh, I love what you said there, because that’s a really important piece that it’s our time table. Now, it’s not easy in the moment when it’s not clear. So, I don’t want to lessen the importance of that challenge.
But truly, when we can release the time table, like, “Oh, at 18, they should be moving out and know what they want to do in life.” When you can release that time table and just have that space to be, that space to follow our interests for a while, you just kept going and kept getting more experience with the things that were interesting to you, not knowing how they would weave together in the future. But again, it’s that trust for ourselves too, right? The trust that I am interested in this, trusting that that has value for me in some way, and trusting that. You can never see looking forward, you can see it looking back.
LAURA: Right. And it’s something I still have to tell myself, too, because I still know that my company isn’t what I envisioned it to be yet. And there’s a lot that I don’t know of what I envision my company to be. I want to continue to bridge and obviously that probably means bringing in more people at some point, but especially when the pandemic hit last year, that really threw everything for a loop for me, because suddenly I couldn’t see people in person anymore. And so, I had to think, okay, do I pivot to online? What do I do? And again, I was lost in that vision of what my next step is.
And I think that’s just one of those things that I’m here on earth to do, really, is to learn how to take one step at a time and be okay with not knowing what the next step really looks like and trusting that everything will unfold, because it has. When I look back, like you said, I can see that it has, and that it will continue to.
But that’s one of those things that I need to be reminded of often, as well, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, just keep trying new things. And that’s part of where unschooling continues for me, at 34 years old, is being open to learning completely different things than I would have thought that I needed to learn and trying completely different things to see, oh, is this the right path? Or is this the heart interest that comes up next?
I’ve been teaching myself how to swing trade in the stock market as part of this. If I can’t be with people in person, I’ve got to make my money some other way. And that was just one of those things that grabbed onto me. And I was like, actually, I think I can do this. It’s totally different from acupuncture. And it’s not something I would have thought that I would have been interested in, but the pandemic forced me to look in totally different directions. And so, now I’m actually really enjoying it.
And if I’m not doing something for my business or something totally leisure and self-care oriented, I’m learning about the stock market now. And I don’t know that I, again, would have had that kind of courage and understanding how important it is to look under all of the different rocks that present in front of you.
PAM: Yeah, I love that.
I love the reminder that we’re always learning. And the part that we gain experience in unschooling growing up within that lifestyle is that we can always learn new things. We can learn deeper, the stuff that we already know, and it’s okay and fun to just look under that new rock and just start exploring that and seeing what happens, without putting expectations on ourselves about where that might go in the future.
How about you, Allen?
ALLEN: So yeah, after late teens, I got one more internship. This one was a bit easier. This was for a local church. And so, they had just set up this beautiful, new mega-facility with all the cool sound boards and light boards and stuff around. I was like, that looks fun. And they were like, please use it, because we need people to run it. So, that started a really great internship for me, because I helped them create videos that would be played in the service. And then, during all the services, there’s all these sound boards and light boards that need to be run.
And so, that was an interest that I didn’t realize I had, either, until I started looking at it. But it was really great, because as much fun as video production is, this was that on a big screen and it’s like experiential that way. And people can experience it and the lights can all move in sync with whatever video I had come up with. So, it was video production amplified. So, that was fantastic. And I worked with them for a year or two and got to lead things and have deadlines, responsibilities. Like, we need this by the weekend.
So yeah, it was a good chance to put on my shoes and actually be responsible for things. So, that was 18, 19-ish.
The next thing I did was I took six months off and flipped a house with a friend. Completely random. I don’t know anything about fixing houses. But my friend who is my age loves doing that. And he was always tearing his family’s house apart and putting it back together as a child. So, he was like, “Allen, you can do this. It’d be great.” It was my grandmother’s house that we needed to sell and that needed work. So, we moved there for six months and flipped a house.
And so, I learned about redoing electrical and redoing plumbing and redoing flooring and we swapped out the kitchen. Great fun. And I learned that I don’t want to be in construction and manual labor. I was constantly looking to him for guidance.
And so, it was a good experience for me, but I mention it because, especially towards the end of that, I remember waking up thinking, man, I can’t wait to just make some videos again. The first few months of it were awesome and a great distraction. And I was learning new things and very productive and stretching and growing that way. But I just vividly remember being like, I can’t wait to make videos again.
And that was a really defining moment for me, too, of that’s a really good sign that I can take that much time off and miss it so much. So, that I think gave me a lot of confidence going forward to just continue to remind myself, this is the thing that I like, and I enjoy it and this is probably what I’m going to be doing there, trying to make money doing this.
So, we flipped the house. We sold it for as much money as we put in. It wasn’t profitable, the fact that we spent six months doing it, we could have just sold it and not wasted all that money. But it was a good experience. So, we did that.
I moved to Orlando with Laura. So, Laura was going to go down there for a summer and I didn’t know what to do next. And I thought, I’m going to tag along with my sister and it was a new city. And so that was my stepping stone to independence. And I was like, I guess I’m going to get a client. How do I freelance video production?
A local nonprofit was having an annual conference or whatever, Habitat for Humanity. Laura and I had volunteered on the weekends, whatever. I emailed them and I said, “Hey, I have a camera. Can I show up with the camera and just record something?” And they said, we’d love that. And here’s $50, if you could do that for us. And I was like, yes. My first paycheck just came. I wasn’t really expecting one.
What happened there, though, is I bumped into this magician. He was the entertainment. He was going from table to table, performing tricks, and that was his thing. And my childhood came flashing back to me, because when I was at the high school coop, learning about magic tricks, there were all these videos of magicians doing street magic, and then teaching how it worked. And I spent a lot of time watching those with my friends.
So, I was like, I know how to do that. I know what the angle should look like and when to get a reaction and when to go back and this is made for me. And it was awesome. So, I spent that evening just following him around to all the tables, getting everyone’s reactions. And I got to edit a little promo reel for him and sent it back to him.
And he was delighted and he invited me to his next magician meetup the next Thursday. And he played it for them and they were like, can you make us a video, too? So, that’s what spiraled it. And all of a sudden, I was just like one of the guys in Orlando who makes videos for magicians. And they just all kept telling each other about me.
It turned out to also be a really good group to mentor with, too, because it turns out magicians are also freelancers at heart. They’re constantly doing the hustle of trying to figure out where their next job is going to be, dealing with individual client relationships every single time they get a new job. So, it was really nice of them to just like break down with me, like, “Here’s what your process should be. Here’s how you take really good notes on a call. Here’s how you deal with invoicing and expectations.” So, it was great networking. I didn’t expect that to happen at all from a random email, like, “Hey, can I show up with my camera tomorrow?” So, it’s fun to look back and watch those come together.
So, that lasted on and off for six or eight months as I was trying to earn some money. One of the magicians was like, “Hey, I need a video for my actual corporation where we do real things with real money, and we need a video, too.” So, I was on a good track. And this whole time, I had my eyes on this company that I really wanted to work for.
And they were cool, because they were a video production studio, but they also did live events in a big way. And I thought, that looks like so much fun to create videos and put them on a really big screen but just for audiences with thousands of people. They had a really cool portfolio that was like, “Oh wow. I wish I knew how to make that.”
So, I did the same thing that I did with the internship where I sent the CEO an email. I didn’t say I’d make them coffee for free, but I was like, “I’d love to do these things. Here’s some videos I’ve made.” I had my little portfolio by then. I heard nothing. Fine. Two or three months later, I was just like, “Hey, here’s my new schedule. I’m free. It would love to help out.” And that went on for about a year. I think it was probably four different emails that I spread out, four or five, over the course of the year. Randomly, one afternoon, just a reply, he was like, “Can you come in Thursday for an interview?”
I was elated, delighted. And it was great. And, from his perspective, he was busy until then, and then happened to need someone then and my email was in his inbox. It was like, all right. And it was fantastic. It was great.
I ended up working there full-time for about five years and I rose through the ranks, became a creative producer, and got to work with clients on setting budgets, and ended up hiring people and having a team that I was supervising. Really, really awesome.
And now, I’ve moved back to Pittsburgh and I’m running my own company now. So, we do video production. We have our own clients and me and my business partner and a couple of freelancers we work with. So, that’s kind of my story in a nutshell of how I got here.
PAM: I’m sure there are lots of other twists and turns in there, but I love the way you laid that out. And it ties back to what Laura is saying. You don’t really know looking forward what that one little, “Hey, can I bring my camera?” can lead to, but it’s being open to those things, too. When you go, noticing the magician at work, thinking, that’s cool. I like that. I’m going to follow him and I’m going to practice my skills. It’s like, I know when to go get the reaction. And then that connection led to something else and something else.
That is something, as unschooling parents, we have seen just over and over again, when our kids follow their hearts. You’re following what looks interesting, what you’d like to do, and being open while you’re doing it. That just leads to the next door opening and the next door, like something that you can never imagine.
So often, you don’t even know the coolest doors, but when you’re walking through the ones that look interesting and you’re being open and receptive to what you see, just so that you can see what the next interesting door might be, it’s just amazing how many times the coolest paths unfold in front of us.
ALLEN: It really is. It always catches me by surprise looking back. It’s like random events.
PAM: Yeah. Thank you, guys, for sharing those stories. It’s so cool. A lot of listeners love to hear from people who’ve grown up unschooling, just to see how their paths unfold. Because, back to it, we’re not looking for that conventional path of high school, college, grad school, job, you know what I mean? So, on one hand, it’s super exciting that paths can just unfold in whatever way works, but that’s also the really scary part, because you don’t know looking forward. So, hearing different experiences is so, so cool.
I would love to know what each of you appreciate most about growing up unschooling.
Who wants to go first?
ALLEN: I think we have the same answer.
LAURA: I think we do have the same answer. The freedom, the freedom hands down.
ALLEN: Of course.
LAURA: But that’s a really far-reaching answer, too.
Because obviously, the freedom growing up was great. It was a nice feeling to have. But for me, it taught me how to deal with the shadow side of freedom, too, which is analysis paralysis. When there’s infinite decisions and infinite choices that you can make, how do you possibly make them?
So, dealing with that, being able to learn how to turn over each of those stones or to try one thing and follow it for a little bit and trust that you can back out and go a different way if it doesn’t work out, not feeling like stuck in a rut of that one choice that you make, that you have to go for it and you have to stay with that. And that’s been really helpful in running a business, obviously.
But then, I think my darkest times as an adult have been when I’ve forgotten that. Back during the pandemic, when everything was on lockdown, and suddenly I couldn’t see people in person and I went, oh, no, I’m stuck. What do I do? It took me remembering that there’s always another option available to me, to just try and try and try and not everything worked out until I discovered stock trading as an option and we got to come back into the in-person stuff.
And so, like I said, that freedom was definitely the best thing, but it also taught me the other side of freedom that can be challenging to deal with.
PAM: Anything you want to add, Allen?
ALLEN: Yeah. So, my take on the freedom is in the having free time, having space to learn experiences earlier. And good examples that I can think of have to do with the specific lessons that are relevant in video production. When I was 12 and made that video with my cousins doing Star Wars, there’s no good quality copy of it anywhere, because I didn’t understand how to export things and preserve quality. And it’s embarrassing to look at how terrible it all looks. So, I learned at 12 to do that.
And when I hire new people and we’re working with them and they don’t know those things, I have to do a double-take. And like, you didn’t learn that when you were 12. To me, that was just like a life experience thing that I got started on a lot earlier.
There are other examples in website development of just odds and ends that I just picked up and learned, because I was just tinkering with projects, doing some web development when I was younger. And the person I’m working with now just doesn’t know those things, because why would she? She was learning other things in school.
So, to me, the answer is that I’m just incredibly grateful for all the free time that I had in my teens to just use these tools and start practicing, effectively, and gaining relevant life experience a lot earlier. It’s just been an awesome leg up.
Because really, learning from our experiences is such a strong way to learn. You remember that, versus learning a process. Say you take a class in video editing and you learn the process and you press this, and then you press this, and you press this. And, often enough, you don’t even understand how that’s related to the output. It doesn’t really have a lot of context. It is literally just the process that you’ve learned.
So, when you’re actually using it and learning it through experience and things that you’re actually trying to accomplish, it connects so much more solidly. That’s something you’ve really learned at that point.
ALLEN: Yeah, absolutely.
LAURA: And I think that translates to our relationship with freedom itself. I think Allen and I know what to do with freedom because of our unschooling background. And one of the things that is really important to me and has informed what my worldview is that freedom obviously should be a right to everybody. But there’s also a sense where I think, and maybe I won’t speak for Allen on this, but I’ve learned where it’s good to give up one’s personal freedom for the sake of maybe a grander vision or for our society or for a single person.
Our freedom is precious because we have the ability to give it to somebody else sometimes, too. And that’s what informs my belief that we should have nationalized healthcare or regulations on car emissions, things like that, things that restrict certain freedoms. Freedom doesn’t have to be absolute in order to be precious and useful. And maybe even shouldn’t be absolute. That’s just something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
PAM: I love that. And I think that does tie back to unschooling, because that is so much about the context. It’s our freedom, but within the bigger picture that you’re talking about, Laura, within that context, like you were saying, it’s not absolute. Back to, these are our choices. And when the bigger picture makes sense, we are happy to, I wouldn’t even frame it as giving up our freedom, but sharing it, seeing that bigger picture in that context.
And I think, as you were saying, unschooling gives us that space growing up. You were talking about the shadow side of freedom, that’s all about the context of things and being able to process through, how do I fit into that bigger picture? What makes sense to me about making choices?
Because it can feel like a weight. Sometimes, “Just tell me what to do,” feels easier, right?
PAM: That made a lot of sense to me, Laura. Thanks very much for sharing that piece.
Well, I want to say thank you so much, guys, for taking the time to speak with me today. I so appreciate it. It was so much fun.
LAURA: It was fun.
ALLEN: It really was. Really appreciate you, Pam. Thank you.
PAM: And I will share the link to your website in the show notes, as well. And I want to wish you both a wonderful day. Thanks again. Bye!
LAURA: You, too.
ALLEN: Thanks, Pam.