Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and this week I have a solo episode for you.
I’m loving that, at least for now, I’m setting aside an episode each month to dive deeper into whatever is bubbling up for me. And right now, that’s connections I’m making between a talk I wrote back in 2014, questions I’m getting personally, and thought-provoking and insightful conversations happening in the Network. I really wanted more time to think about it all and putting together this podcast episode seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that.
So here we go!
The “Rules” of Unschooling
I think one of the first stumbling blocks we can encounter is the idea that there are “rules” of unschooling that we’re supposed to follow.
And this makes a lot of sense because we’re often coming from the conventional mindset around both learning and parenting where there are basically lots of rules we’re expected to follow if we want things to turn out well for our children. Which, of course we do!
So, when we decide we’re not comfortable with, or don’t agree with, the rules of schooling and we decide we want to move to unschooling, one of the first things we do is look for the new “rules” so we can do it well. Completely understandable.
However, we soon discover there’s no “unschooling textbook” to follow. So, we read about what unschooling looks like in families who have been doing this for years in an attempt to intuit the rules they’re using.
We come up with things like, “follow their interests,” “say yes more,” “everything is a choice,” “no schedules,” and “unlimited tech access,” to name a few.
And maybe we excitedly dive into those “rules,” wanting to create the beautiful environment of deep learning and strong and connected relationships experienced unschoolers describe.
One big challenge that can quickly rear its head is not realizing that those seeming “rules”—which are actually better described as choices—actually grew out of understanding of the principles of unschooling, not the other way around. So, if we start with these “rules” thinking they are the “answer,” it’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse. You just won’t move forward in any meaningful way and soon things will probably start to fall apart.
Another challenge that can trip us up is our tendency to compare ourselves to others, which I think can be part personality and part just growing up in the school ethos of grading and ranking. We want to do it “right.” Maybe we follow experienced unschoolers online or we create a checklist in our heads of the “ideal unschooler” and constantly compare ourselves, feeling like we and our kids never measure up.
Truly, there is no unschooling rulebook. There are no unschooling police who will knock on your door and tell you you’re doing it wrong.
There are a lot of layers to peel back in there, so keep revisiting that thought.
That said, unschooling is NOT a chaotic free for all. What “no rulebook” means is that, instead, we dive into learning how unschooling works. So, not the rules, but the underlying principles. It means getting to know yourself, your partner, your kids as real people: personalities, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, the whole package.
And instead of quickly and drastically changing up all the things, we can go look and see where the biggest rub is right now. What doesn’t feel good? What is causing conflict with our kids? Where might I say yes more? Start there.
And be open and curious. Learn about the situation through the lens of unschooling. Learn what things look like through your child’s eyes. What are they trying to accomplish? Brainstorm new possibilities and choices. Ask yourself, why not? Play with it. Try things together and see what happens.
That’s real learning for everyone involved.
You’re discovering how unschooling works for YOUR family. Which is way more valuable.
Then dive into the next thing that’s not working well. Then the next.
I so clearly remember when I first came to unschooling reading things and thinking, ‘Well, we won’t be doing that.’ But I kept reading, kept thinking, and kept hanging out with my kids and eventually, those pieces wove together and I realized why I would WANT to make those choices—they came to make sense.
That’s understanding the underlying principles. And when we understand the principles, we don’t need any “rules” to tell us what to do.
And remember that while the underlying principles don’t change, what it looks like in action in your day-to-day lives will grow and change, just as you and your kids will grow and change. It works until it doesn’t. Then, together, you discover what works now.
So, if things are feeling chaotic, that’s worth examining. If it feels like unschooling is all about “giving in” to your kids, that’s definitely worth exploring. Because while from the outside it may look like unschooling parents are “giving in” to their kids, that’s not what’s actually happening. They are digging deeper in their personal work to discover why they actively CHOOSE to support their child in doing the thing. And there are likely a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes conversations they’re having with their kids to better understand their perspective.
It’s not about “unschooling parents always say yes.” It’s about doing to the work to understand why they CHOOSE to say yes.
So now that we’ve applied the idea of rules versus principles to how we approach our transition to unschooling, let’s look at how the idea applies to how we support our children’s learning. It really reminds us why choices are an important aspect of unschooling.
Rules versus Principles
When it comes to learning, rules are often used as shortcuts—substitutes for thinking in the moment. “In that situation, always do this.” They tell us what to do, so there is no real choice involved. Well-meaning parents want their children to memorize the “right” thing to do in a given situation.
On the other hand, principles encourage the discussion and evaluation of a situation, cultivating learning and understanding. Looking at WHY you’d choose to do something. Everyone involved gains more experience analyzing circumstances and context. More experience seeing situations from the perspective of others. And more experience brainstorming creative paths forward.
Living by principles sounds pretty logical when learning is the goal. And not only are these discussions an opportunity to understand each other a bit better, the process helps to minimize power struggles because the conversations aren’t full of “do as you’re told” edicts. They actually deepen our connections, strengthen our relationships, and build trust because we get to understand each other better as we work through things.
The downside? It takes time. But without the stress of rushing the kids through a day dictated by a school schedule and evening homework, we have the time. In fact, with unschooling we’re choosing to take that time and invest it in creating a supportive unschooling environment for our children.
Through the lens of learning, the shift from rules to principles looks like moving from following a curriculum (“you have to learn X in grade Y”) to following their interests (which involves choice, engagement, and intrinsic motivation).
Through the lens of parenting and parent-child relationships, the shift looks like moving from control (which is power-based, “you follow my rules”) to connection (which involves autonomy, consent, and conversations).
Challenges arise when our children’s choices bump up against our comfort zones.
Exploring Our Comfort Zones
I imagine there are a couple of areas in your life that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and have reached some pretty solid conclusions. Your choices feel like truths for you. And if pressed, you’re pretty sure your child would be better off living this way too.
It is hard to imagine that your child may not make the same choices as you, especially given the same set of information. Yet it’s true. Your children are not your clones—they are beautifully unique combinations of genetic material wired to think their own thoughts. Nor are they your chance for a do-over, improved versions that don’t “make the same mistakes” as you did.
Now, when your children are younger you have much greater control over their environment, over what you bring into your home. Maybe you just don’t cook or serve meat. Or you don’t buy processed foods and you do your own baking. Or you go to a place of worship every week. Or you faithfully recycle and bike most places. Or you don’t have a TV. It’s just what your family does.
The challenge comes when your child becomes aware that other options exist. And they will. We’re helping them explore the world, not locking them away from it. In that moment, you may feel a rising resistance, a fear mired in all those reasons you decided against those options in the first place. Watch how easily that fear may push you to let your strong principles become rigid rules. Fear is not a good motivator for making choices. And rules aren’t a good tool for real learning.
I’ve found Wayne Dyer’s reminder about perspective helpful over the years:
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”Wayne Dyer
Our challenge is to be open to our child’s point-of-view.
How do we do that?
Acknowledge Our Fears
For me, the first step is to acknowledge my fears. Not to try to ignore them, or label them as wrong because I heard “unschoolers always say yes.” My fears aren’t wrong. They are my reality, the way I see the world. But I also know that my view of the world isn’t everyone else’s.
So, the next step is to do the work to understand what’s behind my fears and put them in perspective.
Opening myself up to the bigger picture reminds me that these are choices. And that often my fears are the result of my mind projecting all sorts of “what if” situations into the nebulous future. Which in turn reminds me to return to the moment I’m in.
What might that processing look like?
Here’s a story.
I was pretty uncomfortable when Lissy was thirteen and wanted to start going to shows. Not arena shows, where we could sit in our seats and clap and sing along; she wanted to see small, alternative bands that played in clubs in Toronto. Now, clubs have never been my thing. I found them loud and uncomfortable. And there are no seats! These are general admission, “stand in the crowd” tickets. A crowd filled, at least in my mind, with rowdy young adults who were not going to be gentle and kind to my child. Fear.
It wasn’t hard to acknowledge the fear. Nor to acknowledge that it was me who would feel uncomfortable and scared in that situation. And I was projecting that onto her.
And, thinking more, I realized that was still just my perception, not necessarily reality. I’d only ever been to a couple of live shows at clubs, and as I recalled them explicitly, they weren’t as wild as they were in my imagination. The worst thing I could remember was feeling ill from all the smoke, mixed with the tortellini dinner I’d had before going, and the pressure of a Valentine’s Day date with my future husband.
It was at that point that I could laugh at myself a bit: the experience was traumatic enough for me that I could remember all those bits almost 30 years later, yet so irrelevant to what would be my daughter’s experience.
I realized my fears really had no foot to stand on, and I could stay embroiled in my past, or I could help my daughter explore something she was very interested in and support her as she formed her own opinion.
I took the first step and looked up a couple of the shows she told me about. They were all ages shows, so obviously the venue felt comfortable having teens. I reminded myself that though she is adventurous, she wouldn’t stay where she felt too uncomfortable. I realized I’d be more comfortable if I was there, both to see the situation for myself and to be there if she needed me. The tickets weren’t expensive at all, so buying two wasn’t an issue. Throughout the process no red flags jumped out for either of us, so off we went.
Turns out it was quite a lot of fun! Pretty quickly we were going to one or two shows a month in Toronto, about an hour away. I learned that I enjoyed the show more if I had listened to the band already and could sing along. I discovered I really liked her taste in music! I also discovered that we had amazing conversations on the drive home, sharing what we’d seen from our different perspectives: her at the front of the stage and me off to the side, out of the squish of the crowd. Lissy discovered that the people who frequented the mosh pit were great: very nice and helpful. Another fear of mine came crashing down. Once we knew she was comfortable, I could have chosen to drop her off at shows, but I really enjoyed our connections surrounding them and was happy to go with her.
Here’s something I wrote and shared in an online unschooling group the day after a show back in 2008, when she was still 13:
I’m still shaking my head in wonder over last night’s adventure and thought I’d share.
Lissy and I (and one of my nieces – it was our Christmas gift to her) went to a show last night. Cobra Starship was playing in Toronto, along with We The Kings and MetroStation. It was at a club; a nice, small venue and the show was sold out. This was my niece’s first show and she was hanging back a bit with me at the periphery of the mosh pit, while Lissy was deep inside. We were singing along to Cobra when all of a sudden someone pops up on stage from the audience, and it’s Lissy! You could have knocked me over with a feather. Well, really you couldn’t have because we were so crowded together, but you get the picture. 😉
Gabe (the lead singer) turned her round to face him and continued singing directly to her for a stanza or two before she left the stage. After the initial shock I looked over at my niece and she too was staring dumbfounded at the stage. I got her attention and mouthed “take a picture!” because she had her cell phone and had been snapping shots. Turns out she got a great one which she just sent me! Yay! Lissy then came back out through the door by us, caught my eye to let me know she was fine and went right back in to lots of high-fives from her cousin and the crowd around her. She was the only one to end up on stage.
So we got the story after and her plan was actually to crowd surf onto the stage (a rare opportunity because at this small venue there were no crowd barriers creating a gap in front of the stage) and then do a stage dive i.e. jump back into the crowd. Seems she had already, in conversation with those around her, asked them make sure they didn’t drop her and they were game. But when she arrived on stage Gabe seemed happily impressed and turned her around to start to sing to her before she had a chance to dive back. She said at first she was upset with him for doing that and was giving him a unhappy vibe, but then she thought that he wasn’t thwarting her plan on purpose (in fact, he stage dove later), and being sung to on stage at a rock concert was actually pretty cool, so she started singing along with him so he didn’t feel bad about her initial vibe. Lots of rather coherent thoughts to have during a couple minutes on stage!
Oh! And during the show Gabe, who seemed quite overwhelmed with all the love and support from the crowd (this was only their 5th show of the tour), expressed appreciation to the moms in the crowd – yes, there were a few of us. He said his mom would never take him to a show when he was younger and he loved that we did that. I actually ended up standing beside another mom during Cobra’s set and we were both singing along, having a great time! ‘Twas nice.
One thing I really love about these shows Lissy and I have been going to is just watching the band members play – they are all doing what they love to do, they are sooo passionate on stage. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
So today I’m still in awe of Lissy’s passionate, hands on approach to life.
And I can’t wait until she wakes up to show her the picture.
That night I learned, again, if I can move through my discomfort and fear, really fun things may happen.
Lissy turned 27 a few days ago and it makes me smile how her love for music has woven its way into her work. She’s a photographer and over the last few years she’s focused on working with musicians. She loves it! You just never know how an interest may continue to weave into their lives.
Be Our Child’s Partner
Now let’s look at another way we can re-frame a situation we’re feeling uncomfortable with: being our child’s partner.
This is usually the next step I take, after figuring out what is triggering my fear. I remind myself that my goal is to help my children explore the world, to help them find and engage with their interests.
By shifting and moving forward with the mindset of being my child’s partner, I am much less likely to let my fears cloud or distort the experience. And by seeing things through my child’s eyes, it’s more likely they will get out of the experience what they are really looking for. Sometimes their goals for the experience can be rather unconventional.
Here’s another story.
Karate was another of my children’s interests that was entirely foreign to me at first. When Michael was 9 and said he was interested in karate, my first thought was, “I have zero clue what a karate studio is like.” You can tell I was a rookie because I didn’t even know they were called dojos. I grew up in ballet studios. Wasn’t karate full of hitting and kicking and weapons? I was totally out of my element.
But, after that first flash of fear, of “Crap, how can I find the right place for him when I know nothing,” I realized two things.
One, I could be his partner, so instead of thinking of it as my responsibility, I thought of it as me supporting him in his search for a dojo.
And two, it wasn’t about finding the “best” dojo, but about finding a dojo where Michael felt comfortable. So instead of worrying that I needed to know all about karate so I could find a good place for him, I realized I just needed to know about him and the kind of environment he would enjoy. That I could do!
So, as his partner, I took a look online at a handful of reasonably local dojos and called a couple to get a feel for their atmosphere. I chose one that I thought seemed like a good fit and talked to Michael, explaining about trying out a few classes with their one month trial and that if he didn’t like it, we could try out others. I was careful to explain that if he didn’t enjoy it, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t like karate, it might just be the dojo itself.
That’s an important point: the atmosphere surrounding many activities is dictated by the individual adults who run them. Before insisting your child change to fit in at the closest dojo, or girl guide troop, or Lego club, or whatever, be their partner and, where possible, help them find a good fit between the group’s atmosphere and the child’s personality and goals. Not coincidentally, that’s where they’ll learn the most too.
And in the same vein, it’s not about trying to change the dojo or club to better fit your child. It most likely has the atmosphere that the owner is trying to cultivate. If it doesn’t mesh with you guys, that doesn’t make it wrong, only “wrong for you.” It will be full of kids who do mesh well with it, or whose parents insist they go anyway.
So having shifted out of my fear and discomfort with the unknown, and into my role as his partner, here’s an update I wrote in early 2008, six or seven months after he started:
Karate has been Michael’s vehicle of choice, for now, for exploring the world. After talking about it for a few months, he decided to try out a class at the beginning of the summer, no pressure (the dojo had a free month special). He thought and thought about it during that time, finally deciding to go ahead with it. The way this dojo works is you pay a monthly fee and can take as many classes as you want – just show up for the applicable ones (i.e. belt, age etc.)
Anyway, he just wanted to go to one class a week. Cool. He wanted attend class on his own (not have us stay to watch). Cool. And when they had group get-togethers, a summer party etc, he declined to go. He also didn’t want to go to the class at the end of the month which is more focused on prepping for belt grading – he’d just skip those. But you could see his mind and spirit hard at work. He was figuring out how to set up the experience to meet his needs. He was learning TONS about himself.
After a few months he was getting quite comfortable with the atmosphere, and in the fall he decided to add a second class to his weekly schedule – we checked out a couple and he found one he liked.
Then in November he chose to join everyone on the dojo float in the local Santa Claus parade. It was cool to see him making sure and double-checking with me that we knew the plans: where and when to show up, what to wear, that we had back-up plans etc. He had a great time!
Then in December he decided to check out a third class, expanding his repertoire a bit into grappling. Loves it. And he wanted to go to the Christmas party, which was for the families so we all went with him to a potluck party at a local arena. And even though his secret Santa gift was something he already had, he lost the “pin the belt on the snowman” game by about a quarter-of-an-inch, he was second in the pushup competition by one pushup, and Lissy won a draw prize, none of that mattered at all to him, he had a GREAT time!
And, now that he’s comfortable with the dojo atmosphere and the sensei and kids there, over the holidays it seems he has made moving to the next belt a priority, and just last week went over the calendar with me to ensure he attended the belt-grading prep class where he got his first stripe (kata) towards his yellow belt. I managed to arrive to pick him up a bit early that class and saw the brief presentation. Walking out of the dojo he was so proud, just beaming, and often looking at the stripe on his belt.
It’s been so fun and interesting watching and being with him during this journey.
So, I imagine from the story you could pick out the clues about the challenges he worked through, slowly getting comfortable with the dojo.
And here’s a snapshot from 2014:
He’s at the dojo eleven hours a week, including four hours helping Sensei with kids classes. He trains in karate, weapons, grappling, sparring, and extreme performance martial arts. He performs on the demo team, including this cool routine from The Matrix, with Sensei.
Five years ago, he decided to try out tournaments, again starting small and eventually moving to the bigger events. He has well over 100 trophies now, and a number of grand championships. And on his 17th birthday, he was awarded his black belt after a grueling 7 hours of testing.
A few years ago he also started taking trampoline, helping him get more comfortable in the air and improving his flips.
And a couple of years ago he began contemplating getting into stunt work, so in the summer of 2012 he applied for, was accepted, and filmed an episode of Splatalot—it’s a Canadian version of Wipeout for kids.
With that experience he got a glimpse of what life on a set was like, if he was comfortable in front of a camera, experience memorizing a bit of dialog, and so on. And he loved it! It was also a fun bonus that he won his episode, scoring an ipad.
And now? Michael’s working in film stunts, as much as the pandemic allows. There’s lots more to that story, and I’ll put a link in the show notes to the conversation we had last year on the podcast if you want to hear more about it.
When you acknowledge your fear and do the work to shift to being your child’s partner, you keep the possibilities open.
See Through Their Eyes
A third way you can work through uncomfortable situations is to dig into your child’s motivation. Their why. This helps you better understand their perspective; to see things through their eyes. You will likely begin to realize why they are looking for that particular experience, what they are getting out of it.
Understanding their perspective also helps you to share better information with them and ask better questions. Not with an eye to changing their mind, but because, in my experience, the resulting feedback and conversations you’ll have will likely help you feel more comfortable.
You’re getting closer to the roots of your fears. Continue to be curious.
When we began unschooling, just before Joseph’s 10th birthday, I was feeling really uncomfortable with all the time he was spending playing video games—it was immersion at its finest. I recall choosing to trust in what experienced unschooling parents were sharing online, but I wanted to know it for myself, so I dove into his world to try see gaming through his eyes.
Free to choose what to do with their time, unschooling children aren’t making choices in reaction to their environment, like “I’m going to go play in my room quietly so mom doesn’t see me and give me chores to do.” Instead, they are making choices based on their own motivations, so by diving in you will learn lots about them.
One of the firsts shifts to make is to let your judgment melt away. That’s looking at things from your perspective, not theirs. It helps to remember to breathe here. Then give yourself lots of time: six weeks, even six months, is a small blip in the grand scheme of a lifetime. It will take time to discover the threads of connection between things, the motivation behind them.
Then be attentive. To activities started and stopped. To conversations shared. To emotions expressed. To things chosen and not chosen.
Be their partner. Help bring them together with things they reach out for, and with things you come to realize they might enjoy.
Observe more, talk less.
By soaking it all in and following his lead through activities and conversations, I eventually discovered that at root of Joseph’s love for video games was a love for story.
Things made so much more sense to me, like which games he liked and which he didn’t. Like why immersion in the game was so important. It reminded me of my own childhood summer days engrossed in books, hiding out until my mom found me and shooed me outside to play. Truly seeing the world through Joseph’s eyes helped me better understand what he was getting out of his gaming experiences. I learned so much about him and his personal motivation, and I was no longer uncomfortable with his choices. I was more than comfortable.
Nowadays he’s developing his own indie game, from deep story, to class and battle systems, to pixel art. His understanding of both game design and the genre is incredible.
Looking back now I can see how the threads of my kids’ interests have woven together, but that’s not something you know at the time. So when something catches their interest, it’s worth doing the work to help them pursue it. That said, exploring the edges of our comfort zones isn’t easy work. Wrestling our fears into understanding takes time and effort. Remember to be understanding of yourself too.
I love this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, how it reminds us that this work to process our fears is worth the effort:
“Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connections to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion. Without fear, we are truly free.”Thich Nhat Hanh
Now, having talked about some ways we can approach these moments of fear by acknowledging them, being our child’s partner, and seeing the situation through their eyes, I want to make the point that you don’t have to toss your principles aside to support your children’s exploration.
As you discover where the edges of your comfort zones truly lie, if your child wants to explore further, there are still ways to hold both your principles and their desires at the same time. You can be supportive by asking your partner to help them, or family, or friends. You can still talk with them about their experiences, helping them process what they’ve learned, without being judgmental. Again, that’s key. Even if you choose not to be directly involved in this particular exploration, don’t be judgmental about their choices. That can damage your relationship.
Your child choosing to explore another aspect of life, whether it be related to food or religion or lifestyle or whatever, doesn’t mean they believe you’re “wrong”—unless YOU set it all up as “right or wrong.”
It’s just different.
Doing the work to move from rules to principles—in regards to our learning about unschooling, to our children’s learning, and to our relationships with them—brings unschooling alive.
If you want to dive more into the idea of stretching our comfort zones, or the parenting shift from control to connection, I have compilation episodes I put together on both those topics and I’ll put the links in the show notes. Have a great day!