PAM: Hello explorers! I’m Pam Laricchia and this is episode number 278 of the podcast. This week, I want to dive into a question that I get pretty regularly, including being mentioned in one of the Q&A questions on the podcast last week: what does unschooling look like in larger families?
As we learn more about unschooling, we’re encouraged to spend time with our kids, to say yes more, to connect with them more, to answer their questions and help them do whatever they’re trying to do, to help siblings navigate challenges and conflicts, to explore ways to meet everyone’s needs. Add in multiple children, and soon we start to wonder how we’re going to build all these strong, connected, and trusting relationships. It seems daunting!
I have 3 children, but I’ve had guests on the podcast with 4, 5, 6, 7 kids, so I thought I’d bring together some of their wonderful stories, tips, and insights to help parents with multiple kids envision what unschooling might look like. And you’ll find links to their full episodes in the show notes.
Before we dive in, I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has chosen to support the podcast through Patreon. I deeply appreciate all my patrons! Your generous support helps pay for the hosting and transcription, as well as my time spent creating new episodes each week. It’s instrumental in keeping the podcast archive freely available to anyone who’s curious and wants to explore the fascinating world of unschooling. If you’d like to join my community of patrons and scoop up some great rewards along the way, check out the Exploring Unschooling page on Patreon.
And now, let’s start with Cindy Gaddis. Cindy has 7 kids, and at the time of our conversation in 2016 they ranged in age from 15 to 29. Let’s listen in as she shares her insights around the conventional idea that the more children you have, the more control over them you need so you don’t end up in chaos.
PAM: I wanted to ask you too about what your unschooling days looked like with a larger family, you mentioned a bit there. Because I know there’s the idea that the more children that you have, the more you need to have control over them so that your day will go more smoothly. So I was wondering what your experience had been?
CINDY: My experiences with this, I thought of two different things. I thought about the emotional side and the physical side.So starting with the emotional side of control, especially with a large family, you often think when you see a large family there’s probably a religion involved. A lot of times it’s true. It just happened to be so with me, not always so, I actually wanted a large family before I converted to my religion.
But that said, it seems like people feel like they have to control everyone’s behaviour, because that’s really what it is, the behaviours have to be in control. There’s too many children so I have to control them but on the other hand, if I don’t control them there’s going to be chaos. Especially with a large family. To me, there isn’t that big pendulum swing. It doesn’t have to be one, all the way to the other side. There’s this middle part where the key is emotional intelligence. We all have hunger, we all have thirst, we all have need for sleep, and we learn how to manage and balance those things in order to satisfy the needs we have there.
Well, we all also have emotions that are really the foundation of the behaviors people are trying to control and when I felt like, especially with six boys, boys in particular really need support on how to deal with their emotions. I would help them in various ways by helping them understand and identify their emotions.
I modeled emotional intelligence by helping them to learn various options and managing and balancing those emotions. I think when you look at the adult male population, there’s a lot of lack of emotional intelligence and I think it comes from this whole manly thing. I know there are articles out there saying we are “wussifying” our boys. What has happened to being a boy?
But I’ve raised two very different genetic sets of boys. My birth boys are much more cerebral, they were born that way. You might call them kinder, gentler types, but that’s how they were born. My two younger boys that we adopted are very active and very body-driven boys, and some might call them more manly. But again, they were born that way. It didn’t matter the kind of boy I was talking about, they had a similar process of learning to manage and balance their emotions.
Some came to it more quickly than others, but they all had to develop various skills. It’s these reactions to emotional triggers that cause many behaviors. I wanted to give good information to them, support them through the learning curve by sitting in difficult feelings with them, brainstorming better solutions for next time, aiding them in any way that was useful so that they could learn to deal with their strong feelings. It was a process. It doesn’t always look pretty.
I had a few friends who were from other faiths and they were all about “you must obey me.” And their children, especially between five and ten they looked pretty good, they were all obedient. Mine, looked not so great because I valued the process of learning their own bodies. These other people were very uncomfortable with the fact that their children were out of control so they controlled them with fear or obedience.
I always found that people who did that usually had more trouble in the teen years, they didn’t have that trust in relationships that comes with collaborating and connecting with them and building that trust with them in this emotional work that we are doing with creating emotional intelligence. If you go in there and you’re not judging them, we all have them, we all have emotions, we all have feelings that come out so not to judge that but to empathize with them and say ‘hey, this is a journey, we are all on it, it’s not easy, let me stand beside you, let me help you through it’ and that’s a vey bonding experience.
PAM: Yeah, that’s such a huge difference, too, and I think what it really takes, when you look back upon it, is time. The time to be with them, the time to help them process, the time just to even get to the place where you can empathize with them. There is the quickness of “do this or else!” demanding the obedience. It really makes things challenging when they are older, right? When they have more ability to talk back or to leave.
CINDY: Well, they finally have their voice.
PAM: Their own control.
CINDY: Yeah, their own control and say, “Wait a minute, I want to feel this way and I don’t want you to tell me I can’t feel this way when I do.” It’s a huge place to build trust to, like you said, empathize with them, go along this human experience with them and I feel like that’s a big shift I have and unschooling does it. Actually my religion is the same way because we believe that we’re on this path to learn and grow, that’s why we came to Earth, that’s what our belief system is. We’re on this path to learn and grow in an imperfect place and I get to do this with my children, that’s the journey, that’s the whole reason we’re here is to learn and grow from these ways of feeling. If I’m just squashing them, just saying “don’t do that, don’t feel that,” then I’ve lost an opportunity.
PAM: You know what? As you were talking what came to me was the shift at the root of that is the shift to seeing them as real people, as human beings, not as something to form, right? Treating them like another person and respecting them as another person.
CINDY: Yeah, it’s a human condition. They are young humans trying to figure it out. We are older humans. Look at the adult population. A lot of us are still messes because we didn’t have that support. We were just thrown into this and told to figure it out and we don’t figure it out well. It’s not that I’m saying I’ve figured it out well, but I’m willing to figure it out with you, that you can have a place that you can put your ideas off of and know that you’re normal and you’ll get through this and we can problem solve together and trust that we get it.
There’s not a judgement here, this is normal, I feel for you and let’s figure this out. That’s a huge shift. These are people that I hope always invite me on their path in that I feel privileged to be asked to walk along their path with them, that they trust me as a mentor that can help them when they need someone to turn to. To me, that’s the emotional side of control within a large family.
Then talking about the physical part of a large family where there’s lots more messes, lots more bodies, lots more noise, lots more projects…lots more everything. Going back to, I think, again, a little bit of personal genetic preference stuff, I happen to be a lived-in kind of person. People have clean genes or not clean genes; I don’t have the clean genes. Some people have the clean genes and then you get added on to with your experiences. I’m a lived-in person so that helped. We almost have to assume people with larger families have that idea because I can’t imagine being a super clean person and then trying to navigate that world with a lot of children. But I don’t get stressed over messes and projects going on all around me. There is a balance to it still, it goes back to individuality.
I notice if my children are more clean-oriented or messy-oriented, so I meet them where they’re at: if they’re messy -oriented I might help them be a little better over here but still respect where they are. If they’re clean-oriented, I meet them there. I know who’s project-based and who’s not, I know what the purpose of each project-oriented child is, how we can work together to create space for them to have their projects that are important to them.
I hear people, especially, there’s a lot of clean people in my life! I can go to people’s houses and drop in and it’s clean and that’s crazy in my mind. I feel like if I’m raising children, a lot of children, my house reflects that there are children there. Their toys are there, their things are there and I respect that they need a space to create. I have all these creative kids and that’s really important to them. I would challenge people that are clean-oriented that that is not more important than allowing space for this creation to exist because that is the expression of who they are. Creative people must create. If they cannot create, they are half dead inside. If we are squashing their need to be creative because we are so worried about the mess creation has, then we are not respecting their needs. If that means here’s this big formal dining room, I don’t need a formal dining room, I’ve got the little nook over here, the breakfast nook. I can convert this dining room into a space if I need to.
We did tend to be house poor for quite some time because I have so many introverted children who are very creative and they need their space to create. We got a big enough house so that I could have space for them and value that, and if that meant I sacrificed the fancy cars or fancy clothes or whatever, I didn’t care about that as much as I cared about giving this space to them.
So, that’s one aspect, to me, because I said I see a lot of clean houses and I just don’t know if that would be conducive to creative children. Anyway, another example would be food, that’s talked about a lot in homeschooling circles. I’m personally not a person who likes to cook! I did cook a lot of dinners, mainly dinner time, but as soon as my children were old enough to do their own food and make their own breakfast and make their own lunches, they were doing it. So probably by about five they were doing their own breakfast, by about seven they were doing their own lunches.
I have one funny story that epitomizes this: my oldest son had a friend over, spent the night, he was probably about eight or nine years old. They woke up and went downstairs to get breakfast. My son was getting his breakfast and his friend was sitting at the counter waiting and watching him. My son noticed him sitting there and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m waiting for your mother to come down and make me breakfast.” I’m realizing at this point that my son is not a very good host as he is making his own breakfast and leaving his friend there. But he said, “You’ll be waiting a long time, you have to make your own breakfast in this house.” His friend cried out and said, “But I don’t know how to make breakfast!” My son was quite shocked. My friend doesn’t know how to make breakfast, mom! He was just shocked. I said well, some people have those mothers that are very good and actually help them make breakfast everyday. But he directed his friend on how to make breakfast. I thought it was interesting that he showed him how versus did it for him. He said, “This is how you make breakfast.” He couldn’t believe he didn’t know how to get cereal because that’s pretty much what we had.
But everyone is different. It does work for me. I released the control of food very early on. It works. My kids are very self sufficient. They eat when they’re hungry. We talk about the different foods and it has just worked. So, that’s another example of releasing the control or what we think what should happen. Or maybe like this mother who she felt like being a good mother is to “wake up and make breakfast for my son every morning.” He was a school child, to get him off to school well, that’s what a good mother does. And pack his lunch. That’s our expectations in our society. Now on the flip side, this kid had no idea how to make breakfast. So there is good and hard on both sets of things, but this works for us.
PAM: That’s why we’re having a whole episode on paradigm shifts because as you come to unschooling you revisit so many of the expectations or the things we’ve learned growing up on what makes a good parent, a good mother, what success means to us. It’s a lot of work coming to unschooling, isn’t it! It’s not just another set of rules about how children learn. There is so much to the journey, isn’t there?
CINDY: There is! I feel like I’m this natural seeker. I believe unschooling encourages people to be seekers. Once you head down this path, it also necessitates a person to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I was just pondering that the other day. I really feel like being uncomfortable is necessary to become an unschooler because it really is about challenging these paradigm shifts. But with all this uncomfortableness, if you’re willing to go into that uncomfortableness and figure why are you so uncomfortable, then that is where the enlightenment comes from!
I feel like, “Oh, this is so awesome!” When it’s all done, first you’re uncomfortable, then you’re asking why am I uncomfortable, where does this come from and is it true? And when you find out the answer, the real answer, the truthful answer, it’s like, ‘Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!’ It creates more freedom for yourself, the freedom from the bondage of our society’s expectations is HUGE! HUGE! I’m watching my kids live this! There’s so much self knowledge.
I feel like I wake up everyday and wonder what am I going to discover today. And I expect to be uncomfortable, I expect it, because I cannot learn if I have not become uncomfortable first. That’s where learning happens, in the discomfort. I just feel like that’s part of the journey of unschooling is the willingness to do that.
PAM: That is such a great point! I hadn’t thought of it that way but it’s true. Being willing to sit in that uncomfortableness for a while and really find out what’s causing it, asking yourself. I used to say I just ask myself, “why, why, why” over and over again until I think I could get to the root and figure it out.
Before we go, we have been at this a while, that’s great!
I was just wondering if there are any other tips that you’d like to share for larger families who are starting to move to unschooling that we haven’t touched on yet. Is there another one or two you’d like to share?
CINDY: This goes along with unschooling that everything is learning: social, emotional, academics. When you feel like you’re just trying to make it work for the day, people are unhappy with each other or whatever, that’s still learning. It doesn’t matter if there was no math or I didn’t read aloud or whatever you think it’s supposed to be. In those moments, even in the chaos moments, there’s learning happening. To me, you want to embrace every moment as meaningful and relevant. Have realistic expectations.
I’ll give you an example: running errands. When you have a whole bunch of children, even if you have a small amount of children, if you’re thinking I’m going to get four things done, and of course you’ve melted them down because four things is too many, or people are just not cooperating then all you’re doing is being angry. You’re just being frustrated that it’s not happening the way you want. But if you can say I’m expecting things to go wrong. If you expect things to go wrong and things not to be perfectly done, then you can enjoy the moment. You can enjoy that first and second errand and be in the moment for those things that will happen that are actually also learning. But the moment you’re just trying to get through it, or get onto the next thing, you’ve missed the moments that are there.
Modeling your own passions, even if you have a lot of children, you can find your own space. Again, don’t always be looking throughout the day to be annoyed by everyone because they’re getting in your way with what you want to do. Embrace what’s there, be in the moment, find your spots that realistically you can do your things.
Probably the last thing would be keep dating your spouse. Go out with them weekly because you have to keep connecting together when you have a large family, a lot of dividing and conquering when you have a large family. You want to come together and prioritize your relationship with your spouse so that they see that and they know that you need refilling and that that relationship is still important, too.”
PAM: Thanks, Cindy! Next up is Tami Stroud. I spoke with Tami in 2017 and at the time her six children ranged in age from 4 to 13. Let’s listen in as she shares what their unschooling days look like with the wide-ranging interests of six children, and her tips for larger families moving to unschooling.
PAM: I would like to shift to larger families. With six kids, I think you have some experience you will be able to share with us! So, with the diverging interests, I am sure, of six children, I would love to hear a bit about what your unschooling days look like. You know, just going through the day and doing x, y and z with everyone.
TAMI: Yes, I think everybody, all unschoolers have time with this question, what a typical day looks like. You know, for us especially, it varies depending on what location we are in and how old, what is the age range of the kids, and that sort of thing.
In general, I have a routine for myself and the kids can hop on or hop off my routine as they see fit. I get up and have my breakfast and stuff like that, and do all my sort of self-care things early in the morning so I am good to go for the day. I am super-introverted so I get up and try to do that kind of quietly by myself and have my breakfast with nobody else.
I do not mind hanging out with them when they have their breakfast later in the day, but I like to start my day off with quiet time because that is helpful for me to be my best self. Then throughout the day I have a goal to have at least one face-to-face, connected check in with each child. To hear what they are working on today, do they need help with anything and that sort of thing. That is kind of tied in with, I like to do a quiet observation that is part of my routine.
For us, in general, throughout the year, I feel like—since my husband still works in the school—we still are bound by some things with a typical school year schedule, but for us, I think it has kind of flipped than what a lot of school kids experience. During the school year our routine is to be really more insular and quiet. Our day-to-day during the week is really low key. We do not have a lot going on during the week.
The busiest thing usually during our week when we are home in Riyadh is to do the homeschool day once a week. Other than that, we are just low key. My husband likes to do some sort of outing on the weekends. So, one day during the weekend we will go drive to some natural site and see that. Our time during the day, during the school year when we have kind of our slow days is during the day before my husband gets home the time is really flexible. My kids, most of my kids know how to fix their own meals. I usually help the younger ones fix theirs but we do not have set meal times during the day. Everyone fixes themselves something when they want to eat during the day. Then we have a dinner together after my husband gets home in the evenings. A lot of times, I do not know, we kind of get on a routine and off a routine of like doing regular things in the evenings like the one that stuck is movie night. We usually have a movie night on the day before the weekend, there it is Thursday, so usually on Thursday nights we will have home made pizza and a movie.
Other than that we will plan things like, we have a pool in our building, so we will go swimming one night or we will do stuff like that. During the day, it is really free form and flexible and then in the evening it is a little more structured because we have a set dinner time and a lot of times we will try to do games or something sort of more planned in the evening with the whole family there. Then that is kind of our school year routine schedule and it is really low key, like I am, I really do not like adding things to our schedule.
People keep asking me, what all are your kids involved in, and I am like, nothing. I do not want to be involved in anything, their life is busy enough, this is enough. Because during the summer we are traveling to a bunch of different places and even, we are in the US, we took a road trip to Washington, DC. It is a lot, lot more busy during the summer and so we have these few months where it is super busy so I like, when it is the school year, to have a big swath of time where all the activities are sort of projects around the house and that sort of thing, really family-focused. That is kind of how we do things.
PAM: Yes, that sounds very nice. I think that certainly sounds like our first few years of unschooling too. The kids just had so many things that they personally wanted to get into and we did not have to go out a lot for it. There are tons of games and there are so many things to do at home that they were perfectly happy to have all that time just under their own control.
TAMI: Right. There is always some art project going on or some big play scene going on and you know that is very typical for our house. There is some block tower, yes that’s…
PAM: Exactly there is a whole world of stuffed animals set up.
PAM: Pirate battles and then there is that two three weeks in a row where you are making playdough every couple of days because there is this huge town. Then there was that one summer that we had the Lego table outside and there were these elaborate villages were built.
Then there was the time, I remember, we made puppets like Mario and Luigi, game puppets and they would just pause like a background on the TV and then they would use their puppets and do these elaborate shows of their own making. So yes, to have that time and space to get totally in your head with whatever is catching your attention is awesome.
So, last question …
I was hoping you might share some tips for larger families starting to move to unschooling.
I know that is one of the questions I get pretty regularly on my blog, ‘We have four, three, four, five kids and you know I am trying to say yes more and trying to help them do things that they are interested in and I am feeling frazzled.’ They are having a hard time imagining how to shift from just telling everybody, yes/no, this is what we are doing to start incorporating their input into their days basically. So, I was just wondering if you had any tips for larger families who are starting to move to unschooling.
TAMI: The best way that I have come to think about it is, if you have a larger family, like you feel, in the beginning you feel like you are moving an army and that sort of mentality, so, it is hard to get away from just managing everybody and everything. My thought is, instead of shifting away from managing your children and all these people, work on managing yourself and managing the environment.
For me, I focus on self-care, it’s really important because I need to have the energy and the focus and to be able to work with my kids in whatever way they need. I have developed strict boundaries about, ‘No I am going to sit here quietly.’ I am going to get up super early and sit and have a quiet breakfast because that is what I need to happily focus on the rest of the day.
Also, managing your environment is really big. I know in unschooling circles, talking about minimalism, it kind of has a two-edged thing. You want to feed your kid’s interests but, also, I think a lot of moms, especially in larger families—you times those things times six, or more or whatever—it becomes overwhelming. So, for me minimalism or embracing as much minimalism as an American family can stand, has really helped to simplify things.
Like, during the day, we have one set of dishes for everyone and we rinse and reuse them and I wash dishes once a day. In Alaska, we did not have a dishwasher so I liked doing it in the morning but we have a dishwasher now so you can do it in the evenings and they are ready to go for the next day.
Having less stuff overall has helped with that and with their wardrobes. When they were really little, and we were not even unschooling, we would do an everything-must-go sale. Like, where everything in their drawers got pulled out and onto the floor. What we ended up shifting to was a lot fewer clothes and I do not buy clothes that need folding. I buy clothes that can all be washed with different colors. So, we do not fold, we do not sort, and I know those things do not sound like they have to do with unschooling but it simplifies your life and frees you up to focus more on relationships and more on, ‘Ooh, lets work on this fun project,’ because you do not have that chatter in the back of your head of, ‘Oh, I am not getting this done, I am not getting this done and I have got to do this and I have got to do that.’
In your home as many wipeable surfaces as you can and that helps. I stash little bottles of vinegar and water and a rag in different places to make it super simple for the kids to help clean up. Even if they do it imperfectly, that is way better than not being done at all. Rearranging your house to allow the kids to do as much for themselves, allow them to dress themselves, fix their own food.
I mean, it is going to be done imperfectly but that is how we learn and we get to a point where one day you are like, ‘Oh wow, you are a really good cook,’ and that sort of thing. So, facilitate the kids doing as much for themselves as they can, that has helped.
I have also, and depending on which home it is, I also do zones, I guess, like, for my bedroom, I do not like to keep toy boxes and stuff in there. I like to keep it very much an adult room and not a kid room. I am kind of particular about that boundary. Like if a kid comes in there with a toy I am not cranky about it but just in general if something is left in there I will take it and move it to a room where we keep toys.
Our current house I do that with the living room also. I am experimenting also with having a few nicer things out on display which, larger families will understand this, that yes, for years it was just the joke we can not have nice things. I have one room where I put things out and we will see how it goes. In that room, we do not store toys in and again it is just like if they bring it in there it is no big deal, we just take it out at the end of the day and store it in a different room where toys can go.
Having zones helps me—if this is a zone that I have designated for kids to do their thing in and it is a mess, it does not bother me as much. I mean, because that is what they are supposed to be doing there and so I can just go sit in the living room where it is reasonably tidy because we do not keep toys and stuff in there. That kind of helps me be more relaxed about the chaos and stuff like that to simplify life so I can get in there with them and it makes it easier.
PAM: I love how Tami described the shift away from control as instead of managing the kids, managing herself and the environment.
Next up is Megan Valnes. I spoke with Megan in 2018 and at the time she had five children, ages 3 to 13. And they’ve since had another beautiful child. Let’s listen in as she shares her experience with finding ways to meet their diverse needs.
PAM: With five children, I imagine there are a number of different personalities at play, so I was wondering if you could share your experience around finding ways to meet their diverse needs?
MEGAN: Yes, they are all so different and that is what I find incredible. I feel really fortunate that I have been able to have these five kids.
I used to say it’s crazy how each kid is so different and they have the same parents. Somebody once said to me they don’t have the same parent because you are a different parent with each child. That could not be more true in my case. Because if you look at the mother that I was and the father that my husband was with Julian and then the parents with our youngest Clementine and all in between, gosh, Clementine hit the jackpot, she really did. I mean we have just grown and evolved so much and being able to do that with our children has been so amazing and meeting all their needs has been a learning and growing process.
In the beginning with unschooling, it was hard for me because I was still sort of stuck in, ‘everybody should like what I like.’ If I like it, it must be fun! You guys, do you not know that? Why would you not want to go to the park day?
My oldest son is totally—all my kids are totally their own person—but he has always been much more introverted. Well, I have kind of got three extroverts and two introverts. My oldest and my fourth child are very introverted as is my husband. I am more extroverted, if you haven’t noticed. I have got my two middle kids are and then my youngest are more extroverted.
I really had to learn that it’s okay for them to be different and that my second and third child love doing classes, they want to try anything, they will go to a park day. Anything I throw at them, they are usually willing to try it. My oldest hates classes—ever since he we pulled him out of school. He has tried a few classes here and there at my urging. Because, in the beginning, when you first start unschooling, you’re like, ‘wow, look at all these classes, let’s sign up one for every day, then we’ll go to twelve park days a month, and we’re going to meet all these people!’
It really did not work for our family and I kind of learned that quickly and that was part of learning to trust my son and knowing that he knew what was best for him. He just does not like park days, and that was hard for me to understand in the beginning. I thought, ‘do you not want to make friends?’ And he was making a lot of friends online. But I was discounting that.
So, now how I am meeting their diverse needs really is just like we talked about before: connecting with each individual one and figuring out things that we can do that everyone will like because there are those things that we all love. We love doing things as a family.
Usually, if it’s all seven of us, everybody’s in. We went to Knott’s Berry Farm this past Sunday, which is an amusement park here, for my son’s birthday. Any amusement parks, everybody wants to go to. We love traveling together. When we travel it’s a really great time for us all to connect as a family. We just do a lot of stuff together—we go surfing or hiking or exploring or whatever. Everyone is game for that.
But when we are at home, which is usual, my son, really he is sort of on the gamer’s schedule. Vampire schedule, which wakes up around four in the afternoon and then goes to bed at an undisclosed hour—I am not really sure when it is but I know it’s late, or early. Then when he really wants to do something, he does. But I will go watch him play his video games if he wants and he lets me know what he needs. Like, he’ll say, “Oh I want to go to the mall.” He likes going to the mall now. Or, “I want to go get this game.”
I think the biggest way of meeting needs is by staying connected to your kids and knowing who your kids are. Which is huge, because there are certain things I know my oldest son and my fourth child—my two introverts—are not going to like. So, we talk. I always run everything past everyone, but I do not get offended or take it personally if they do not want do it. The option to say no is always available. That is kind of how we are.
Right now, my younger son just got a Nintendo Switch for his birthday so that has been so much fun because everybody can play and we all love it. We all are playing Just Dance and it’s hilarious and you know they all are playing Mario Kart so that is something bringing all the kids together, except for Clementine. I mean, she stands there with the remote thinking she is playing but she is not quite there yet. So that’s it. I feel like meeting needs is just really an extension of staying connected.
PAM: Connected, yes, yes. That and being okay with no. That is the other huge piece when you are connected. Then it’s just figuring it out, just trying to see how you can weave all the different things together.
MEGAN: Yes, it’s just life. It just really starts to flow and I think whether you have one kid or you have five—obviously the workload increases a little bit, I think, but—it just it hits a flow. There are ebbs too. I actually have been discussing this with a good friend of mine. We were talking about the ebbs and she said something really beautiful: that during the ebbs the tide has pulled away and there are all these unexpected treasures on the beach that you can find.
That made a lot of sense to me because sometimes like we are all flowing so well, and everything is going great, then we feel like we start to ebb and it’s like, ‘okay, what’s going on?’ Taking that downtime which is really what it is and looking for the treasure in it. Maybe everybody needed a break. I think we get so caught up in another cultural thing, being busy. Because if we are busy then we are worthy. Then that means that we are productive human beings and we are worth our weight in gold and gosh darn it, we are going to make the world a better place. You know, sometimes it really is okay to have that down time. Your body needs it, your brain needs it, kids absolutely need it, and they know how to give it to themselves naturally.
PAM: Yes, they do they really, really do.
MEGAN: I am still learning that. I am learning how to give myself down time that has been another bit piece that came with unschooling which is huge.
PAM: Yes! The value of down time was a big a-ha moment for me too. And I love the image of unexpected treasures on the beach to help remind ourselves of the value of those quiet times. Thanks, Megan!
Next up is Talia Bartoe. I spoke with Talia in 2019 and at the time her four children ranged in age from 1 to 9. What’s extra fun is that Talia will be back on the podcast in a couple of weeks to check in with us. I’m really excited to share our conversation! For now, let’s listen in as she shares some tips on navigating her unschooling days with four young children.
PAM: I was hoping you might share some tips on the way you guys navigate your unschooling days with four young children because you know that is something that comes up often in the questions. So, any tips? What works for you.? How do you approach those days, those moments really?
TALIA: Oh yeah. Well, I would say I’m still constantly learning. I would google unschooling multiple children. I feel like there I was right there in the thick of things. But learning to be flexible and adaptable has been something that is not my nature but it’s something that’s offered us a lot of benefit. Expectations for me, I’m the planner. I’m organized. I’ve researched it ahead of time. I know every single thing. I know this route and I know a backup route. And I plan it and I expect it and it goes well. But when you have kids there’s only so much planning you can do because they wake up and they didn’t sleep good or they just didn’t feel good or their breakfast isn’t all right or they’re just having a day where the plans that you just spent a really long time putting together didn’t work or you get there and they find the activity is kind of lame and you’re thinking, ‘Wait I planned it and I knew that outcome. I knew how it was going to go because I’ve researched it.’ So, learning that my expectations can be relaxed and let go. Because the most important thing is that we’re connected, that our day is as peaceful as it can be which sometimes that’s a lot.
And sometimes it’s not going to be a lot but as much as it can be by learning to let go of the outcome by saying, “OK my plans are this but we can switch that to another day.”
Having people in our lives that understand last minute, “Hey we’re having an off day. We can switch to next week.” And they’re saying yeah ok because we do the same thing for them. And just knowing that I can’t control the outcome. Which is mighty schooling, the control stuff but it has made such a difference in our day when I just know that I can let that go and we can still have a good day and it’s not a bust because I had to reschedule our plans. The kids are learning by watching that it’s OK that they can say honestly, “Nope, not happening today,” and that is not the end of the world. Learning that plans change, that things adapt and that makes our days go a lot smoother for us.
PAM: Yeah for me, I remember that little revelation because I was a big planner. I still am a big planner. I’m already in the midst of planning our November trip.
TALIA: I so relate.
PAM: Yeah, exactly right.
But for me what changed was the outcome is the plan rather than the outcome being the execution of the plan.
TALIA: Yes the journey.
PAM: Exactly, these are the things in my backpack for the journey and it’s just one of the things. That’s a great way to look at it. And that because that other thing you mentioned, the flexibility. That these are the plans and I don’t even put date days on them. These things will flow together nicely into a day and these things will flow together nicely into a day and when we wake up in the morning what’s the weather, how are people feeling? Which of these days do we want to live today?
TALIA: I would have never imagined that that’s where I’m at. I used the phrase, “We’ll play it by ear,” the other day to my mom and my mom was like, “I thought I knew you.” (Laughing)
I have to, I have to. I’m evolving. You know I’m evolving. It’s not easy but I’m doing.
OK. All right. So yeah, I don’t know what day we’re seeing fireworks. I’ve got four options of days because I have to play it by ear.
It’s not easy but it’s OK. So, we go with the flow. And then if we don’t go with the flow and the days get messed up and I make a mistake or the kids are tired and grumpy, I apologize. Learning how to apologize which I do more than I ever thought that I would do, has made a difference.
I really did push on those plans too hard and everyone got grumpy. And that was avoidable, so apologize. Then I learn from it and try to take it to the next time and not repeat the same things. That’s a big thing. I don’t think a lot of people apologized to me or my siblings because it wasn’t what we heard from adults. I guess at the time that wasn’t something people talked about but I think it’s really important. And if you have four kids and everything’s busy and loud, you’re going and you’re getting overwhelmed, you’re going to do things sometimes and then you need to apologize a lot, often. Every time.
PAM: Yeah. Well because I mean to me that helps with the whole connection, the trust. Building the trust. Right. It’s not about trying to be a perfect parent. Just give that dream up. (laughing).
PAM: It is back in that box there, just to be so much more open. That we are individuals with likes dislikes and things that go wrong and we’re part of that too. It’s a great example even to your kids that we can do things that when we look back it’s like, ‘Huh, you know I can see how that contributed to the challenges that we ended up with. And I’m sorry about that.’ And you’re honest and you’re learning from it and yes it may happen again and again a few times until that lesson sinks deep enough in so that you catch it before you do it. I find for me that’s something, I just catch it a little quicker and a little quicker. And then eventually I catch it before I do it completely. You know what I mean, it’s not an on-off switch.
TALIA: It’s not. It’s not that simple a and b/black and white point. There’s so much grey area and my brain, my rule follower brain wants to know why there’s so much grey area?! But there is. You just go with it. And you accept it because if you resist it, then it’s just, who needs more resistance? I want more connection and resistance does not breed connections. So, we just accept it.
PAM: Oh, I love that. I love that. It’s so true. And then they see it by example and they see that it’s not something to be ashamed of.
TALIA: Yeah it’s not. It’s OK to be where you’re at whether that’s the beginning of your journey, in the middle or the end or if you’re in a busy season or if you’re in a slow season learning that they’re all a part of the process.
I liked to be in a busy season sometimes. It’s fun to post pictures on Instagram when, “Oh we went to the aquarium. We went to the amusement park.” It’s also ok to not be in that season. I had my fourth baby last year and our last year was a lot slower than the years before because that’s where we are at and our days are so much peaceful when we sense that that’s where I am. And there’s nothing wrong with having more days of YouTube and Minecraft and reading books and making play dough versus those aquarium and amusement park days. You accept where you’re at and as long as you’re partnering and you’re keeping the conversations going and you’re connecting, all of those seasons are OK. You just honour what season. And things flow better and you have to apologize less.
PAM: That’s right. I love that word “season.” I hadn’t really thought of it as seasons but yes. When you look back and you see the flow and realize why you were a little busier then. That’s why we weren’t so much then. The seasons around bigger changes like having a baby or moving or things like that. The focus and the flow changes to adapt really. But as you said, when you’re keeping the conversations open and everybody knows what’s going on it’s not a surprise. If somebody wants a bit more of something, we do what we can to help them figure it out a different way. Right.
TALIA: Right. We were in this season we were already taking it kind of slow and then it was wintertime and winter is always a little slower. We spend more days indoors and then we had some vehicle issues, so we went down to one vehicle for a few months. It was the worst timing with the winter already being there and my husband needing to take the vehicle to work. So, every day I would ask each kid when they woke up, we’d have our morning cuddles, and I would ask if there something you want to do today. And if they would say I really want to play Roblox with you today or can we go ahead and make slime today. And I would try my best to incorporate it into our days, each request because I couldn’t take them out of the house when Poppa wasn’t home, even if they wanted to but I still wanted to make their needs a priority. So, I would ask and we would keep that conversation going and we made the best of the situation that we had and we made it through. We had a lot of good days, a lot of good home days.
PAM: That’s great. I love that approach and I’ve done that too. I would do that to a lot with the kids when they got up. In that little transition, quiet time, “Is there anything in particular you want to make sure that we do today?” It’s nice touch point and it shows you’re thinking of them and it helps you help them have a good day.
TALIA: I mean 5 people in my household. Sometimes there are some big emotions and feelings and everyone needs their own space so if you say, “You know what? I don’t want to do anything today. But mostly I just want to chill away from my brother.”
I’ll be like, “OK do you want me to set you up in your room with a movie and some popcorn? That’s OK. I get it.”
PAM: Exactly. That’s totally it. And then as the day starts, it also helps you have things for some of those transition moments. Is now a good time to make the sign or play the game?
TALIA: That’s a great time to for me to play Roblox with you because the baby will be napping and I can totally focus on that and this is what time approximately we’ll do that. They know I follow through which helps build that trust that they know “OK. I told mom I wanted to play Roblox but then we haven’t in three weeks.” That doesn’t happen. I try my best to follow through and then they trust that I will. And so, they honour that we’re doing the best that we can because we do.
PAM: I love how Talia described herself now as someone who now says things like, “We’ll play it by ear.” And the value of apologies! And follow through. Beautiful! Thanks, Talia.
And finally, let’s hear from Cate & Jenna Phillips. I spoke with them last year, so, in 2020, and they have six children who, at the time. ranged in age from 3 to 15. They share some tips about navigating life with six kids.
PAM: So, I was curious if you guys could share some tips about just navigating your days with six kids. There are people with larger families. I get questions pretty regularly about that because when you’re trying to meet your kids’ needs—and you’ve got a larger number of kids—it can be hard to kind of figure out your way through that. That’s part of it is too, because you kind of see your kids as silos. I’ve got six kids and they’ve got six different interests, how am I going to fit that in day?
So, I thought it would be great if you guys could share a bit about life with six kids.
JENNA: Yeah, definitely. We’ve been asked this a lot by quite a few families who have embarked on homeschooling journeys. So, we kind of have the answers now and it’s really about teamwork. So, if say, the kids really want to go to them waterfalls for the day. Okay. I’ll wake you guys up at 10. I’ll make sure we’re out the door. This is important to you. And I wake them up at 10 and they’re just kind of, Oh, but they want to go, but I know before I go, I need to feed the dog or the dogs need to be fed. Not that I need to do it. The dogs need to go out. We have to take care of the cats or to do certain things.
And they’re all just sitting there, in any normal situation, I think a parent would say like, I’m doing all of this for you guys, so we can go somewhere and you’re doing nothing and you get angry and resentful and I’ve been there and she’s been there and it doesn’t feel right. So, we really take a teamwork approach.
The night before, if you guys want to go great, but this is what we’ll have to do. Just remember. And now you’ve done that so many times that they tell us. So, they’ll say, “Hey tomorrow, we all want to do this.” They make a plan. “Mom, we’ll wake you up at 10.”
CATE: Or “I’ll go to bed by midnight because I think I need hours of sleep.” Luca literally said this last night, “I like nine hours of sleep.”
JENNA: Yeah. But I want to be up and I need to be able to help, I’ll do the dogs. And they’ll say like, “Can you do the cats?” And it really is just focusing on that teamwork. And if we have a plan for the day and we need to do something.
If there’s not a plan and we’re just in the house, we just ask, “What do you want to do today? What are you feeling?” Because it’s really about some days you feel academic and some days you feel lazy and some days you want to go explore and when they have different avenues that they want to take, it gets a little tricky. But luckily, we’re really blessed that Cate works from home. So, when we have two or three kids that want to stay home, great, stay home.
Because she’s around if you need anything, but they’re pretty self-sufficient. I’m going to take the ones that want to go out and we’re going to go do this. And maybe one of them that wants to go to the waterfalls and the other one really wanted to go to the museum. So, we compromise, we’re going to go to the museum first and get some books about the waterfalls. And then we’ll spend like an hour there on the way home at the waterfall or whatever.
So, it really just, again, back to respect, trying to respect our own boundaries and needs for the day while giving what they need to them and having them do the same for us.
If it’s a day at home and I’ll say, okay, well, what do you guys want for breakfast? We all go in and usually one of us will make breakfast. One of us will do the dishes. We’ll sit down and eat, talk about what we’re going to do and just take our own paths. It’s just a well-oiled machine this point, but it was, it’s never like you have to unload the dishwasher. It’s okay. Well, do you want me to make omelets, all the pans are in the dishwasher who wants to do that real quick? And then they want omelets. So, they raised their hand, like, I’ll do it. And then the little kids are really interested in cracking the eggs. So, they’re like, “Oh, I want to help.” And it’s just, it’s easy at this point.
CATE: But you have to not hold onto it too tightly. You have to release your expectations, unless they’re super important to you.
JENNA: If they don’t fuel your desires and you need to release them.
CATE: Go with the flow because there isn’t another option, otherwise you’re just disappointed lot.
JENNA: And if you disappoint your kids and then you feel like a failure at that night, and then you go to sleep with that energy. It’s just, that’s a cycle that you’re going to have to dive into and you’re going to feel like a failure and most likely you’re going to fail and you’re going to be depressed or it’s just going to lead to somewhere, a dark place.
We really try to just live joyfully in the moment. So, if this is a day where I’m just exhausted, but the kids really want to do this, I tell them. I could probably go for a couple of hours. So, instead of taking the two-hour trip to that hiking place, could we just go somewhere local? Yeah, I’m really tired and I’m going to sit under the tree while you guys explore. And so, I’m still getting what I need, but they’re getting what they need and if they have questions great, but they’re like, ‘Oh, mom’s tired. And she’s just resting under the tree. I’m going to answer my own questions now or save them for later.’ And just that respect that we’ve all have in our foundation.
PAM: Yeah. I think it really does go back to, like you talked about the focus for those the first couple of years on the interpersonal relationships. That truly does set the foundation where you can more easily navigate all these moments respectfully and because everybody feels heard and understood and communication skills are up there.
Being able to share your needs and have them be part of the mix as you figure out a way through it, in how everybody is today. And that go with the flow thing was always such a big thing too. But you learn that by not going with the flow enough times and pushing through it and realizing how you feel at the end of the day, which is horrific. And nobody really enjoyed it anyway.
JENNA: And unfortunately we still have those times. I still have those moments that take over and Cate actually is a lot better at reading her own needs and my needs and saying, “No, you didn’t sleep well, you’re exhausted. We just got back from vacation. They don’t need to go today. They just want to, but they’ll be fine. Tell them what you need.” And I have a hard time stepping back from that role of giving. And that’s something
CATE: She’s like the ultimate caretaker, right? So, if she hears from two or three of our kiddos, that they want to do this, that desire to give them …
JENNA: … and push my own needs away is, yeah, it’s there.
CATE: And I have to sometimes remind her like, “Whoa, remember, is your tank is that full right now? Fill your tank first. And tell them that.”
JENNA: I think having a support person to do that is key when you are unschooling, whether that be a partner, a parent, a best friend, an older child that you’ve developed that relationship with, that can read you or if you’re really in tune with yourself and good at it. But if you are a primary caregiver, having someone telling you it’s okay. It’s okay to take this time, is key.
PAM: That role of caretaker, caregiver to including yourself in that mix. We see our kids and we want to do all we can with and for them. But that mental shift to put ourselves in that mix. It’s a hard one, sometimes. So, like you said, it is so good to be able to have someone else who can help point us point that out to us when it looks to them, like we are, are erring on that side. And even if we still choose to do it, taking it in that moment to realize that we’re getting low in energy or whatever it is and to realize, OK, I’m choosing to do this, but tomorrow I’m really going to need to take that down day.
JENNA: Yes. Expressing that and really respecting it for yourself. So, you don’t feel like a failure and so that your kids really understand, I’m giving this to you, but tomorrow I really, I really need this. And this is what I need to keep doing this, to keep thriving.
CATE: We’re just two humans, but I think it’s interesting. It’s an interesting aspect that we’re both women and we can understand, the ebbs and flows of being in a female body. Right? So, there is a difference in how our cycles and how our energies work, as females.
JENNA: And we both identify she/her, so that we really embody that female cycle, we strongly do.
CATE: So, we’re able to say to each other, I’m going to have my period soon, so I know my energy is going to be down and we know exactly what that means.
JENNA: We’re teaching, mainly boys, we have four boys, we have three boys, two girls and a non-binary kiddo and so we are teaching all of them that even, if it’s a menstrual cycle or it’s your energy is low, you need to say that and then respect that your body does take over sometimes, and you have to go with that. Yes. And so, we do teach the kiddos and they will say, “Mom, are you tired today or do you have your period, like what’s going on?” and really respecting the human body for what it is and what might be happening and that in the mental shift that you talked about, what else is going on?
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. So great looking at energy, right? They can feel energies. And to bring that out and talk about that, because those are real aspects in our lives. They’re all part of the flow of what we can do in our days. So, understanding that piece is so helpful.
JENNA: And really going back to that support person. And I do mean that, you don’t need to be married to a woman to be understood. You don’t need to have a partner. Our 12-year-old is at the point where they will notice my exhaustion level and say, “I think you need to go in your room for a couple hours. I’m going to take, Xavi who’s five, out to play.”
PAM: That was such a great example of adults and kids alike getting to know each other and just helping each other out as things come up. The teamwork they spoke of at the beginning isn’t just about the physical things that need doing, but mental and emotional aspects of living as well. So beautiful!
Big thanks to Cindy, Tami, Megan, Talia, Cate, and Jenna for sharing some of their stories and experiences around unschooling with larger families. I hope you found it interesting to hear these snippets side by side!
And there are more podcast guests that we didn’t hear from today who are unschooling with four or more kids—sometimes we just didn’t speak specifically about that aspect of their lives. Because this is a pretty common question, I’ve put together a new page on my website about unschooling in larger families that includes links to those conversations as well. If you want to dive deeper, listening to their unschooling stories just knowing they have multiple kids can definitely be helpful.