PAM: This week, I have a solo episode for you! The idea to share why I focus on joy and the unschooling journey bubbled up a couple of weeks ago and it’s been fun to put this together. And for listeners who may be newer to the podcast, I share a bit about me before diving into exploring the idea of joy and how it became a very helpful compass for me as I navigate, not just unschooling, but life.
I hope you find it interesting!
So, hi! I’m Pam Laricchia. I’ve been married for 30 years and have three children.
A bit of unschooling backstory: When school wasn’t a great fit for my eldest, I worked with his teachers and the system. When he was in grade 4, back in early 2002, I stumbled across homeschooling—I’d never heard of such a thing! I did a few weeks of research, talked about it with my husband, and the kids just didn’t go back to school after March Break. Their choice. Soon after they were home, I discovered unschooling and that’s when my journey really began. They were 9, 7, and 4 when they left school and now they’re all in their twenties.
I’m a podcaster, community builder, and writer. I’m also a newbie video game programmer, virtual reality enthusiast, and avid reader—or more correctly in this season of life, an avid audiobook listener. Every day I’m more enthusiastic about learning game programming—it’s so fun!—and I’ve recently started learning more about permaculture. I’m curious about long-distance walking. And I continue to explore societal and cultural systems, oppression in its many forms, and ways to live as a grounded and engaged human being.
Some fun facts: I’m an INTJ and Enneagram 5. A strong introvert and internal processor. Before I chose to leave work and stay home with the kids, I was a nuclear engineer. I raced cars for a season in my teens. Growing up, my passion was ballet.
My mantra is “open and curious.” It reminds me not to stay stuck in fear and discomfort and instead get curious and explore. To be open to new possibilities.
Here’s a quote I keep going back to the last couple of years. It’s from Stephen Cope, from his book The Wisdom of Yoga: “Over and over again in life, I keep coming to this same crossroads. I keep having to learn to let go of needing to be the one who knows. I keep having to let go of trying to master life through thinking about it—through perfecting my explanation of it. And every time, the result is the same. Relief. Like relaxing into a river whose current I have been resisting with all my might.”
I don’t know if it’s my personality or something ingrained from years of wanting to perform well in school, but I can get stuck in the mindset of needing to solve things. To find an answer. Stephen’s description of “trying to master life through thinking about it” really resonates with me. As does his description of “relaxing into a river whose current I have been resisting with all my might.” Every time I remember to let go and just more fully be in the moment, I rediscover that that’s where the magic is. Not only the palpable sense of relief, but also the beauty of the being fully present in the moment. That’s where the joy is.
Which leads us beautifully into the topic this week: Why joy?
Years ago, I chose to name my website Living Joyfully as a loving, yet persistent, reminder to follow the joy. So, I want to dive into some of the reasons why I chose the concept of “joy” to fundamentally represent the unschooling lifestyle.
Let’s start by making sure we’re on the same page regarding the definition of the word joy. I like “a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated.” For me, the idea of joy is wrapped up in the ongoing value of, and deep appreciation for, the lifestyle I’ve chosen, rather than the more fleeting happiness that depends on external events. While most of us can find happiness in response to good things happening, when disappointing or upsetting things happen, we find ourselves thrown into despair.
What I’d like to talk about is the deeper sense of joy that I found developed alongside my growing understanding of unschooling. It’s a sense of self that no longer seems quite so susceptible to the whims of life and luck. That’s important because a joyful life is not without problems or strains or challenges. It’s not about “fixing” those things so we can finally live a happy, joyful life. It’s the dawning realization that the process of moving through both the ups and downs IS a well-lived and joyful life.
And it didn’t stop there. I began to realize that joy wasn’t just an “outcome,” it was also a wonderful guide. Like a compass, pointing me toward joy.
Joy became a beacon for my days in various ways, nudging me in more helpful directions over and over.
Joy is a Beacon for Learning
Let’s explore the pursuit of joy through the lens of learning.
After months and months (and months) of deschooling, I came to deeply understand why one of the essential ingredients of unschooling is to being free to learn. With “free” meaning “free to choose.” When my kids weren’t doing things, they were choosing what they wanted to do next. That said, don’t imagine these were all active things, choosing to do quiet things, comforting things, was just as valuable. I saw them learning all the time, about the world and themselves, and they were having so much fun!
I learned from watching them that joy is inherent in the process of trying to accomplish something, not a kind of “reward” for successfully reaching a “goal.” And while learning something wasn’t a “goal,” they were picking up lots of knowledge and skills along the way. It was working fantastically well for them, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
At first, the idea of asking myself, “What would I enjoy more?” when choosing what to do in a given moment seemed rather self-indulgent. Those “shoulds” can be very loud in our heads! But with years of experience under my belt now, I can definitely say that using joy as an integral part of the decision-making process has helped me make choices that have taken me to some pretty wonderful, if unexpected, places. And most importantly, it brought engaged living into my ordinary days, rather than saving it for special occasions.
When we are exploring things that are interesting to us, joy is there, a faithful companion. Our mind is swimming with questions and we are so curious to see where they lead! And it’s in those moments when we are most likely to become deeply engaged in our activity.
And what happens when we are engaged?
- We are actively accomplishing something—whether it’s physical or mental.
- Our full attention is in the moment with us, we are often “in the flow,” where time seems to stand still.
- We are learning—real, connected learning—though we don’t notice it at the time because we are fully involved in the moment, not observing it.
- And we are enjoying ourselves, though we don’t really notice that either, until time starts moving again.
- We soon discover that these moments are priceless! And we want more of them. How do we find them? By choosing to do things that we think we’ll enjoy. By doing that over and over, we also refine our understanding of what we enjoy, and we get better at shifting into engagement and being present in each moment.
Let’s look at learning itself for a moment.
One of the interesting things that comes out of unschooling’s focus on engagement is that the learning our children (and we) are doing, almost by osmosis, becomes equated with fun and joy, instead of “work.” The concept of work is so negative in our society: labour, struggle, trial. Chores? Work. Taking out the garbage? Work. Doing our taxes? Work. Work has become associated with anything that we don’t want to do, but that we feel we “have to” do.
We don’t want learning to be something our children consider work, so with unschooling we cultivate an environment where learning is, for the most part, fun and enjoyable. It doesn’t become something they actively avoid. Not only that, by not introducing “work” into the learning equation, we keep it far away from the concept of “effort.” Unschooling children exert all kinds of effort to accomplish things they are drawn to doing. Engagement. Flow. Frustration. Breakthrough. Fun. JOY. Like the artist who concentrates for hours, exclaiming it does not feel like work.
When we use joy as our compass, we often challenge and push ourselves to our limits, of either physical abilities and knowledge—or both. And at the end of it our sense of accomplishment is palpable, even if we have nothing tangible to show for it.
Watch your children in action! Day after day, they are great examples of the engagement and real learning that come along for the ride when they’re following their interests.
When they’re using joy as their compass. And it works incredibly well for us too.
Joy is a Beacon for Building Strong Relationships
Now let’s look at why joy is such a valuable touchstone for building strong and connected relationships with our children—or anyone else, for that matter.
Conventional relationships are often structured around power and control—especially parent-child relationships. The traditional assumption is that adult needs are more important than child needs. Full stop.
I imagine you’ve seen this relationship dynamic play out many times, at the grocery store, on the playground, in a friend’s home. Anywhere parents and children interact. A child asks to do or have something, and their parent firmly says no. If the child asks why, they are reminded who has the control with that ubiquitous response: “Because I said so.”
So much power is wrapped up in those four words.
When power is a principal component of family relationships, it not only plays out between parent and child, it also influences sibling relationships. They will regularly tease or annoy one another as a show of their power and use each other as leverage: “You got a toy for her, so you have to get me one too.” And it just spirals from there.
If you want to cultivate strong and connected relationships, ones steeped in respect and trust, power isn’t the way to go about it: control-based interactions create disconnection, not connection. Nor are they enjoyable. Not even for the “winner,” because they can’t let their guard down lest they “lose” next time.
I love the bridge metaphor Roya Dedeaux shared in our podcast conversation last week when we talked extensively about ways to connect with our kids. She said, “Every time you can make that kind of connection with your kid, it’s like a rope bridge. That’s one piece of fiber that’s been extended. And then the more of those fibers you get, they twist together until it’s stronger and stronger and stronger. And then, you’re just running across, back and forth together.”
When our interaction is power-based, chances are we’re fraying a piece of fiber in that rope bridge of our relationship.
Instead, reaching for joy moves relationships away from the power paradigm and toward connection. If you watch people who are genuinely connecting, you will see them treating each other with kindness and compassion in that moment. There is none of the push and pull of power struggles.
So, let’s dig into an example of what “reaching for joy” looks like. I thought I’d use a situation I’ve experienced from time to time over the years. It starts with me feeling down and draggy and put upon. Sound familiar?
Soon we decide that we should take care of ourselves by insisting that we get our share of whatever it is we think will help us feel better—with our children that may be acknowledgement, attention, appreciation, help etc. Maybe something like, ‘I do all these things for them, why can’t they help me when I ask?’
The more we think about it, the more unappreciated we feel, and the more focused we get. It’s a vicious circle.
Over the years I’ve gotten better at noticing when I’m caught in this downward spiral, and whenever the realization hits, I make the effort to focus on the joy. I know, it seems paradoxical, but when I’m feeling needy, feeling like I need to grab more for me, if I remember to shift and focus on the joy, that needy feeling dissipates more quickly.
For me, I first focus on bringing joy into my children’s lives. I love them up. I shift my focus out of my head and to their lives. What do they love to do right now? What would make them smile big? Sometimes I ask, sometimes I offer things. And we do that. Together. I sink into enjoying those things with them. And with full engagement—not complaining or worrying or planning dinner in the back of my mind. Soon I see the joy on their faces. I listen to their chatter and their laughter. It starts to rub off a bit. I’m smiling now.
Then, maybe alongside them, I start doing something I enjoy but have been putting off for what are now starting to seem like martyrly reasons. Now I’m feeling pretty good and I’m chatting away with them too. And all of a sudden, that needy icky goo bubble around me bursts.
Wow! With my now more open and joyful perspective, things are so much clearer! Now I can see the acknowledgement and appreciation my children were giving me all along—they were just giving it to me in their ways. I was so busy looking for what I thought I needed, my filters laser-targeted on looking for me, me, me, that I couldn’t see what I was already getting.
Focusing on joy helps me to more quickly remove those filters and bring the real world back into sharper focus.
Not only that, it’s in this open and joyful place of relationship where people—children, spouses, partners, friends—are so much more likely to help us out too! Which do you react better to, genuine requests (where no is a perfectly acceptable answer) or implied demands? Smiling invitations or grumpy appeals?
Focusing on bringing those in our lives as much joy as we can muster has a truly positive and beautiful effect on our relationships. It builds stronger connections because we enjoy connecting. It builds trust because we truly trust that the other person is watching out for us and wanting our days to be joyful. And bringing joy into our children’s days encourages us to bring joy into our days too.
Life isn’t either/or. It isn’t us versus them. It’s all of us together.
When I find myself mired in relationship discontent, joy is the beacon I follow.
It pulls me out of the goo every time.
Joy is a Beacon for Finding Community
So far, we’ve looked at the value of using joy as a beacon for learning and relationships. Now let’s look at joy as a guide for finding community.
What do I mean by community? Basically, finding people who inspire us to continue to learn and grow as a person. And the people we would find inspiring are those who are involved in the things we aspire to do well. Namely, our interests.
If you want to learn more about how to do something well, surround yourself with people are on the same journey.
Find communities that connect around that topic—in person or online—and check them out to see if they might be a good fit. If we find them generally frustrating or upsetting (maybe the quality of the information is low or the communication style doesn’t mesh with ours), that’s a clue to try a different community. If we feel joyful and inspired after spending time with them, that’s a clue too. A beacon that says, “take another step this way.”
There are a couple of ways to look at this idea of choosing the people in our lives.
It’s not about surrounding yourself with people who always agree with you—you want to be challenged, not stagnant. But you want to be challenged in a way that pulls you toward the person you want to be.
For example, when I began unschooling, I discovered a whole new perspective on parenting that I wanted to embody. I immersed myself in an online unschooling community back then and stayed engaged even after I “understood” unschooling because every day it reminded me to make the better choice in each moment. And for me, that was the choice that kept me on the parenting path I wanted to take.
And having created the Living Joyfully Network online community last year, I continue to find it inspiring to be in community with unschooling parents. Being in their presence reminds me to make the kinder and more compassionate choice in the moment. In any moment. With my kids, my partner, my friends. It’s the person I want to be.
And while it’s not about surrounding yourself with people who always agree with you, you may also want to consider steering clear of negative people. It takes a lot more energy to “stay strong” in your convictions when you’re surrounded by people with opposing perspectives. I imagine many of you have experienced this! Unschooling is a very unconventional lifestyle and we’re often the odd ducks at family gatherings. We can find ourselves defending our choices under a barrage of questions, catching glimpses of disappointed head shakes out of the corner of our eye.
Even just everyday encounters with more conventional friends can be challenging. Maybe they see us talking with our children, having a conversation about the moment and who needs what and they label it “talking back,” even without a confrontational tone in sight. They see only the interaction, not the depth and strength of our connected relationships with our children.
It can be hard. And if we are constantly surrounded with negative feedback about our parenting—even unspoken, yet overt—we can start to question ourselves and our lifestyle choices. Fear starts to grow. “Am I a bad parent?” “Am I ruining my child?”
So, surround yourself with people who continue to challenge you in a good way. Toward your personal goals. Toward growth.
We can also look at the same idea from a bit different perspective. You’ve probably come across the idea from Jim Rohn that, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
It’s interesting to think about. And reminds us to surround ourselves with people who inspire us to be our best self, whatever that is for us.
But sometimes we go about our days without really registering the people we are spending most of our time with. Especially for those who are working: those encounters with clients and customers and colleagues count! We—or our spouses or partners—may find ourselves drained at the end of the day without really understanding why. And after a while, we may begin to question our lifestyle and parenting choices. It can be a cycle.
It can be so helpful to remember to surround ourselves with those who inspire and energize us—not just when we’re down and need it immediately, but regularly. Maybe think of it as “preventative maintenance” (that’s the engineer in me coming out). Or filling our cup. It has definitely been an important piece of the self care puzzle for me.
So, play around with it and discover your equilibrium—remembering that it can change over time. Like an introvert who discovers that after a fun day out and about with friends they need a day or two at home to recover and re-energize and they start to bake that into their planning, maybe you find that for every two hours of conventional interactions you need to immerse yourself in thirty minutes of unconventional parenting and unschooling stories to stay focused, connected, and inspired. To repoint your compass to joy.
I know for me, connecting with other unschooling families brings me joy and reminds me to make choices that bring me closer to the person and parent I want to be.
And for me, that’s the immense value of using joy as a beacon for finding community.
It’s funny that I originally wrote about using joy as a beacon for finding community on my blog six years ago this month—July 2015—and last year I decided to build an unschooling community myself. It really was such a valuable part of my unschooling journey and continues to be an incredibly important part of my life! Both grounding and inspiring. I just love it.
Joy Takes a Little Practice
And I was putting this episode together, a member in the Network serendipitously shared a recent article on the NPR website about how sometimes joy takes a little practice. It really resonated with me and with some of the things I’ve talked about today.
I’ll put the link in the show notes if you want to read it, but I wanted to pull out a couple of things.
“Over the past decade, neuroscientists have begun to shift their understanding of how emotions arise. “Your brain uses memories from the past in order to create the present,” psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett says. It means that our emotions are malleable, depending on our experiences and how we feel in a given moment.
To figure that all out, Seth says (that’s Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex), the brain uses one more piece of information — and this part is key. The brain takes into account your past experiences, your memories.”
This means that emotions aren’t hard-wired reactions to particular situations and out of your control. It’s the opposite: the brain uses your past experiences to make sense of and choose your emotion in the present.
The article likens it to emotional muscle memory. You can cultivate the emotions you want to have in the future by seeding them into your present. Barrett says, “If you know that your brain uses your past in order to make sense [of] and create the present, then you can practice cultivating [positive] emotions today so that your brain can automatically use that knowledge when it’s making emotions tomorrow.”
If you want to bring more joy into your life, bring joy into the present. Down the road, your brain will more likely to choose joy in the moment because your recent past experiences are peppered with joyful emotions.
That really connects with my experience! How the idea of using joy as a compass or beacon brought more joy into my days. My kids did that naturally, I was the one that needed to relearn that.
It’s really interesting when science comes out that meshes with our experience!
The article also goes into some ways to cultivate positive emotions like awe, flow, gratitude, and joy. And they too resonate with ideas often shared in unschooling circles.
It was a fun read.
And as I finished putting this together, I realized how well this flows into next week’s episode with Anna Brown about our theme in the Network this month, Sitting with Fear and Discomfort. It too feels serendipitous, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was my brain bubbling up the connection between the process of sitting with fear and discomfort and finding and cultivating joy. And I’m only just now conscious of it. Over the years I’ve learned to follow my intuition, knowing that the why will eventually become clear.
So, I’m really looking forward to sharing next week’s episode.
Have a lovely day!