PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Akilah S. Richards. Hi, Akilah!
AKILAH: Peace, Pam.
PAM: I am so happy to have you back on the podcast and this time we’re going to dive into your most recent book, Raising Free People, which I absolutely loved.
AKILAH: Thank you.
PAM: So, to get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and what everybody’s interested in right now?
AKILAH: First of all, thanks for the invitation again. We had such a great conversation last time and I’m looking forward to however it unfolds this time. So, thank you for asking.
I won’t go too much into the basics, because there’s another episode y’all can listen to about it and you should. So, I’ve been learning that, for me, it feels more appropriate to call unschooling my starting point, as opposed to where I am now. I don’t have a problem with the term “unschooling”, but I do think that there’s an evolution of it. It does things to your life. Pam is nodding her head. It rearranges so much of your life that it becomes about more than that original idea about education or learning.
And so, I started out in unschooling and now I understand myself to be part of a movement that I call Raising Free People, which is really about liberation work that is both personal and intergenerational and social as well, all of the elements. I do that mainly through writing. I also have a podcast called Fare of the Free Child where we talk about it.
I focus a lot on how black folks and non-black indigenous folks and other people of the global majority are understanding this type of liberation work in terms of, intergenerationally, how some of it is really organic, how some of it has a lot of decolonization elements in place, because a lot of the narrative tends to be around one type of unschooling community. So, I’m really excited about the ways that the conversations about unschooling and beyond unschooling have been opening up and I’m just kind of a nerd of that world.
PAM: I love it. That’s so beautiful. And I was nodding away, because that’s completely my experience. Unschooling is just that way in. It’s that way in to a whole new way of looking at things. And I think that is one of the reasons why I’ve stayed focused on unschooling, because I love when people just start to go, oh my gosh.
AKILAH: Yes. That’s why I won’t let the term go either, Pam, because there’s a lot of education that I’m getting now, actual education about the ways that unschooling or a focus on what we want to get away from is also rooted in a type of colonization in terms of centering, like what we center, however, a big “however”, big letters, HOWEVER, for many of us, that’s what we need first.
Sometimes, hearing the term “unschooling” or listening to your podcast or listening to mine or so many others that are doing this work, because it’s so personal for them and then they shout it out, we recognize that what we do also invites people to just pause and to question. When you say unschool, it is disruptive and that disruption is necessary.
Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going towards. You just know what the hell you’re trying to get away from. So, like you, I love being able to rile that up in people and them say, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute!” So, we start there and that’s what I love about it, too.
PAM: So, I want to share the definition of unschooling that you had in your book.
You wrote, “Unschooling is a way of life that is based on freedom, respect, and autonomy. Listening and witnessing help parents to facilitate learning by offering resources for their child to pursue their interests and to follow their curiosity, without the restrictions of time limitations or judgment by way of testing.”
As we’ve been talking about, unschooling ends up being so much more than not doing school. It becomes a way of life. I just want to just take a moment for people who are newer to start with the learning side. You mentioned the key elements there in your description, following their curiosity, pursuing their interests, no time limitations. That’s a big free part. And avoiding the judgment that comes with testing. So, let’s start there and how have you seen that playing out in your family?
AKILAH: Well, so much of how Chris, my partner, and I were understanding our children when they were younger and especially when they started school, but even before that, because of schoolishness, so much of it was based on what they produced, even as little people, what they showed us, what the teachers said once they started school, a lot of beyond the person now and over to the “potential them” or the “performance them”.
So, the slow, slow recognition of that has really impacted our relationships with our children. It has made it so that now Marley and Sage are 17 and 15 and the types of discussions that we have about them, the type of knowledge that we have about who they actually are, not just how you show up for your parents, what their needs are, the level of understanding they have about us, Chris and I, what our boundaries are and our needs are, it just continues to excite and educate me about what happens when we move away from, “They need to learn these things by this time,” over into, “What does it mean to be in relationship with this person? What does it mean to be in partnership?”
How do I listen to a child as an adult? What am I listening for? Because I used to be listening for what to fix, what to instruct, what to guide. And, through the process, it has impacted us to recognize, oh, actually we need to listen oftentimes for guidance before we can even decide what to do, their guidance. So, really, the biggest impact has been around our relationships with each other, everything from boundaries over to how we communicate.
And that’s really been the best reward, because at 17 and 15, I’m getting to know a whole lot about these humans in ways that can really take me back in my old bag of like, “You will do this,” or, “You will not do that.” And then create a distance between me and the human in a way that is not actually natural. It’s not necessary. It’s not healthy. And it doesn’t go in the direction of the type of world that I want to be in and participate in.
So, that’s been the biggest thing.
PAM: Yeah. I love that, because so quickly, when you start thinking about it and pulling it apart, you realize that the curriculum, the whole, what somebody should know by what age, really doesn’t fit with being a human being in the world. So quickly, you see that learning, it happens. It’s awesome. But it’s a byproduct of being and playing and doing when they’re free to choose what they are interested in doing. The learning just shines through and you can’t even stop them. I mean, why would you? But to say, “Well, what are you learning now?”
PAM: That takes them so out of the moment to think.
AKILAH: Exactly. We develop the skills of witnessing and participating, so that we don’t necessarily have to ask those questions. And then, too, we also get to question our idea of why we would think they need to learn a thing by a certain time. Who decides? For a lot of the Black communities, we have always had the issue of what you are learning. What’s missing from what you are learning? The idea that, no matter where you come from and what your background is, there is this one idea of what learning is and if you don’t fit it, you’re the problem. And then, that carries out beyond the classroom.
So, one of the things that I think unschooling helps us to recognize is the problematic nature of this heavily marketed idea of standardized education, to see it for what it actually is, which is just really good marketing around things to buy. Things to buy, things to oppress, things to keep separation, things that are just really outside of the type of things we get to really pay attention to and say, do I even want to participate in that?
Even if that’s where my kid might learn something, because in some instances, school is like daycare. It’s the place where your kid can be for free so that you can go work. There are all these reasons why we do what we do.
But through unschooling movements, we get to recognize that this is not just about your kid being free to learn whatever they want to learn. This is about being a part of a structure that subjugates people and that participates in a lot of the same problems that we deal with in our community, in our home. Society begins oftentimes at home.
So, if we can start to create different dynamics and relationships and understand in home, with the people we’re around every day, then we get the sort of practice to then meet up and say, oh, I’m uncomfortable with this thing similarly to the way that I was uncomfortable when my kid called me out about this thing. But I have a little practice of not being like, “Oh my god, but that wasn’t my intention. What the hell?” I have practice being like, “Oh. Oh. Because I care about you, I’m going to just not retaliate. I’m going to not react. And I’m going to listen to what you’re saying.” That alone is a game changer.
PAM: Yeah. Because I’m thinking, you can do that in school.
PAM: That structure, like you were saying, I love what you said about how, even if they learn things and they can learn things there, because sometimes you’re interested.
AKILAH: Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
PAM: Exactly! But that’s not the point, because inside that world is where they’re valuing certain things.
They’re implicitly teaching the system. They’re implicitly teaching that power dynamic. There’s so much that you’re absorbing in that environment. To be able to step back and say, do I want all these other pieces? And then, if school needs to be part of your life or it’s chosen to be part of your life for a while, you can still do the work, but it’s extra work, to separate that out and not bring it home.
AKILAH: Right. And some of it, you won’t always be able to. Yes. And in some cases, it’s contrary. As my friend, Natalie, on a recent episode was saying, when her boys were in school, yes, she was there all the time and she was doing the things and they were self-directed-education-minded even at home, because the skills exist. The skills are life skills. It’s just easier as an unschooler to practice them, because she’s like, “As much as whatever was happening with my kids, I had to shut up when I was at school. At a certain point, as the parent, I had to shut up, because ultimately, the decision went with another person, who even if they understood my kid and wanted the best for my kid, they do not have the power.”
Because this is not an issue of teachers. This is not a teacher issue. It’s the institution of education, as we understand it, and miseducation, as we understand it. And so, that’s important to recognize, as well, that yes, there are even family dynamics, as well as children who want to be in school and that it doesn’t stop you from thinking about autonomy. And if a kid is there and they leave, then it’s not a consequence.
So, you’re going to work with them or whatever. That’s very different, but recognize two things. One, you can still practice some of the principles of unschooling, because they are really about relationship and community. However, you will need to recognize that you’ll be needing to do some types of undoing and that your power will be limited and your child’s power will be limited inside of those systems.
And I want, Pam, to read what I consider my definition of unschooling is. What you read was context around it. Because I think this ties into what we’re saying here, too.
AKILAH: So, the way that I define unschooling is, a child-trusting, anti-oppression, liberatory, love-centered approach to parenting and caregiving. It is also creating and expanding communities of confident, capable people who understand how they learn best and how to work collaboratively to learn and solve things. So, it’s so much more than what is happening between them and information.
PAM: Yes. Yes! That’s another thing I wants to touch on. You’ve mentioned a couple of times now, how so quickly it becomes about relationships. Because unschooling, it catches attention. It’s like, “Hmm. I’m not happy. There’s this thing that’s caught my attention and that I’m curious about and I dive in,” and very soon, through a bit of peeling back that we’ve just been talking about, it becomes about the relationships. You recognize that, I don’t need to worry about the ABCs of the facts and all that stuff out there. It will come. I need to focus on the relationships and communicate the skills that we develop, but it is so much of our work to do.
And what I found really interesting was just the lens that we use to start looking at these relationships. I was a rather alternative parent. I didn’t know the phrase attachment parenting before, but I had pretty much gotten there on my own, because I just didn’t feel comfortable with a lot of mainstream parenting. But this was eye-opening when I came to unschooling.
When I was doing the bulk of my deschooling then, what made a lot of sense to me was that adultism lens or childism lens, to really recognize how much power was wrapped up in our relationship and peeling back to recognize that I didn’t need it. And that’s that step where it’s not about just releasing power. It’s about what you replace that with.
PAM: We replace it with communication, the witness or the observing component, to be really curious and interested in knowing your children and what they’re up to and appreciating them as people and happy to let them be. And there is just so much wrapped up in there when you realize that you don’t need this power. You can step back and be.
You wrote about viewing your relationships with your children through the lens of post-colonial parenting. And that helped you move beyond that adult-centric perspective on those relationships, what it means to be a parent. And that really resonated with me, too, and with what I have been learning over the last few years. That is just a bigger lens on adultism. I was hoping you could share a little bit more about how that’s looked for you.
AKILAH: Definitely. I love all of that, Pam, all of that, because I could see the scaffolding. Totally.
A lot of it boils down to that, for me, the idea that colonization, what my education and my college education taught me is to look at colonization as a thing that had happened one time in the past, as opposed to a thing that is very much a real part of how we see and relate and connect and disconnect and de-humanize now.
And so, power, as you said, Pam, when I recognized one, that I was also the oppressor. There were environments where I was the oppressor and that children, all children, not just mine are the ones over whom I will have the most power. It doesn’t even matter whose child it is. If I’m in the room with just that person, those dynamics are there. Just to be able to deconstruct that for myself, just to be able to unpack that.
What messages am I sending about power? And those are the questions that Chris and I were really starting to ask ourselves before we could even pull the girls out of school. We thought it was an education thing, but then we recognized that it was so much more than that. It was about adultism, where we could easily use that privilege to say, as we did, “I hear what you’re saying. I hear that you don’t want to be there, but yeah,” that’s it.
“We don’t get it. We don’t understand it. So, until you can articulate it in the way that makes sense to us, we are not going to listen.” That’s real familiar, you know what I’m saying? As an adult, that’s really familiar. That sounds like the government. That sounds like so many different things that we push back against. That sounds like the myth of white supremacy.
It sounds like so many things that we navigate where it’s like, “Well, yeah, you say you’re in pain, but I know that I intended something different. So, until you’re bleeding, until so many of you have died, until so many people have been evicted, until this, this, this, when you march that 90th time …” There are always other conditions for the person being oppressed to prove and to move out of and it was very much a parallel to how we viewed how we were raising our children, how we were relating to our children.
So, that’s why I call it a post-colonial lens, because I recognize that deschooling for me is linked to decolonization. Another friend on the podcast, Lane Santa Cruz, talked about how in her community as indigenous people, how she is able to open the conversation about unschooling, particularly among elders is to really talk more about decolonization and the link between deschooling as decolonization. And so, yeah.
PAM: Exactly. It’s so fun when you start to see the bigger picture, all the different ways you can come in. It’s what’s fascinating about the unschooling community. There are people with wide ranges of experiences that show up here, because there are so many ways in and to explore. It is really fascinating. I’m trying to remember what piece there I was very excited about.
AKILAH: I can read, in the meantime, I have a definition also of deschooling, which I love. So, maybe we can splice that in there.
AKILAH: Yeah. Especially, because I know that when I first started out back in 2012 and I wasn’t really an unschooler then, we were exploring. We were definitely doing school at home, which is pretty normal. A lot of people end up doing that. And you get to learn. You move from process to practice over time. Or we did. But I learned to recognize deschooling not necessarily as just like a thing that you do to get out of the mindset of the classroom learning, but really broader than that.
So, I say that deschooling is shedding the programming and habits that resulted from other people’s agency over your time, body, thoughts, or actions. And it is also designing and practicing beliefs that align with your desire to thrive, to be happy, and to succeed. Because it’s completely out of that mindset of, what do I accomplish? How do I prove? How do I convey? Over to, what does it mean to have agency over my time and my energy and my body? How do I get in the way of other people having agency in that way? And what do we do with that information?
It’s a very different thing that leads us to a lot of the same things we think we pick up in school.
PAM: Yes. I love that. And that absolutely reminded me where I wanted to go with that, as well. So, we’re helping them explore their agency, but that’s our deschooling work. There’s just so much as we pull that apart.
And we come to recognize that with our previous relationships with our kids and the power that we’re using, we don’t even realize that we are showing them that this is an okay dynamic and that this is the way they’re going to interact or they have to interact with every other institution or situation or company or whatever that they show up in the world with, when they grow up.
AKILAH: Absolutely. Yeah.
PAM: You’re the first teacher of that dynamic.
AKILAH: Yeah. On purpose or not.
PAM: Yes, exactly. So, when you frame it that way, but that’s another layer to peel back, is to recognize that framing. And our experience with our kids, with this new kind of dynamic with them, it really gives us the experience that this is a way we can live.
AKILAH: Exactly, exactly, Pam. It puts it into practice.
PAM: Yes. We can practice it. We can be in relationship with people like that out in the world, too.
AKILAH: Yes. That’s why I keep saying we are society. We are society, movement work, organizing, it happens in a variety of ways and the realization of that, the naming of that, is important.
So, I feel like a lot of my activism is in the home and it’s in my home, but it’s also in other people’s homes, because I share it. Somebody is listening to the podcast in their bathtub and it gives a big shift in how they’re in relationship with their kid when they get out of the tub. That’s moving the relationship as well, or somebody is listening on the train and movement is helpful for them to process their thoughts, as it is for a lot of us.
We get to normalize the idea that somebody doesn’t need to fit into a certain box in order for it to be okay, or that we don’t need to fit into a box to be okay, because we are society. A lot of schoolishness looks at society as a thing that you figure out how to fit into, to become a productive part of or a contributor to. But we are society. Society is made up of people and we’re people.
So, we may not be able to change the big thing out there. It often feels like that. I won’t be able to change this thing in the government or I might not be able to change the thing in this institution or this structure maybe, but I absolutely can change relationship.
And so, that’s what so heartening for me about the unschooling movement is that it doesn’t just challenge us to move away from, it challenges a re-imagining and a recognizing of the ways that you said that we could actually just be. I don’t need to be different to talk to you. I don’t need to sound different to talk to you.
What would it mean if I said a thing and you didn’t understand it and then you said, “What did that mean?” and I told you. You don’t have to pretend. Just those simple things for me, Pam, they are simple things, but they just didn’t occur to me in that way before in that schoolish mind. It’s almost like I didn’t have permission.
PAM: No permission, no choice, no agency. I think that is something that we come to recognize. Oh, the world’s not going to fall apart if I make a different choice. I don’t have to do the fit in paths. Because we just absorb the idea that, oh my gosh, if you don’t fit in, follow this one trajectory, your world is going to fall apart.
We come to recognize that, oh my gosh, I can make choices that fit better for me and my family, that feel better for us. And I can bring them with me out in the world. And you know what? I don’t mind a side-eye here or two, because that’s just a little seed planted that, look, I didn’t explode.
AKILAH: Exactly. No, really, really, really. That’s why it was so important for me in the title of my book to use the word healing. Healing. Unschooling has been healing work, because exactly that example you just gave of, I can take it out in the world. And what it means to show up more as myself in the world is healing, because hurt people hurt people. We know this. And this is why it’s important for me to name also the idea that in unschooling, you do not first have to be healed or deschooled or knowledgeable about whatever the hell before you do it, or before you call yourself that or before you actively explore it. That is a schoolish idea.
There’s no right curriculum. I get the question all the time, so then what do you do in unschooling as a curriculum? And I understand, especially if you haven’t been exposed to it, I understand the question, but I’m very excited about making that question weird. And by making it weird, it would mean that more people were really clear that unschooling meant that you were actually designing what made sense for you and that curricula could come and go, because it’s not that it needs to be devoid of it, but that we are not centering it or attached to it and that we have permission to experience. Even if we don’t know what would be different, experience is allowed. You can heal your way towards emergent structure, towards life design. You don’t have to have it first.
PAM: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I love that. There are just so many things popping in my head.
The thing is, I love the way you said you don’t have to center curriculum or anything, because people, when they come to unschooling, they are so fearful of being judged, too. Like, “I can’t use curriculum. I can’t touch it.” Yet, what the deschooling helps to do is, like we were talking about before, not valuing certain pieces of information or styles of presentation or anything, not valuing that above anything else. And what it comes back to is the relationships. The individuals, the people. Somebody wants to try it. Do they enjoy it? Do they like it that way? Conversations are generated just from that engagement with it and they can take it or leave it, no judgment, no value one way or the other, except for the value that it has to the person.
AKILAH: Exactly. Yes. And the capacity to have that be a vehicle for building trust, because that’s what a lot of unschooling is about. Because, when we talk about deschooling, especially for families whose children are in school, I think everyone can be deschooling, but specifically in the context of leaving school, sometimes, the curriculum can be useful, because that’s what you know as a form of observation.
So, you say, “All right. We’re still going to do this thing,” especially if it’s something that a child isn’t opposed to, but a day that they don’t do the thing you say, or they say, “Oh, this actually reminded me of this thing,” and they’re paying attention to how you react to that, whether you react or respond. Can they trust you with what they are discovering about themselves? Can they trust you with who they actually are?
Because typically, as a schooled parent, one of the things that we might not even recognize we do is we remove our trust. We are not trustworthy, because we only are talking to our children and talking about trust from the context of school or studenthood. I trust that you’re doing a good job, because you got an A. That’s how that’s connected. Or because the teacher said you weren’t disruptive, then I trust that you’re doing your job.
But if you tell me that you’re interested in, I don’t know, making YouTube videos about nail polish. And then I react like, “What the hell? How is that educational?” Or ask you questions that you know are about shutting your thing down, then one, I don’t trust you with what I’m interested in. And then I begin to not trust the thing I’m interested in, because it’s been invalidated by somebody in power in my life.
Sometimes it’s okay to be like, “Well, I don’t know where to start. Maybe we just do this homeschooling curriculum that my friend said was awesome.” Okay. But put it in front of them and say, “Tell me what you think about this. Are there parts that you like?” And listen, so that you can become trustworthy, because the more you do that, the less you have to guess about what they’re interested in, because you can tell either they’re going to give you words or you’re going to have body language, which is even better communication, because words can be so restrictive, but you basically get actual language and practice being in relationship with people and their interests, including your kids.
So, they trust that. Then curricula, if a kid wants that, because one of my kids was really into that, it can be designed based on interest and trust, as opposed to coercion and lack of consent and outside ideas.
PAM: Absolutely. It’s just about choice. It’s just about exploration. They’re learning. They’re learning about the thing as much as they want to, but they’re learning so much about themselves and how they want to explore something.
I want to take your question asking, because you talk about that in the book, too, these mad question-asking skills, and I think that’s where it’s at, because, to your point completely, that’s where the trust is built. Not only is that where we learn more about them and the things they’re interested in and that’s all lovely. But the foundation of your relationship is built there. That trust, that respect, that curiosity about them as a human being and the ways we can support and help and all those beautiful, beautiful things.
It’s just so important, like you were saying, to not assume that our way is the right way, not to judge that they want to make this video about nail polish, and instead ask the kinds of questions that just really open up the conversation. And I found so often, certainly at the beginning, that I had so many preconceived judgments, that when they would come with that suggestion, I’d be like, oh my gosh. Where’s the value in that?
AKILAH: Totally. Totally. Or try to take it over. My thing was, “Well, yeah, but then if you do this, this and this,” I would just take it over. And then I was like, why don’t they want to talk to me?
Completely. And yeah, mad question-asking. And shout out to Notorious B.I.G., it’s from his song. But it’s so important, because we ask questions of them. And also, to your point earlier, Pam, about so much of it being our work, we ask questions of ourselves. Why do I need this to look like this? I wonder why I invalidated that when I recall that when I said this thing to my dad and he did this, it really hurt me. I wonder. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. What if? How come? Asking for ourselves, not necessarily to them. Because oftentimes my questions come from my reaction to something.
I’ve talked a lot about the things, like when my oldest was like, “Can you knock instead of just opening my room door?” I almost flipped out from such a simple question, because, “Back in my day, if I told my mom …” and I was able to just question my way to just apologizing to my kid, like, “Bruh, that was not even about you. Here’s what happened, blah, blah, blah, blah.” All of these things.
And then she was telling me how she had actually thought about it for months and that dad had been knocking for the longest and that it was really me, but she didn’t know how to approach. And I was like, ooh, but even her telling me that was about trust, because she trusted that she could tell me what was going on for her way after the thing had happened, but it was such a moment for us.
This was years ago and we both still talk about what that did for our relationship, because I didn’t go into the mode of, “When I finally got my own room, I couldn’t close my door,” all this stuff. It’s like, what the hell does that even have to do with anything?
PAM: I know.
It’s so much our layers to peel back, but it feels good to do that work and to recognize the baggage that we’re bringing forward and to recognize it’s a choice and to actually think about it, ask ourselves questions, and say, “Who do I want to be?”
AKILAH: And that’s the liberation in there, right? It frees you from this idea of who you’ve been over to the practice of who you want to be, how you want to be, how you want to be in relationship. Who you are in your society, including the one at home. Am I the person that everyone’s tiptoeing around? Are they lying to me, not that the lying is okay, but what are the dynamics in play here that make that feel like the safest option for my kid, as opposed to, why are they being a liar and how can I fix the lying? All these different things that you get to be like, oh! I feel like I learned to ask better questions.
Because I still have a ton of questions, but they’re just better questions.
PAM: They are. Something that I think was in the Network we talked about recently, don’t ask questions that you know the answer to. That would be an early step. Oh, I peel back that layer. If I know that answer, I’ve got some ulterior motive behind that question. It’s not just, I’m curious about what’s going on.
The other piece that you mentioned in passing there that I wanted to pull out is, when we’re in a relationship with other people, it is common for things to go a bit sideways. Like when we’re asking questions, maybe they take them a different way than we intended, or they go in a direction that’s really unexpected for us and that is totally okay. I remember reading an attachment parenting book a while ago now. It said about 50% of our interactions with our kids go a little bit sideways and that’s okay. It’s the reconnecting, the moving through that, the repair piece. That’s where the trust is built.
If everything’s going easily, yeah, sure, everything’s great. It’s when something goes a little bit squirrely for a moment, being willing to walk back in and say, “That wasn’t about you at all. That was about something else from the past. I thought about it for a minute,” or whatever, but that’s where real conversation lives. Isn’t it?
AKILAH: Yeah. It is.
PAM: We have to learn more about ourselves and ask ourselves questions, so we understand ourselves enough that we can come to those conversations with some of that knowledge.
AKILAH: Yes. And it’s the skill sets that that builds, because we’re humans together. We are peopling together. So, no matter who the other person is, they’re not you. So, there will be differences. That’s pretty normal. That’s another thing that I think is very like unnatural, but very normalized and very schoolish, the idea that things fit. Everything fits into a thing and that if we just say the right things at the right point with the right therapist and the right books, then our relationships will be some idea of what relationships are supposed to be.
And the reality is that even that idea of things being sideways, that’s just nature. Things go in all the different directions. That’s important.
I’ve been so excited about the ways that Raising Free People work is showing up in spaces that I didn’t even think of and one of them is in recovery spaces where people are really talking about how I’m saying it’s not necessarily about having this perfect end result. It’s the skill sets that you build for your moment-by-moment practice. It’s not about this destination.
We do this destination peddling. It’s not about a destination. When things are off, when things are awry, when a conversation goes all the way south, not even a little bit sideways, like upside down, flip it, all of it, break it open, the skill sets that we develop, even if we are not able to use them to repair that particular conversation or relationship, are now skills that we have, skills that we need, skills that are really, really atrophied in our society because of schoolishness and colonization and all of these other things.
We get to learn, for example, to be okay with discomfort, to be okay with like, I’m going to ask my kids something and they’re going to make that face and I’m not going to make it about, “Well, why did you react that way?” We recently did this fix-your-face parenting challenge, where if it wasn’t about them needing to show up perfectly, too, because I’m only doing that with kids, because if you were upset, I couldn’t be like, “Pam, I don’t like how your face is looking. It’s making me uncomfortable. Fix it.” These are some of the things that we actually do. And that’s normal to us. Another parent isn’t like, “Why would you do that?”
But we now develop the skill to say, wait a minute, if they are actually honoring in this instance, they did actually take out the trash. Yes. They didn’t even take their headphones off and they didn’t give me eye contact. So, what? So, who am I? The queen? But it’s a real thing. It’s not even such a small example, because a lot of discord in the home is about chores, for example.
And really, it’s not about the chore. It’s about the idea of an attitude. The idea that, if I’m at my job and my boss tells me to do some BS, I can’t make my face up. So, I don’t want you to do that, because you need to get a good job. It’s tied to so many things that we don’t even recognize when the kid is like, “Who wants to take out the trash? Who is excited about taking out the trash? Not me. What do you need from me?”
So then, if I am practiced in not needing people to perform for my emotional spectrum, that may never change that dynamic between me and my kid, but I now have that practice, that skill, that I can apply in all the other human spaces where I will need to understand how to be okay with someone not performing niceties for me.
PAM: Yes. I love that. I love that. You peel that back. It’s getting comfortable with ourselves and not seeing other people’s reactions, choices, et cetera, as a judgment of us or something that we need to fix. Especially when we’re talking about our kids, we worry so much that we need to train them, like, “Oh, don’t react like that, because you can’t react like that in this situation.” That shows so little respect for their understanding of the situation they’re in.
AKILAH: It does. It does.
PAM: They will know. When they’re at work, they understand the context and the choice. They will have thought about why they chose that work.
AKILAH: Yes. And you can speak to them about that. Those are better questions, as opposed to, “Why are you doing that?” It’s like, “What are your thoughts around that? What upset you about that? What do you think about what happened there?” A lot of times, they will know and they will be able to offer us context and we can also give our opinion without making it the law.
That’s the other thing that I’m seriously still unlearning, with my kids, my perspective, if they trust me, it doesn’t mean that that’s the thing they’re going to do or that they agree or that that’s even the point of the conversation. It’s that I’m learning to trust their ecologies, as well. And I am part of that, but I’m not it.
PAM: Yes. Yes. That is a place we get to in the relationship that’s wonderful, where we can share our perspective, our opinion, what it looks like to us, without the expectation that they need to agree. They feel empowered to listen, to hear what we say, to consider what we say, and then make the choice that works best for them.
AKILAH: Exactly. That’s the real metric. One of the things I hear, and I’m sure you get this often, too, and tell me if you don’t, people are essentially looking for measurements, like metrics, like, “How do you know it’s working?” How do I know? And I remember having that question early on, too, like, are we doing this right? What is this even? Before I even heard about the term unschooling, what are we doing?
The metrics are in things like that. It is measurable and it’s measurable not in the grade that they’re getting or how they perform in comparison to other people, but are they listening? Do they want to listen to you? Do they want to offer insights? Those sorts of things. Do they know that you are going to treat them not as a thing to occupy or to fill with information, but really there’s reciprocity, where it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t even factor that in.” Or, “I still feel how I feel, but I’m really glad that we’re able to be in communication about this.” It’s such a different vibe, you know?
PAM: It is. And we do get that question a lot. For me, I just try to point them back to the relationship. It really is about, look at the relationship. Are you feeling connected? Is there trust? And then, if you’re worried, “Am I doing enough? Is this really working?” it’s time to focus back on the relationship, because chances are you’ve disconnected a little bit and you’re busy with your things. And absolutely, that happens sometimes. Again, it’s not the judgment. Because when they say, “Am I doing it wrong?” you can feel the judgment and the worry in that.
PAM: But refocus on connection. What you were talking about before, it’s not about deliverables, per se, when you’re talking about how do we measure it? It’s the process. It’s looking at the relationships, the connection, et cetera. I love that piece and bringing it back to that.
And, in that trust piece, too, in our conversations, it’s important that they be able to call us out, to be able to tell us when things are looking squirrely or are just not feeling right to them, because that’s the point.
AKILAH: That’s education. Yes. That is education. It’s kind of tongue in cheek or maybe elbow to the side, I’m like, yeah. Real education. But for me, those are the ways that I define education. They educate me. I sometimes educate them, because we are in relationships.
And when you are in relationship, in right relationship, education is this mutual, natural thing that you can’t stop it if you wanted to. It’s just a by-product of being in relationship, in right relationship, because you can be in all kinds of relationships. You really get to notice what to do. It is emergent. You don’t determine it upfront. You learn how to listen for that person in that time where they are in that moment. They learn to listen to you, because it is so dynamic.
Like nature, it is changing. It has its seasons. It has its ways. And the skillsets of unschooling are to learn to be with those, not to have some, again, ultimate destination or outcome where you and your kids are like, “Oh my god, I love you all the time.” No, it’s actually the opposite. It’s when you’re both like, “What?!” but you can still be in healthy relationship with each other, because you have the skill sets to trust your practice together, to trust that you could be in your corner of the house and you’re in your corner for three days, because you’re stewing and you’re processing, and then you come back together without weaponizing your emotions, because you’ve had that practice. You’ve had the time.
These are the skills that I think we are just starting to talk about on a large scale, because we are not so occupied with schooling in the same way, which came from this massive pandemic. Oh my god. Who would have thought? But it has those elements, those breaking aparts that I think we needed, because more people are now looking at their children outside of the context of studenthood because they have to.
So, then it opens us up to, “Who are we with each other? What is communication looking like for whatever’s next?” Because the idea of going back to the normal, though some of us are clinging to that, many of us are not. And when we are not, that’s often an invitation to notice the things that are actually re-humanizing our relationships and to say, “Oh, that felt really good that my kid is actually talking to me today or that I actually want to talk to them today, because they don’t keep cutting me off, because I learned a part of why they do that is because I interrupt them.”
We’re just noticing differently. And I’m really excited about that, because we will then begin to move out of these little colonies of who people should or shouldn’t be, like you said, the judgment, and to say, “Oh, it’s just that I don’t know how to be when I don’t feel like I’m being held in a certain level of power.”
So much of it is really about power and privilege in that way. And, with our children, when they get to call us out, that is the education of how we are probably with other people too, not just with them.
PAM: Yeah. I love the way you were describing that process. Two things, because number one, you were talking about the destination. And I think another layer we peel back is to realize, it’s not about, okay, let’s try and fix all these things. How do I need to be so we can finally be in this place where we’re all nice and happy and la-la-la-la-la. And to realize, not only is that unrealistic, but life is in the everyday. We’re living while in this moment, even if this moment isn’t particularly comfortable. Sitting with that discomfort for a while, because you learn from it.
You ask yourself those questions. Why am I uncomfortable with that? Where is that coming from? And then you can bring that back into the conversations and the questions. And that that is life. That’s where we’re living right now.
AKILAH: Absolutely. Absolutely, Pam. Yes. Yes. And it’s really powerful personal leadership work embedded in there. It really is powerful personal leadership work, because, as you said, it’s not about the la-la-la.
It’s about the moment by moment. And that’s the value of education. There are times when it’s about, “Oh, I need to take a step back. I need to slow down.” And then there are other times where it’s like, “No. I choose this one. My practice is to speak up here. My feelings are valid in this room and my work here is to convey that.” That, to me, is what moves it out of process and over into practice, because practice includes process.
PAM: And I’m just going to throw another P word in there, because for me, what I love is to approach it with a playfulness, as in, “Today, I’m choosing to speak.” I don’t need to think that, “Today, I’m choosing to speak up, so this is me forever. And I need to notice every time I need to speak up.” No. This is a moment. In the moment, I’m making this choice. Let’s see how it plays out. Let’s see how it unfolds. Let’s see how it feels. And next time I’m in a situation, whatever next fricking moment, I can make another choice.
AKILAH: Yeah. Let’s see how it feels, that really stuck out for me. Let’s see how it feels. That permission, just to offer oneself that permission. Let’s see how this feels, because maybe I need another approach or maybe I knew that it was going to be uncomfortable, but let’s see how it feels. Let’s see how I process this discomfort this time. Let’s see how I feel a couple of hours from now as I’m really sitting with, “Yes. I said that and everybody in the room is like, what?”
Our imagination, the fears and the costs, that’s why I call the podcast Fare of the Free Child. It’s F-A-R-E. It’s like the cost. Sometimes a thing that we construct for all the reasons. And then other times it’s, yeah, that’s the real cost, but can I continue to afford keeping still or being quiet or not seeing what I need or retaliating every time, whatever the thing is?
PAM: I want to jump in and say, let’s take that back to your relationship with your kids, because so often, especially newer parents can be like, “Oh, but if I say yes to them, the cost of that yes is now I need to say that yes every single time moving forward.” No. You’re playing with it. Let’s say the yes and let’s see how it goes, lean into it, appreciate the moments.
AKILAH: Yes. Love that.
PAM: We’ll see how it feels and then I can make another choice next time. But I know more now to bring to the conversation, to bring to the questions the next time we’re chatting about it.
AKILAH: Yep. I’ve now got the skills from this thing. I pulled some skillsets.
PAM: I love that. I love that. Okay. So, we could talk forever. Thank you so much, Akilah. But one last question for you.
What is your favorite thing about your unschooling days right now?
AKILAH: I think I said it.
I’m noticing the ways that lots of families, just lots of people are like, “Oh, wait a minute. I like how this feels that my kid is doing this or not doing that.” That’s currently my favorite thing, the openings, the unravelings, as I call them in the book, these different unravelings that are happening now, that is currently my favorite thing, because then it allows us to recognize that we can decide and design differently.
I’m so encouraged and heartened and excited and ready for that to continue, like, yes. Question it, boo. Question it. You were wrong. They trippin. What happens now?
PAM: I love that. I love that so much. Thank you. Thank you, Akilah, for taking the time to speak with me today. It was so much fun.
AKILAH: It was, Pam. You are so welcome. Thank you, too.
PAM: Thank you. Before we go, where can people connect with you online? I’ll put links to your books on there, but do you have a preference for where people connect with you?
AKILAH: Yeah. My main online home is RaisingFreePeople.com. So, you can find all of the things there, including my podcast and Fare of the Free Child is available wherever you listen to podcasts. And my book, Raising Free People: Unschooling as Liberation and Healing Work is also available through the website or directly through our publishers over at PM Press.
PAM: That is awesome. Thank you so much, Akilah, and have a wonderful day!
AKILAH: You are welcome. Thank you, Pam. This was fun.
PAM: So fun. Bye.