PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Fran Liberatore. Hi, Fran!
FRAN: Hi. Thank you for having me.
PAM: It’s my pleasure. I’ve been really enjoying reading around on your blog, some articles that you’ve written, and I’m loving following you on Instagram. So, I’m really looking forward to learning a bit more about your unschooling journey. To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family? And I’d love to know, what’s everybody into right now!
FRAN: Yes. So, we’re fairly new unschoolers. We’ve been going for about two years. My kids are seven and ten, so they did go to school, but I’ve been reading about unschooling since I was pregnant with my daughter. And I just read about home education in the newspaper. And I was like, oh, okay. It’s a thing. In Italy, where I grew up, it’s not a thing. Or at least it wasn’t when I was growing up.
And so, then I researched and read John Holt’s books. So, we sort of set out unschooling, actually, initially. We’ve had several moves in the past few years. And then I just sent my daughter to a Montessori school when she was six. So, she was home with me until she was six and then she went to school and then her brother went and then, once you’re in the system, it’s like, you’re in it. It’s hard to get out.
PAM: Life is full of this energy. Just move forward, keep moving forward.
FRAN: Yeah. For sure. So then, when COVID hit where we were at the time, their school shut. And so, that was kind of my chance. I’d been waiting for a chance to do it. And we tried it and we’re loving it. My son was all over it from the start. My daughter was, I think, eight when I took her out. So, she was kind of into school. And so, we just thought we’d give it a year.
And I said to her, “It’s okay. I get that you want to go back to school after this year. It’s fine, but let’s just give it a year with COVID and everything.” School wasn’t going to reopen anyway. They were doing online learning, which she wasn’t into. And now she’s fine. She doesn’t want to go back, but I would have been open. I would have been sad, but I would have been open for her to go back, obviously, if that’s what she wanted. But anyway, now they’re both like, “We don’t want to ever go. Don’t ever send us.” So, I’m like, okay.
You asked me what they were into. So, my son who’s seven, he is into music massively at the moment. And he goes in stages of like obsession with something, which I’ve noticed is actually what a lot of kids do. It’s not like, “Ooh, I’ll do a bit of this and then a bit of this, and then a bit of that, 30 minutes every day.” He’s just obsessed with rock music at the moment.
So, he has a guitar and he plays it, but he doesn’t play it in the way that an adult will recognize it as playing. However, in his head, he’s playing it. For him, he’s playing it, so whatever. And he listens to a lot of rock music. He’s really into ACDC and Van Halen. Who even knew? I didn’t even know about them. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock or something. But anyway, he sings a lot and just everything is music for him right now. This is his main thing, but he also loves to be outdoors and he loves to move. He’s moves a lot, which is great.
And my daughter has always been into history, right from the beginning. So, she’ll read anything that’s a history book. And then, she’s really into doing crafts, but not crafts that I organize. And I don’t even try anymore, but like just crafts that she wants to do. Like, “I want to make this thing,” and then she goes and does it, and she doesn’t want me to help. And then she wants to teach me how to do it, which I love. So, she’ll learn how to do it and then she’ll sit me down and be like, “Right, I’m going to teach you how to do this craft.” And I love crafting, so it’s like heaven for me. And I love being taught, because I quite like being like led in some spheres. So, yeah. It works out.
She’s a huge reader. She’s always been. She reads everything. They both love Minecraft at the moment. That’s kind of their go-to thing whenever they’re playing a game or whatever. And they play together a lot, as well, which is nice. One of them is screaming there in the background.
PAM: That sounds like so much fun. And totally, it is so fun when our kids are excited to share something with us. They want to show us how to do it. They want to show us how they did it. But they want to figure it out themselves, often. One isn’t better than the other. Some kids will want to figure it out together or might want us to figure it out. And because we know how they like to take information in, they like us to show them, etc. But that’s the piece where we get to learn about them, what makes them tick, how they like to approach things. So, giving them that space without putting our preferences on top of it, it’s just so fun to watch, and to participate in.
FRAN: Yeah, absolutely. I love that. That’s one of my favorite things. I think that, as soon as my kids realized that I wasn’t going to teach them, and they realized gradually, because actually, it was a long period of deschooling especially for me at the very beginning. But when they did realize that actually I wasn’t going to be doing that, then they got really busy just doing things themselves and exploring the things they wanted to do, and not doing the things that they didn’t want to do.
And then, you get these moments where they’re like, “Oh, I want to talk you through this artwork,” or whatever the kids will say to me. And then I’ll sit down and they’ll teach me. They’re watching lots of mystery science videos and they learn so much from these videos. And then they’ll come to me and they’ll tell me the whole video with the details and all the names and everything, things that I have no idea. Wow. I’m amazed at these things. I love that. It’s like reverse teaching, but that’s how they’re learning.
PAM: That’s how they’re processing it all, putting it all together. It’s another stage, another step in the process. My son and I were talking about it last night. It’s fascinating how you can be thinking very deeply about something and think you figured it out, but taking that next stage to talk to somebody about it, even just to explain what you’re thinking, more connections invariably pop into place as you’re trying to put it together verbally.
So, I’m also curious what you’re into right now.
FRAN: Oh well, I love to sew. I just got my sewing machine. We moved recently and it just arrived yesterday. What else do I like? I like to take long walks. That’s kind of my Zen time. I take long walks and I listen to a podcast or sometimes I don’t listen to anything. Or hikes. We’re in Maine now. So, the hiking is just amazing, which I love. And I love to read and I love to write. Those are my things.
Now, the next question is basically about how you discovered unschooling and what your move to unschooling looked like. You’ve touched on that a bit with it starting with the pandemic and the kids coming home then. And you mentioned the deschooling phase a little bit. Do you have a couple more stories or insights to share about what the beginning of that journey was like?
I loved your point about the kids. First, they knew they were home, but that next stage when they realized, “Oh, I really do have agency over it. I’m not going to be told or taught specifically,” and then noticing them taking more ownership and more agency just over their time and really saying, “Oh, I am free to explore.” So, I thought that was really a cool observation about it.
I think when I thought of unschooling, I just thought we would carry on as we were. But actually, I realized that I had so much work to do, even though I’d been reading all the books. It’s one thing to read all the books and it’s quite another thing to actually live it. It’s a lot less glamorous to live it. There’s more mundane-ness to it. But you do have those moments of just wonder, as well. And it’s just an entirely different thing.
But anyways, so when I took them out of school, I think I started to realize that actually the way I had related to them was maybe not the way I had originally wanted to. Our relationships needed work, basically, especially with my daughter. Because my son is neurodivergent and he has a lot of needs and he’s very vocal about them, I’ve always had a very close relationship with him, whereas my daughter is quieter and more easygoing.
I say that because you’re kind of forced into easygoing-ness sometimes, as a kid, because she can really sense, she can look at my face and sense what I’m thinking. So, she senses moments when I’m looking like I can’t handle what she’s bringing to me. And so, she then becomes easy-going. She becomes the easy child. She’ll go off and be easy. And I started to realize that, I think, just from spending more time together.
And I had long chats with her about how I didn’t think that I’d done the best that I could. Or I’d done the best that I could in that moment, but how I’m looking back, I would like to do better going forward. And so, we had long conversations about how I understood why sometimes she didn’t feel she could fully trust me. It was really quite hard stuff, I think, for me and her to realize that actually I could have done better.
PAM: Because you know more now.
FRAN: I see this now. I’d like to change things, basically.
So, I wrote her a whole list of points of what I was going to do, what I was going to try and do going forward, things like I felt like I’d been too judgmental. I felt very judged growing up and I explained to her, sometimes things that are done to us when we’re children, when we grow up and become adults, we then do those same things to our kids without even realizing. And so, we had that conversation. And so, I wrote her down things that I was going to try and work on moving forward. But my last point was also like, I’m human. I had the childhood that I had, which was fine, but it was an average kind of childhood and I will be making mistakes.
PAM: I love that, Fran. What was fascinating to me just as you were sharing that story, the little bits that clicked into place. You having mentioned before how much your daughter loves reading. So, your letter or written format to communicate with her fit beautifully with who she is, for her to have that with her. And when we write down our intentions, that last point about, “I’m human.” We don’t want to set ourselves up for failure or for disappointment in their eyes, too. But we can share. It’s personal to the individual and to the relationship, but to share that that’s kind of what we’re aiming for.
So often, our kids are so beautifully capable of taking that in and actually helping us. If they know this is what we’re aiming for and they feel judged. For example, “I’m feeling judged in this moment. You didn’t want to do that,” that they’re comfortable to mention that. They can be so helpful for us on our journey when they feel empowered through those conversations and that letter to help us in that way. But also, understanding that we’re human.
And I think it’s really important, too, sharing the piece about our childhood or just our experiences and how they play into our choices, so that they realize that our tendency to judgment isn’t about them and what they’re doing, but it’s so much about our previous experiences. So, even when we maybe misstep, which we will do, for them to understand that it’s not about them, that it’s more about us. And it’s something that we’re working on. That is just so beautiful.
FRAN: Yeah. I mean, I think so. And I cling on onto that, because I constantly feel so imperfect and just saying things and then being like, “Oh, why did I say that?” And just looking back at things. And I don’t mean this in like I’m constantly negatively talking to myself. I mean, I do. But I’m conscious now and I try not to or try to change that. I just mean it in the sense that we all are. All of us have a history and all of us have things that we do that we don’t quite know why we do them and do things unconsciously and think back and think, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that,” or whatever.
I think it’s okay to show up like that and I’ve found that if I show up like that, then it’s easier for them to also show up like that.
PAM: They’re more aware of that.
I like to use the word human more than some version of perfect or imperfect, because it’s not about striving to be perfect, which is some sort of outside-of-us vision, but the awareness piece to understand ourselves more and to understand the different pieces and where they come from, those help us in the moment. Those are internal. Those are our vision of who we are and who we would like to be moving forward. That’s more of an internal vision and inner voice and showing up and just maybe more transparently living alongside our kids. So, they see that we’re working at those things, that, “Oh, I’m a little disappointed about this,” XYZ, whatever it is.
And seeing us think through that a little bit, seeing us go, “Oh, you know what? Next time I’m going to try this.” Even if my kids aren’t interested in a conversation about it, me just mentioning it here and there lets them see. Because so often, adults are held up as the perfect version that kids are supposed to grow into. That we know all the things, et cetera. So, to just live a real human existence beside them, I think just lets them be more human, too.
FRAN: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. I think it leaves more space. Also admitting that you failed at something, making failure not a negative word, but just simply it didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. And that’s okay. And I think both of my kids are on the more perfectionist side of personality and it would be easy to just blame that on school and maybe school had something to do with it, but I’m sure it’s just part of them, too. And we’re definitely trying to work on that, because I’m like that, too. Who am I to judge?
PAM: I was going to say, so often, they’re a beautiful mirror, aren’t they?
FRAN: Yes. And I think that is what’s so constantly triggering about having children is that you’re seeing the bits of yourself that you don’t want to see and also that you don’t want them to have. You want them to be better than you. I’ve gotten sort of past that now, because I’m like, we’re all our own people. We’re all on our own journeys.
But I think, traditionally, or at least the way I was raised, it was like, you’re going to be better than me. Parents were like, “No, no, no, don’t do this. You do this, because you want to be better. You want to make better choices.” It’s a lot of pressure on a child.
PAM: I know. There’s just so much of that. Okay. So, that leads us so beautifully into our next question all of a sudden. Because that really was one of the first things I really began to unpack is how much we judge and control children. Almost like adults-in-training, like we want you to be better. We want you to make better choices than we did.
As an adult, it’s our opportunity to help our kids not make all the same mistakes that we think we made toward our vision of what the perfect adult is. And you’ve written about this as the adult gaze. So, I’d love for you to talk a bit more about that and what that means to you.
FRAN: Yes. It is that. It’s our constant need to give feedback and judge, essentially, in the hope that that will suddenly make children realize, “Oh. No. I don’t want to be like that. I’ll just be like what they’re saying I should be.” It just doesn’t really work like that.
But I don’t know. I think it’s just a thing that’s been perpetuated through the generations. Like, this is how an adult behaves toward a child. I see it now so much more than I ever did, just going around in the world and seeing the way adults interact with my children. They don’t speak to them like they would speak to an adult. It’s all really about asking questions and then giving their opinion about my children’s answer to that question. Like, “Shouldn’t you be doing this?” or whatever. It’s like, why are you speaking to them like that? You would never get away with doing that to an adult.
And even the positive, often I’ll get people saying to me, “Oh, you’ve done such a great job. These children are so outgoing and kind and thoughtful.” And it’s great and it comes from a place of wanting to tell me that they think my kids are great or whatever. I actually had one person who said to me, “I hate children. I’m just not a child person. Just hate them.” She said, “I’m allergic to children.” But she said, “But I can actually talk to your children. So, I quite like them.” I was like, wait. Rewind.
There’s this idea that we are in charge of forming an opinion on any given child. Any child that we see, we have to have an opinion on. We can’t let that child live and just be, like we do with adults. Maybe we judge adults, too, but we don’t go to them and tell them, for one. And second of all, they’re adults. It doesn’t impact them in the same way. There isn’t the same imbalance of power. So, when an adult says something to a child, that stays with the child. It really does. It can stay for decades if it’s something that’s harsh enough.
I still remember things from my childhood. I came home one day and I was like, “Mommy! I want to start a travel agency when I grow up. I want to travel around the world and see places,” and my mom looked at me and she was like, “You can do better than that.” This has stayed with me. I must have been 10, maximum. And it really stayed with me. And I was like, “Oh yes. I can’t do that. That’s not good enough.”
PAM: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. And I love your point, too. Once you see that lens that other adults are wearing, you can’t un-see it anymore. They bring so much to all their interactions with children and you just see it so clearly, the judgment, the expectations. And it’s weird when, as you were saying, another adult is praising your children to you. And you know it’s only because they fit into their box of what they’re expecting and that’s just a fluke.
It just happens that my children and who they are fits into that particular person’s view of what they’re expecting or what they’re hoping for when they engage with a child. And you almost want to go, “But, no.” Because it’s almost an affirmation of their view. And you’re like, “But, no. Your view is so fixed, so controlled. It’s just random that my child fits. My child isn’t trying to fit into your view.”
FRAN: And just at that moment, when you spoke to them that day.
PAM: Exactly. They just happened to be in a place in that moment that fit. Yeah. That’s another great point, as well.
So, it’s just fascinating when we see adults interacting with kids. And that’s where you also see so much of the school-ish view, too, as you were saying. The questions like, “What grade are you in? What subject do you like the most?” All the questions. And, as you said, they’re just waiting for an answer. They don’t really often relate it to the individual. They don’t see the child as a person. They’re just waiting for the answer to react to.
FRAN: Yeah. It’s like they have a view of children and they’re asking the questions to confirm that view in their head, because they don’t care what subject that child loves most. They don’t. That’s just the question they ask all children. So, they can’t possibly care about the answer to that question.
PAM: Yeah. And they’re not going to meet the child with that answer. At most, they’re going to say, “Well, my favorite subject was,” with their response. “Oh, of course you like gym,” just some sort of judgment or something about them that they want to share, at most, is the motivation behind the question. Not that it doesn’t happen, but most often, they are not looking to learn about the child and meet the child for who they are as a person and ask them more about that subject. No. Usually, it’s just making conversation.
And that is one of the top adult things, and I’ve done this too, is you don’t want the child to show up as messy, and imperfect, and sad, or having any strong emotions, or any negative feelings or whatever. No. You want them to be polite and quiet-ish, but lively.
PAM: Exactly! In just the right moments.
FRAN: Exactly. Sociable and like, “Don’t interrupt,” but they like to have a conversation, all those things. We have that box that we’ve decided, these are the things that good children do. And so, when they’re screaming and thrashing and throwing things or whatever, we’re suddenly like, “Whoa. Is this child a bad child?”
Now, my sister is wonderful and actually we share a lot of ideas, but when she had just had a newborn, at the beginning or whatever, newborns don’t do anything that is outrageous. They’re just gonna cry, eat, whatever. Anyway, so we were on holiday and my son, who was maybe three at the time, so he was tiny, now that I think of it. He picked up a ball and threw it at the baby. And obviously, I had a chat with him, whatever. But she was horrified. She was like, “How could you have produced a child that would throw a ball at a baby?” Because I think we imbue the child with adult intentions, like if an adult threw a ball at a baby on purpose, that would be problematic. But a three-year-old, who knows what’s going on there?
PAM: He wants to play.
FRAN: Yeah, exactly. Who knew what he was thinking? Or maybe that was his emotion about having a baby in the family and he can’t handle it. And that’s how he showed it, because he didn’t have the words. So, there’s so many things, but yes, we do have those. We have a preconceived idea of what children should be. And I think that’s where we go wrong, really.
I’ve been studying. I’m doing a master’s in early years education and I’ve been studying this week and reading up on the image of the child and how a lot of the early year’s provision in schools or whatever, the way that we relate to children derives from the way we see them, from our conception of them. So obviously, if we conceive the child as a blank slate, say, that we need to impart all our knowledge to them and it will be imprinted in their brain and they will become us or whatever, then we’re going to do it in a certain way. We’re going to educate them in a certain way.
But there’s different conceptions, like, some people see children as going through stages and then that would justify having a curriculum that, by three years old, you have to know this, you have to do this. By four years old, you know that. And I think that’s the root. I mean, there are many roots. But I feel like this is one of the roots of the issue around education is that we fundamentally don’t see the child as capable.
We don’t see the child as a full, whole, complex human that is worth listening to. And we don’t see the child as capable of constructing their own learning and constructing their own identity. Because if we did, we wouldn’t be saying these things. We wouldn’t be doing the things we’re doing in schools, even in home education, in some cases. We wouldn’t be doing the things that we’re doing.
PAM: And parenting.
FRAN: And parenting. Yeah.
PAM: Yeah. Exactly. I love that. For me, that was just one of the really eye-opening things of coming to unschooling and really choosing to dive into this and choosing to look at my children. It was amazing, flabbergasting, to see how capable they were, essentially.
They were, at young ages, capable of taking in what was going on around them, taking in the circumstances, making choices on the fly. And when you realize, thinking back to when they were babies and toddlers, they are capable of communicating their needs. They’re capable of trying things over and over and over and over to gain experience to learn new pieces of whatever it is that they’re interested in figuring out, that determination, that drive, that curiosity, and noticing that. It’s been us that have been getting in the way of it.
When, as they start walking around, we start saying “no” more. “No. That’s going to be messy.” “No, I’m tired.” Whatever it is, not that there should never be no’s. We’re not making blanket statements that way, but just the realization that, so often, cutting off their ability to be capable was actually from us, something that we were doing, that we were getting in the way of, that we were stopping. So, to start giving it more space and watching, instead of judging.
It may definitely look different than the choices that we’d make in that situation or we wish they’d make or want them to make, et cetera. But they’re still so capable of making choices and figuring things out. And then we see that they’re doing it in a way that makes sense to them. And that we’re starting to understand that because they really like reading, this way of communicating makes sense. The choices that they’re making just make so much sense through their eyes. It’s just so eye-opening.
FRAN: It’s really not about us.
FRAN: Yeah. For sure.
And also, I think, part of the whole adult gaze thing is also the way we constantly praise children, because actually it seems like a positive thing. But it isn’t. It’s so manipulative. And I think I probably did it at the very beginning until I read some books. I thought I should not and try to stop, which it’s actually quite hard to stop praising. You’ve grown up doing that. I’m sure I was doing that as a teenager to younger children or whatever, because you hear it and then you just repeat it.
But yeah, I feel like some kids are more susceptible, as well, than others. And I know, for example, that my daughter, when she was in school and even at home, she’s very receptive to praise. So, she will see who’s giving it and why they’re giving it and then try and do that thing to get more of it. And I think that seems harmless, but I think it can be really dangerous. I think that can be a really dangerous way of losing yourself. And then just doing things because you are good at them or because someone is telling you you’re good at them or is praising you for them. And so, you’re getting recognition or whatever, and then you do those things and then you kind of forget what it is you really enjoy doing.
PAM: It’s like someone else’s voice takes over their inner voice. It’s harder for them to hear the things that they would like to do, because with that praise there, that reinforcement, it’s like, “Oh, I should do that and I should do that.” And so, then they end up going all sorts of places that maybe they wouldn’t naturally do. And it’s not horrible or anything, but they will eventually, most likely, need to take the time to, at some point, figure out their own inner voice.
FRAN: I’ve spoken to a lot of people on Instagram, just on chat, on DMs, about how they felt they lost their inner compass through schooling or whatever, being parented a certain way. Because they just followed what other people were saying about them and lost touch with what they actually enjoyed and what they wanted to do. And also the fact that, if you’re good at something, it doesn’t mean you should be doing it, if you don’t like it. Nobody ever told me that growing up.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a big thing and ingrained in that is the performance aspect, that one should be producing, one should be performing at a high level. And if you’re not really good at it, then you shouldn’t do it. So, when you find the things that you’re good at, that’s what you should be doing. It can be completely different than what you want to be doing. And that whole performance piece is yet another big layer. Performance and productivity, all that piece, to peel back. That’s another big one.
PAM: I wanted to also touch on systems as a whole.
We’ve talked about the education system a bit. And I think what often it boils down to, and we’ve touched on it a few times now, is that adult/child power dynamic and seeing how ubiquitous power is, all around us. And it doesn’t take long until we start questioning all sorts of different systems that are in our lives.
We hear it so often on the podcast. It’s like, all of a sudden, I’m questioning everything. Like, “I just took my kids out of school. That’s it! I just wanted to homeschool them!” And then, all of a sudden, once you question one thing, you realize, “Oh, I have so much choice.” I think it boils down to, I have so much choice in my life, so that all the things that I learned or absorbed growing up really can be questioned. It’s a fascinating piece.
Like you mentioned earlier, deschooling, how much deschooling affects you, once you start realizing all the different systems and conventional wisdom that you can question.
FRAN: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s a huge part of it that you don’t expect, because you’re just thinking, oh, school. Take them out of school, whatever. We’ll just do the thing. But then, yes, you start to question everything. I mean, if you’re going to question the authority of the school system, then you might as well question the authority of all other systems.
And I think there’s a huge link between realizing that your children are whole, capable humans deserving of respect and realizing that all children, not just yours, but all other children are also the same—and all people. So, I don’t think you can separate that. This is when unschooling becomes so much more. I know that fundamentally it’s growing without school and learning without school. Sure. But it’s so much more than that in actual reality, once you start digging. And it requires a lot more. I found it required a lot more of me than I thought it would.
I’ve had to question a lot of things that I’ve always taken for granted, like I’ve become quite anti-capitalist and it never really occurred to me as a thing. But partly, because I’ve benefited from it. I’ve benefited from capitalism and I’ve benefited from a lot of privilege on many levels. And so, I think until you are in a place where you’re questioning things, then you don’t question the things that you’ve benefited from. But I think it’s really important to do that. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s such a huge, huge topic.
I think the fundamental thing is the thing you said at the beginning about the hierarchies. So, getting to a place where you recognize the actually hierarchy is at the core of a lot of issues. And whenever there is a hierarchy, there are inevitably problems, because one person or a group of people has more power than another person or another group of people. And when the power is imbalanced, nothing good is going to happen. Nothing that is equitable is going to happen ever. It’s just not possible.
And I hadn’t realized this in all the years that I’d been reading unschooling books. I actually had not realized this until I took my kids out of school and I became a bit more active on Instagram, where I learn so much from so many amazing people, especially people of color, indigenous people, who speak really eloquently about systems and about hierarchies of power and how it has impacted their experience and just the general experience of humans. So, yeah. It is really, really huge.
PAM: Yeah. I love the different stages of the journey. Like you said, we can read all about unschooling, but we can get to these big questions through whatever lens, whatever first system we come across, that we’re going to challenge. With unschooling, it’s education. So, for most people, this is the first system that they’re recognizing, “Hey, maybe this isn’t working in our lives, for our children,” whatever inspired us. There’s that piece where the first stage is often that intellectual understanding of unschooling, like you talked about, I read all the books. I knew what it was. But when you actually do it, it’s a whole new thing. It’s another stage.
There is that intellectual understanding, but doing it in action, day-to-day living it, is a whole bunch more layers to peel back. And then, as you work through that, then the next stage is, it is really hard to not notice that power dynamic, the hierarchies, and the systems in place in other areas of your life. And it’s just this beautiful rabbit hole of learning. It’s hard to imagine not at least questioning it, not saying what anybody should think, but with unschooling, what you’re learning is that you can question everything, that your choice is involved, that what you think matters in your life, not just absorbing what other people tell you to think or what I should think or, “This is how this should work,” and, “This should be good.”
Parents, too, are really empowered as they dive into this lifestyle. “I can question these things. I questioned the education system and I can see how it’s working in benefiting the people in various ways. I can see why it’s so big.” There are just so many aspects to even just one system, but recognizing how that’s not working for us and I can see why that’s not working for us as a family, for my kids. And then, like you said, we start seeing all the kids. Our viewpoint, I think, just naturally grows bigger and bigger until we just realize that we have the power that what we think matters to us. We don’t need to be told. It’s intellectually understanding to seeing how it works in your lives to seeing the bigger picture. And I think it is just a really beautiful journey and an important one.
FRAN: Yeah, for sure. It is. I think maybe one of the biggest things I come up against is the idea that not everyone can homeschool or unschool, because there are families where both parents have to be out at work. It’s just not doable for everyone. And I know there’s a lot of pushback on this. I know there’s a lot of people saying that it is doable. “If you really want it, you can do it.” But I personally don’t feel like I can say that, just because I feel like I’ve been lucky in the sense that I don’t have to work for pay. And so, I’m able to stay home, whereas there are lots of other people who do and it can be a struggle. And if I did, then it would probably be a struggle.
So, I think that’s frustrating to me and I think this is why, while I’m not a fan of school, obviously, I’m not anti-school in the sense that I acknowledge that it’s there and that something like it is going to have to be there, for a while at least. But I am more of a fan of changing it so that it becomes something that is more self-directed, more free, and less hierarchical. Because that is possible. I mean, people have done it.
PAM: Yeah. What I find interesting, and it’s not something I can really see, I would need to ask around. I have noticed, in the last five, ten years, that there are more and more options, more Sudbury schools, free schools, Agile Learning Centers, that are more self-directed. So, I feel like there’s more self-directed options out there. It seems to me, but that may be because I am more connected with those kinds of communities. Whether or not other people, more generally, who don’t really know much about unschooling are seeing those as options out there, that would be interesting.
But hoping that those options become more available, just more choice. When this goes out, I’ll have just finished sharing a draft of a book that I wrote a few years ago on the podcast. And that’s the thing is that, ultimately, once you’ve done this work and really understand unschooling, it’s okay if school or some aspect of school is part of your life. Because ultimately, once you’ve broken that link between authority, hierarchy and school, school can just be another option as part of your lives. You don’t need to absorb that authority. You don’t need to become that teacher at home, where you sit on top of them so they get their homework done. You make sure they’ve studied for the test. You praise an A, and you judge a D. You don’t need to bring that whole ethos into your family. It can just be another way that learning is happening or that they’re engaged in various topics, et cetera.
So, it really doesn’t need to have the power that conventionally we give it.
FRAN: But I think it’s hard. Sorry. I’m just thinking about what you’re saying and it’s interesting. And I think you’re right, but maybe it’s easier if you have unschooled your kids and then they go into the school system and they have a bigger sense of themselves and of what’s actually going on there. Because I think if your kids start in a mainstream school at age four, it’s brainwashing.
PAM: Remember what you said right at the beginning, your kids went to school and, oh my gosh, just the pull to move forward, to move forward, to move forward. There’s not that time to question. And as we were talking about earlier, often, it’s not working for a child. But it was kind of working for your daughter. So, you just keep rolling down that treadmill. So, I think there has to be something that tweaks someone to start questioning that path, for lack of a better word, that conventional path. And it doesn’t have to be the education system, per se.
So often, out in the world, you see people talking about something and you see where they’ve gotten with whatever path they were questioning, challenging, figuring out for themselves. And it’s like, oh, you would get unschooling so fast if you just said, “And let’s point that at the kids.” Because there is that overarching questioning, but yeah, ways to encourage people just to question upfront.
For me, that’s why I enjoy living unschooling out in the world, just being out in the world, as an example, planting a seed that it doesn’t have to be that way, that there are other choices, whether or not you literally take the choice, but knowing that there are other choices. If that becomes interesting enough to you, that might be the tweak that sends you off just to question things, just to say, oh, we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always assumed or been told that we need to do.
FRAN: I think I need to get a bit better at that, actually, because I feel like we go around and people ask the kids what grade they’re in. And then I say, oh, we homeschool. And then my daughter goes, “Mummy, it’s unschool.” And I’m more like, no. I’m just trying to get away from the topic, because I feel like it’s going nowhere good.
PAM: But that really is another stage, like you said, you’ve only been doing it for a couple of years at this point. But I know, just looking back over the many years, sometimes it’s, “Oh, we homeschool,” and that’s the seed. And then I do remember in my son’s dojo, there would have been time, so they will have known, they’ll see my son in action. And they’re like, oh no, they don’t go to school. And then they’ll see, when sensei asked me, “Are you guys going to this tournament?” I turned and said, “Hey, Mike, do you want to go to this tournament?” Asking my child and not answering for my child. And then, at some point, some of them would just come up to me and say, “Hey, I heard that you guys are homeschooling. What’s that about?” And then we’ll sit in the corner and, oh my gosh, an hour will pass as I’m answering their questions.
So, there’s no expectation that they need to be curious and ask, but just being ourselves out in the world, over time, gives people the opportunity to let that bubble away in the back of their mind for a while and just be curious. And at some point, they’re like, “Hmm, I want to learn a little bit more about that.”
FRAN: I’ve noticed from friends of mine whose kids are in school and who don’t intend to homeschool, talking about what we’re doing, it has planted seeds for sure. And it has made them rethink certain things, even though they’re not taking their children out of school. But regardless of that, there are certain friends of mine who are quite privileged, very mainstream people who will write to me or tell me, “Oh, that thing you said, it really resonated.”
So, yeah. It’s true. That’s true. But I think it’s a long-term thing, like you said. I’m very comfortable talking to my friends about what we’re doing, less so with just complete strangers or people that I don’t know very well. As you know, I’m quite vocal on Instagram and that’s kind of my outlet. That’s my community. That’s where I find the people who I can discuss things with, because we don’t have a big community where we are, or at least not a big unschooling community.
But yeah, I think you’re right. It’s a long-term thing of like day-in, day-out, just mentioning it to people and them realizing that you’re not utterly weird.
PAM: Utterly weird. Exactly. That book started with the analogy that I felt alien when I was out in the world. I felt like we were aliens from other people’s perspective. Like, “Who are these strange people? They don’t go to school.” But they need that time to see, “Oh, look. They’re not alien. I can still talk to them. They still come to karate class.” But what it boils down to is, I think often over time, they see the relationship. They see that we’re not butting heads with our kids.
I always remember people would come to me and say, “Oh, Michael must practice a lot. You get him to practice a lot, because he’s progressing,” and I’d be like, “Yeah, he does a lot of practice. He enjoys it. He’s always got his nunchucks or whatever it is,” but just changing up the words, because you can tell, they think I’m reminding him, “You need to practice.”
So, it’s just those little seeds, changing up of the perspective. And they see the relationship and they see the fun and the joy and the connection. And that’s what gets the juices and the questions flowing, if they’re ready for it. Because, if we push too hard, that becomes more conflict than connection. It becomes more of a power hierarchy. “I think I’m doing something better than you. And I really need you to learn this and figure this out.” I am just inverting that power structure on them if I push too hard, but if I’m around and available and just planting seeds, just being ourselves out in the world. So, they see the option, that things are different.
I mean, for me, it’s not judging anybody for how they are being in the world, how they want to do things. But for me, that is what has felt good to me as I’m engaging with that whole side of things.
FRAN: You’re also pushing back on the idea that who our children are is because of us.
PAM: Yes, exactly. That’s a big one.
FRAN: If my child is painting every day, really into painting, just as an example, then we must have done something to either encourage that or push them into it or remind them to do it. And then if our child does something that is seen as not good, then that’s also our fault. It’s that thing of they’re a projection of us, not just because actually it’s a need inside of them or whatever. That’s their character. It’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, you taught them very well.”
PAM: Yeah. It’s about seeing them as people, as human beings themselves with agency and choice and personalities and moments. It’s okay for an adult to be having a hard time. We are empathetic or understanding, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” But if a child is going through a hard time, that’s bad. That’s wrong. The parents should be fixing that right now and stopping that.
FRAN: “You can’t express yourself like that.”
FRAN: You may only use a calm voice. I don’t always use a calm voice. That’s not what I do. Sometimes, yes. But other times, you know, my voice reflects the way I feel and that’s okay for kids, as well.
PAM: Human, again. We should probably move on. We could talk about that forever.
You mentioned a bit earlier that you’re doing a master’s in early years education and I would love to hear the story behind that. What’s the inspiration? What are you hoping to get out of it?
FRAN: So, I trained as a Montessori guide a while back. My kids went to my Montessori school. And so, that was where I came from. And I guess at that point, I’d maybe put down the unschooling books for a while and got really into Montessori. So, then it was a gradual moving back into unschooling after that, which was very interesting. Now I have quite a few issues actually with Montessori. Well, not issues, but I have things to say about Montessori. Some good things and some things I think that could be different, but that aside, early years has always been my interest. So, that’s why.
And actually, when I signed up for it, because I knew we’d be homeschooling for a couple of years, so I thought, well, I’m not going to be working, so why don’t I do this? It’ll be interesting. And I love to study and I was quite an academic child, so I love to just read books and write essays. That’s also a sign that I’m still doing a lot of deschooling, in terms of not expecting my children necessarily to want to do that.
Why I’m doing it is just out of interest, basically. And also, because, at some point, I’d like to get back to doing some kind of work and I don’t really know what that will look like. But this is something to do in the meantime that gets me thinking. And initially, I was really dreading it, actually. I applied and I was into it. And then before starting, I was really dreading it, because I was like, oh, this is going to be so school-ish, because in my head there’s a contradiction.
In my head it’s like, I’m unschooling. And then why am I signing up for a program. Why am I not creating my own masters, as my own self-directed masters? I really did think of that and I looked into it and I chatted to my sister about it. She’s an academic. And then we chatted about whether that could be a thing that would be a viable thing or whatever. And then I just thought, I’m just too lazy. I just don’t want to create my own masters. I just want to sign into something. I feel like I do a lot of creative work around my kids and just in my life.
And I wanted to log in and see a reading list and read it. I feel like sometimes I like to be not necessarily told what to do, but taken down a path.
I was dreading it also, because I thought it would just be really like early years education has to look like this. Actually, I’ve been doing it for about a month now. So, not long. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised that the Department of Education at the university is really progressive. There was a lecture that I was listening to and the professor was like, “And the neoliberal, capitalist tools of UNICEF and the World Bank,” and the whatever else. He mentioned another international organization for children. And I was like, yes! Yes! I can get behind this.
PAM: Not that I’ve looked into any of that myself, but talking to a few podcast guests who have done higher level learning about education, it’s fascinating to see.
We’ve had guests who teach in the education department at universities. The information is so much focused on how people learn, how children learn. And it’s very interesting and they find it fascinating. And there is the disconnect then also about how they actually go into the system like, all that is all well and good, but inside the system when we’re actually in a classroom and having to deliver, there are so many constraints on top of that, that the theory just doesn’t fit so well into the reality of that.
FRAN: Yeah. It doesn’t. If you see academics as here, which you don’t necessarily need to see, many academics are doing studies that are so amazing and important. And they basically prove a ton of principles that are self-directed learning principles. That’s out there. It’s just not trickling down to the schools or not moving across to the schools, however you want to see it. It’s not filtering through to the people who are actually running the schools, making policy decisions.
PAM: That capitalist side of curriculum companies and that whole piece, as well. There are lots of reasons why. I think it just feels like such a big ship at this point, the education system, that trying to get it to move or tweak is a Herculean effort at this point.
FRAN: For class this morning, I was reading an article by John Holt about how he did try initially to change the education system. And at the very beginning, when he first came out with his ideas, people were super receptive, so there was a big media frenzy about, yes, this is the new way to learn. Everyone was excited. John Holt was so into it. He was like, “Yeah. It’s going to work out.”
And then he quickly realized that that was just a wave. It was just a wave of excitement. And then as soon as people realized the reality of it, the reality of setting up a self-directed space in a school, they were like, “No, no.” And then they just went back to what they were doing. And then that’s when he realized, “Oh, this is not going to work in schools.” Not immediately, in any case.
PAM: Yeah. Not in the system the way it is. I remember, because my kids all went to school, I had never heard of homeschooling. I didn’t know it was an option when they first went. And so, I was working with the system. Because my son and the classroom weren’t a great fit. And I would talk to teachers and I gave presentations at the school about spirited kids and everything. And the teachers are all lovely people. They would say, “Absolutely, absolutely. But I can’t do that in the classroom. I don’t have the time or the space or the agency to do these things in my classroom.” And it was the same with the principals.
It ended up being that, once I discovered homeschooling, it was like, trying to change it from inside just wasn’t working and it was at the expense of my child. And so, yes, then when I discovered we could, we left.
FRAN: I think a lot of teachers do that. They take their kids out and they homeschool. And certainly as someone who’s briefly worked in early years in preschools and nurseries, Montessori preschools and nurseries, even the Montessori principals get a little lost in the actual everyday practice. I’m not generalizing, obviously. I can’t generalize to all Montessori schools, but I think in general, there’s a big disconnect between the written theory and the written studies and ideas and all of that and then what the real humans are actually doing in classrooms. And I’m not really sure how to bridge that.
And even in early years, early years is much less of a monolith than school is. It’s much more flexible. Parents are less worried, generally speaking, although it sounds like it’s getting worse. We get worried at way earlier ages now, but you’d think that if you’re going to change anything, you could begin with the early years.
And that also is very hard. Even just from one of the places I worked at, I was trying to bring in more consent-based practices, separate to whatever else we were doing. Just practices for us practitioners and the way we related to children and to really think about whether what we were doing was respecting the children’s consent and bodily autonomy. And even that was like, we talked about it, everyone was in agreement. And then it just didn’t happen.
And I think part of it is because if you’re a teacher or a practitioner in education, you don’t reflect on yourself much, at least traditionally. And I know that Montessori has a whole thing about how the teacher needs to work on themselves. Like, you are the problem. She writes this in her books, “The teacher is the problem. You need to really look into yourself and see what your behavior is imparting to the child,” or whatever.
But I don’t feel that this is really done enough. I don’t feel there’s conscious reflection on, why did you say good job to that? for example. I’m sure there are people out there who are wonderful teachers who do all that reflection. But I feel like, in general, it’s not a thing that’s massively encouraged by the system and maybe individual schools.
Even if it is encouraged, it’s not working, because from what I’ve seen from my children being in school and they were in a progressive school, as an unschooling parent, that’s like 80% of our work. I mean, just looking back at things I thought and things I did. “How can I reframe this?” It’s so internal. So much internal work.
PAM: Exactly. Again, back to what we were talking about, it is theory versus in practice. And I only know unschooling circles and people I talk to through the podcast, but that is what we find.
So much of it is our work to do. It’s our personal work, our questioning, our digging in, our, “Oh, how did that go?” Our analysis, our choices. Oh, I’m going to try this and see what happens. And just working through so many of those pieces is the bulk of the work. And then we have fun with our kids and we help our kids, but that’s kind of the easy part of it.
FRAN: Yeah. It is. It’s the working on ourselves bit that is the hardest bit and the most challenging bit, the bit that never ends and there’s always more. There’s always more where that came from.
PAM: Exactly. I mean, we’re always learning and growing. We talk about the bulk of deschooling, which might be a year or two, three years. There were big questions for a long time, but yes, there is always more. Life is like that, right? For human beings, stuff comes up. It will always come up. That’s life.
And for me, that was one of my big aha moments. At first, for those first few years, I kept trying to like, “Let me solve this. Let me figure this out. Then we can like relax and unschooling will be beautiful.” And I kept trying to work towards that. The realization that, oh, this is life, the challenges that come up and the work to move through them, that is the soul of it. The heart and soul of it is being human in the moment and doing this work. I’m not doing this work so that I can be done doing this work. This is life. That was a big step and not super pleasant. It’s like, oh, there’s always going to be something going on.
FRAN: It’s not comfortable. No. It’s just been recent years that I’ve embraced being more vulnerable and more open and getting more comfortable with discomfort and things like that. And I think you have to be in the right place for it as well as an adult. I certainly had years when I just wasn’t in that place. It wasn’t a thing. I wasn’t going to be vulnerable. Nobody could make me. And then I was ill for a while and I think that brought up a ton of questions and that started a big avalanche of stuff that kept growing and then unschooling got caught up in it. And we’re still going with it, because the beginning of unschooling is just the beginning of unschooling.
PAM: It’s so fun, because at first, you’re like, am I going to unschool? Am I going to take the kids out of school? Or am I not going to send them? You think that the choice to unschool is the end, that it’s the answer. Okay. We finally decided. Now, here we go. But it’s the beginning.
FRAN: It’s really just the beginning. Everything that comes after that is way bigger and harder than that moment of taking them out. Although I know that moment. And I remember that moment. It was a big moment. For many people it’s a back and forth, back and forth. It’s a really difficult moment, but actually once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. It’s not that hard. Sustaining it is really what’s hard.
PAM: All right.
We’re gonna flip it around a little bit, because I would love to hear your favorite thing about the flow of your unschooling days right now.
FRAN: Well, it’s interesting, because we moved recently and we’ve been here three months now, so that’s a considerable amount of time, but we’re still figuring things out a bit and I’m still in that place where I miss where we were living. We were living in Dubai and I really miss it. I do miss the warmth and all the friends we had. And we were in a really cute neighborhood and the kids had a lot of freedom. They could leave the house and go visit, because it was very safe. So, they could just go visit other people’s homes. We had neighbor kids in our home all the time. My kids are very sociable, so it was so nice.
And that is not our current situation, which is so great in so many ways. There’s so much green here. It’s just beautiful. We’re on an island, the sea, all that stuff. But it’s been a big shift. We have no children anywhere near us in the neighborhood and we have to drive to see any. But my kids are also very happy seeing adults and hanging out with adults. So, they don’t obsess over, oh, I’ve got to see children every day or whatever, even though they were doing that in Dubai. But they’re a lot more easy-going than I am, frankly. They just embrace what is a lot more and I’m much more resistant to what is. I’m working on it.
But anyway, I’ll answer your actual question, which was what I like about the flow of our days. I went off on a whole tangent.
PAM: No, that’s very interesting, because those are big things. I think sometimes we can have expectations of ourselves. Three months, that is such a short, short window of time in the big picture of things, but we can expect ourselves to quickly adjust. “Okay, we’re here. Let’s unpack, boom. Now we’ve got a new life,” but yeah, it’s a big thing.
FRAN: Usually I am like that. Whenever we’ve moved, we’ve moved a lot, I’m very much like, close that chapter, onto the next thing. But this time, I’ve actually allowed myself to just be really sad, for quite a long time. So, not constantly sad, but just to have moments where I acknowledge that I still miss the place we were and I miss my friends and all that stuff. And I still get emotional about it, even talking about it, because it was three and a half years we were there, so it was long for us.
PAM: And you built that up. And now, you need time to build that up in any place and in a new way.
FRAN: But what I do like about here is that we spend a lot of time outdoors and it’s very green, which we didn’t have. And we go on hikes, which I love. And our days are just slow, which I’m into. We just wake up whenever and we’ll get started really slowly, which I really like. Because I feel like I need that. I’ll have coffee. I’ll read a bit. I’ll do a little bit of something with the children maybe. And then I’ll go out. We have a coffee shop nearby, which is the only thing nearby with like people in it. So, I go there and I get coffee and that’s my little ritual. And sometimes the kids come with me.
At the beginning, when we started homeschooling, I was really like, we have to have a rhythm. We did and the rhythm was fine and the rhythm worked for us in another place where we had more things we had to be at any given time. Whereas here, everything’s just much slower and the days just flow and often I didn’t get all the things I wanted to do done in the day, even though the day was super slow.
PAM: I know.
FRAN: We’ll spend some time sitting outside, whatever, doing nothing. That’s good. And we’ve made some friends, so we have some regular play dates, which is nice. And we just usually go outdoors and do something outdoors. And then, actually, my daughter is doing a self-directed, online session. So, she has two sessions a week. It’s actually a learning center that’s based in DC, but they’re only online for now.
I think they plan to open in real life next year. But for now, they’re online, which works for us, because she can do it online and it gives her something that is just hers. I remember this in myself as well, she cannot wait to just be out in the world doing her own thing. She was so excited, because here she can go out the door and go for a walk by herself and then come home and it’s really safe and it’s fine. And we’re not in a big city or anything. So, it’s more doable.
So, she loves doing things like that, going off, doing her own thing, nobody knows. She doesn’t want to tell us necessarily the details of what she’s doing. It’s like having her own life or at least a part of it that is her own. So, yeah, she needed that. So, she’s doing that. That’s kind of what we do.
It sounds like nothing.
PAM: It’s everything!
FRAN: There’s a lot happening. We have meals and have long conversations. There’s more space. There’s more space for everything. I really like that.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. I love that. The space for things.
And it’s not at all surprising that there’s a slow season after such a big move, just recentering, re-grounding, just letting things flow and unfold. And your daughter finding, “Ooh, I have this space now that I can do my things or choose my things.” So, that is just beautiful. And I really see why that would be your favorite thing right now.
And the paradox of, we have all this time. And yet, there’s still things that I thought I was going to do today that I didn’t get to and not judging that, but just like, that’s interesting. That’s curious.
FRAN: I think living outside of a city, as well, helps, because there’s no hustle and bustle and everyone here is very much like that. You’ll call someone to come and do something and they’re like, “Oh, not until January 15,” or whatever. And I like that. It’s very southern Italian. Obviously, I love that. That’s where I’m from. And we spent a lot of time in the south.
My husband’s American and we went into a shop once in southern Italy. And this was peak tourist season. It’s not really foreign tourists. It’s more like Italian tourists, but it’s a busy season. So, we go into a shop and he asked, “Oh, do you have this in another size?” And the lady that was there was like, “I don’t know, but Gianni knows. But he’s not here right now. He might be here tomorrow. I don’t know.”
My husband, who grew up in the States, was just like, “You won’t call him? Don’t you have the number? Call him. Ask him. I’m here now. I would like this robe in whatever size.” And she’s like, “Nah, he probably won’t answer.” I just loved that moment, because I’m all about customer service, hello. But they were not bothered at all. They were like, “I don’t have to sell you this now. It can wait. There’ll be another you tomorrow,” or whatever. And I see how it can be frustrating, but I also like reclaiming that, because I feel that that’s an inherent part of my culture and it pushes back a bit against the whole consume, consume, busy, busy, work hard, whole mindset.
PAM: Yeah. The pull to make ourselves about other people’s needs. That piece there, too. So, yeah. That was a brilliant story. All right, Fran. I have taken up a lot of your time, but thank you so much for speaking with me. It was so much fun.
FRAN: Thank you. I loved being here.
PAM: I loved it, too. It’s so interesting to dive into all this stuff. Now, before we go, I want to let people know where they can connect with you online.
FRAN: Yes. I’m mostly on Instagram. @BigMothering. That’s my handle. That’s the main place.
PAM: Yes. I’ll be sure to put the link to that in the show notes, but you can go right to Instagram and search BigMothering and you will find Fran there and I encourage you to follow her. It’s so fun and interesting. And she’ll make you think and lots of great questions to ask yourself. Thank you so much, Fran. I wish you guys a wonderful day!
FRAN: You too!