PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Erika Ellis. Hi, Erika!
ERIKA: Hi, Pam.
PAM: You’ve been on the podcast before a couple of times, once talking about unschooling book clubs, another time talking about self-care, and now I’m really excited to have you back to actually focus in and talk about your unschooling journey.
ERIKA: I know! It’ll be different.
PAM: It will be. So, to get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family? And I’d love to know what everybody’s interested in right now.
ERIKA: Sure. So, Josh, my husband, and I have two kids. Oliver is 12 and Maya is 10. And so, Josh and I met when we were in film school, graduate film school. So, we have a shared interest in film and television and storytelling and that intersection between technical and art, the machinery and then the storytelling. So, that’s something we have in common.
He is now a film professor and he’s just so great at what he does. He has so much enthusiasm and energy for it. He’s always excited to talk about filmmaking. His students love him. And this past year, he wrote his first textbook, which is called the Student Filmmaker Survival Guide. And it was just published. So, he just has a lot of passion for his work and his interests.
He’s into video games, especially those old games from his childhood, like the old Nintendo games. When I was just out in the living room, he was playing his little tiny Game and Watch with Zelda on it. He’s just loving that. Final fantasy, things like that. He also loves watching football, college football. And the Seattle Seahawks are his pro team. So, that’s Josh.
And then Oliver, who’s 12, he’s very funny. He has a great sense of humor. He loves Roblox. He loves character design, especially designing avatars. He loves humor. So, he’s always watching YouTube and TikTok with an eye for what is funny and then making characters and developing characters, role-playing with his friends with the different characters and things like that. He just got a new computer this past year, so he’s been, I would say, exploring the potential of what he can do with his own computer. Google Maps is super fun. Exploring the world, finding new places. He’s into space and planets, the sky. And so, we do a lot of that, going outside at night. He likes to change the images on his desktop to be cool planet pictures and things.
And then he also does a lot of pretend play, role-playing-type play with Maya at home and with his friends online, but they have so many different characters that they play with. I mean, it cracks me up, these different groupings of characters that they come up with. So, they have a group called the Famous TikTok-ers, which is like, I mean, seriously, 40 or 50 different characters that all have these backstories. They’re toys. Some are squishies and some are plushies and some are plastic dolls and they all are together in this thing that they have created called the Famous TikTok-ers.
And they have all the Among Us characters that have these different personalities. They have the Army of Babies, they have the Buzzy babies and the Fuzzy babies. They have Hammerhead and Great White, which are these shark puppets. And so, there’s all these different scenes that they will replay. They do video games with them. They play board games with them. They have all these very intricate stories. So, I just love it so much.
I love overhearing it and all the personalities that they have in the backstories and they do the same thing online. So, they have all these personas that they play on Roblox and in Minecraft. It’s more Roblox now. Minecraft was when they were a little bit younger, but yeah, it’s just a lot of imagination and a lot of humor and storytelling things.
And so, then Maya on her own, completely separate from Oliver, is very interested in animals, so he doesn’t really share that at all. But she spends a lot of time thinking about how she would design an animal sanctuary, designing animal sanctuaries on Planet Zoo. She loves to be around people’s pets, mostly from a distance. She’s very cautious about actually being around animals, but she just loves observing them. And if she gets a chance to pet someone’s pet, that’s very exciting for her.
We did foster kittens for a while, so she loved that. She is amazing with the zoo design, though, because these games are super complicated and she puts in the time to figure it out. She watches YouTube videos and just the speed at which her skills have increased is just really amazing. And she does the same thing on Sims, designing pets and things like that.
She loves TikTok. She loves kawaii things, that Japanese cute style, she loves. And she’s very into food. The other day, she was like, “Why am I so happy today? Oh, yeah, we got groceries!” I was cracking up, because it’s true. It just makes her day to have the abundance of all the foods that she loves. She’s a big noodle and pasta person, so, I think it’s part of her Japanese love, too, the ramen.
And then, there’s me. Unschooling, I would say, is one of my major interests and connecting with friends online. I’m a scanner, so I love diving down basically any rabbit hole of any interest. I love singing and going for walks, being outside, watching birds. I continue to be super interested in self-care and learning about myself, nutrition, communication, emotions, things like that. I like doing art and I like music.
There’s this game on New York Times everyday called Spelling Bee, which is kind of popular. You have to make words that have a random collection of letters. And I’m kind of obsessed with that right now. When I wake up in the morning, I’m like, “Yay! It’s a new day!” so that I can start this word puzzle again. And I play a lot of Roblox, actually, also. I got really into Adopt Me and have an amazing apartment building that I designed there and a lot of pets.
And then together, we all love traveling. We love eating at restaurants. We love swimming, going to the beach, play dates with friends. We love pizza. We have a lot of shows that we like to watch together and then also a lot of individual interests with the shows we watch, too. So, I have a lot of fun.
PAM: That was literally what I was about to say. It sounds like so much fun to hang out there.
PAM: With all the bits and pieces coming in, because you can feel the flow, as in you were talking about the things that you like to do together and some of the interests that overlap and then flowing apart to do the things that are more individual and the concentration to figure out the zoo apps and stuff like that. So, it really brought such a beautiful feeling of how all those things can flow together in one family. That was really cool.
ERIKA: Yeah, it is. I mean, that’s what it feels like, too, because we do have so many things that we all like, but then there are just also so many things that are like, no, that’s her thing and this is my thing and that’s Josh’s thing. But we can appreciate it about each other.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. That’s exactly it. It’s also interesting to chat with somebody when they’re sharing about something that they’re interested in, because you can just feel the excitement and the energy of that and to understand enough to understand the language of it, to appreciate the things when they want to share an accomplishment or a challenge or something. You can meet them there.
But also, it’s totally okay for somebody to have an interest that is mostly their own. That’s another fun energy to have like, “Ooh, this is mine. I’m diving into it.”
ERIKA: Yeah. Absolutely.
PAM: That’s the distinction. All right.
I am curious to know how you discovered unschooling and what your family’s move to unschooling looked like.
ERIKA: Well, it was interesting, because I had a very education-heavy, education-focused background. It was not something that I would have thought that I would get to unschooling based on where I came from. I always did very well in school. I didn’t really question the way it worked. I went to college and went to grad school in filmmaking. And eventually, I even had a teaching job. I taught high school science for a couple of years right before I had kids. I just felt like I needed something that was not a freelance job. And so, anyway, I had a lot of schooling, a very school-focused life.
And so, I just assumed that that’s probably what life was, that’s what was going to happen. When Oliver was born, I stopped working. That was always my plan. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom with him, with my kids, when they were little, at least. And having him there, that was a shift, because then it was like, he knew what he needed. He knew what he liked. And it was obvious. We communicated right away. I listened to this baby and he led us to co-sleeping, which I never thought I would do. And he basically led us to attachment parenting, because I could see when things were overwhelming to him or when he was uncomfortable and I could work to meet his needs and have him feel good in his life.
And so, that just became the path to follow and the other things started to make less sense. So, when I thought about putting him in preschool when people started talking about that, I was just imagining what that would look like. And I couldn’t see it working for him. And I mean, we never tried it, so I don’t really know what it would have been like, but what it felt like is that he didn’t like doing what other kids were doing. When we went to the playground, if all the kids were running over here, he would run over there, because then there would be no one there. That’s better for him. He kept his distance from the other children, because he didn’t like the feeling that maybe they were going to attack him or it just kind of felt a little overwhelming to him when he was young.
He didn’t like loud or busy places. And I was just thinking back to school, especially elementary school and just the volume of the sound and the amount of action that’s going on around. And I was like, he would be just so uncomfortable there. And I knew, just knowing him so well, how amazing and perfect and wonderful he was. And I just thought that at school, he would probably be labeled as having an issue, having multiple issues. I don’t even know, but I didn’t want there to even be a chance for someone else to label him like that and for him to start thinking that there was something wrong with him.
And so, the first thing I found was project-based homeschooling, which was appealing to me because, I knew about homeschooling as an idea, but project-based sounded good, because it was focusing on what he would want to focus on. And so, I did a lot of reading about that and didn’t do much with it other than just start to question things and learn about things. But somewhere within there, I remember the woman I was reading said, “Some project-based homeschoolers use curriculum for the rest of their schooling and some are unschoolers.”
And I was like, oh. Well, curriculum doesn’t seem like it will work at all with this child, but what’s unschooling? And so, then that’s when I really started looking into that term. And I think I first found the Always Learning email list and really soon after that, they had mentioned your introductory email series, so I signed up for that. That really fit well. It made sense to me. And so, then I just read all the books. I read John Holt and Alfie Kohn and John Taylor Gatto.
I was just diving down this deep rabbit hole and getting super excited and telling Josh all the things. I’m like, oh my god! Everything. It’s questioning so many of the things about my own growing up and my schooling.
It really is hard to even remember all of those aha moments, because I just feel like my mind now is so different than it was at the very beginning. But I’m still learning now, still finding more places to deschool. Neither of my kids have ever attended school and they’ve always chosen what they want to do with their time. They’re really good at that.
PAM: That is fun to see. It is something revelatory for us, because we are so used to school and being told what to do, that to be able to use your time and to choose how you use it, that can be something that’s challenging for us when our time opens up. So, it is always so interesting to see them in action doing that.
ERIKA: Yeah. It’s something that I wouldn’t have even thought was possible, I guess, in a way. What do children do if they’re not being told what to do? That’s something you don’t really get to see.
PAM: Yeah, exactly. And, yeah. Thanks so much for sharing that journey. It’s so fascinating to see, from being so immersed or enmeshed in the school environment and then having a new person in our life and just seeing how well they know themselves from so early on and realizing that, I don’t think this is going to be a great match for them. And then looking for other possibilities, just to see, because when you see them, just wholly who they are, it makes a lot of sense. When you peel back those layers of trying to look at them through various lenses of trying to get them to do this thing, then trying to follow this timetable. It’s so much easier to embrace who they are and then start making choices that help support that. Does that make sense?
To see, this isn’t going to fit well, but I bet there are other possibilities, other ways that we can support them. Because we see how much they shine when they’re supported in the ways that work for them.
ERIKA: Yeah. Yeah.
It felt like deciding that who he was was more important than any of the things that I would want him to be able to do or someone would want him to be able to do. And so, choosing to trust that he will do what he needs to do in order to have the life that he wants to have.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. That’s so cool.
Now, you mentioned deschooling, so I’d be very curious to know when you were in the thick of it, and as you said, it’s not something that ever ends per se, there are always new things coming up, new challenges to peel back layers around and to see what we really think about that, but in the thick of it, in the bulk of the deschooling, I’m curious, what were some of the most challenging paradigm shifts, new ways of seeing things, that you made?
ERIKA: Yeah, I think it was kind of a shock to the system at first. I really had to take a hard look at the way I had grown up and come to terms with damage that it had done to me. I hadn’t really thought about it all that much before deschooling. I knew something didn’t feel right when I was teaching. It didn’t feel like this is what these kids need. There was an issue with it, but I still hadn’t really deeply thought about how ingrained all of those school-ish beliefs were. And so, I would say two big paradigm shifts come to mind immediately.
One paradigm shift, the hugest one for me that I’m still unpacking, is the idea of there being a right and wrong and the schoolish idea that we always need to have the right answer. It was and it can still be terrifying to me to make a mistake. Even though intellectually, I understand that making mistakes is a natural part of learning, my experience at school showed me that it’s better if you just always do everything correctly from the beginning. And I really did not want to pass that belief onto my kids. It’s so limiting to me now to have that baggage.
And now I see that it even goes so much further beyond that, to peel it back to, maybe there isn’t even such thing as the right way. And maybe “mistake” isn’t even a real thing. Maybe life is more nuanced than that. So, now I can think, it’s safe to do something that doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to and then regroup and then try something else.
I remember Maya was really interested in the concept of “happy accidents”. We talked about some inventions that were called “happy accidents”. And so, if we’re so focused on doing things the way they’ve always been done, or trying to do things the right way, then we can’t find these great new ideas or we can’t grow and learn new ways to do things, better ways to do things. So, it was so powerful to question all of that.
PAM: Oh, man. And it’s something, like you said, that’s still comes up, right? There’s still that little bit of aversion. At least for me, I just get a little bit quicker at recognizing and moving, being able to remind myself about happy accidents. “I learned something new.” “It’s another experience under my belt.” All those quick phrases to remind myself, because if I don’t, I get caught in that tunnel vision and spiral in the mistake and seeing all the ways that it went wrong, versus recognizing the things that I can learn, the things that I can bring with me forward, the things that, if I look at it through another lens, is a happy accident. Like, “Oh, so cool. Now I can do this.”
But if I’m stuck there, I don’t see those things. It takes me longer and longer. But I still have ingrained that initial reaction, that reaction that’s not under our control, really, but it’s just a lot faster to recognize it.
Well, I think in the beginning, the very beginning of parenting, like when I had that baby, I sometimes was paralyzed by the idea of having to make the right choice about every single thing, the right choice. And it still happens regularly, but it’s a huge shift to realize or just to even consider maybe there’s not a right choice and we can just try things.
Another shift that is totally related, but different, is a belief that good parenting is about controlling. Because I feel like we have this picture in our society of what a good child or a good parent looks like. It’s organized and calm and controlled. The food is carefully controlled and the children’s behavior is controlled. And I felt like having happily compliant children would be the goal of being a good parent. And I was a mostly happy and a very compliant child. So, I figured that’s just what parenting would be like if I did a good job. So, we’re back to the right/wrong already. It’s all related.
But when I had my babies, it was really natural to be very attuned to them and to respond to their communication. I trusted them and that they knew what they needed. And so, as they grew into toddlers and then into school age, it didn’t really make sense to stop listening to that and to start trying to control them. But the messages were all around that children should obey and be very responsive to the demands of the adults around them. And that just didn’t feel good.
Once I thought about it more and read more about the idea of adultism or sometimes called childism, it just made so much sense. This is another human being. I don’t want to be controlling another person. And that power-over dynamic is disconnecting. That dynamic of mainstream parenting is very adversarial and I wanted to be on the same team with my kids. I wanted my kids to have agency and a voice and to listen to themselves, their inner voice, their knowing, and by talking over them and trying to control what they do, that takes so much away from their ability to listen to their inner voice. I feel like I experienced that through my process of going through school. I feel like school damages that.
So, that was a paradigm shift that didn’t take a big shift in behavior for me. I never really was this super controlling parent, but it was a big aha, mental shift. It was seeing the people around me going from this attachment parenting that we were all doing with our babies and then they shifted to demanding so much more and controlling the kids as they reached school age. And I just was like, wait a second. I don’t want that happening to us. I want to keep the relationship the focus, like it feels when you are attachment parenting with the babies. I wanted to take the kids seriously and to listen to them and not foster that power-over relationship.
It also helped a lot that my kids are not compliant the way that I was as a kid. They really do both resist expectations strongly and are super clear about what they want to do and have always been. So, if control ever tried to creep its way in, they were very quick to remind me that that’s not what we do. And I think our lives could have been really different if their personalities were not the way that they are. It’s just super clear that they want to have agency and I’m grateful for those reminders when I need them.
PAM: That’s such a good point, too, how personalities play into it as well. It is fascinating to think about the personalities. As you were saying, from the attachment parenting circles early on, listening to them, trusting them, watching them, helping them meet their needs. And then, the school age comes in, where now all of a sudden, okay, now they are at a place where they can learn and I can bring my experience in.
And I love the way you said happily compliant. That is everybody’s dream. That’s how we envision it, because they’ll understand that I have their best interests at heart and that this truly is the best thing for them to do, the best choice to make. “You’re going to school. So, just get up happily and go, because there’s no choice in that matter. Why get upset?” All these stories we tell ourselves around it. And so often, it just doesn’t unfold like that for us with our kids, the kids that are in front of us. And to be able to peel back those layers, like you said, too, and that shift to valuing their agency and to supporting that.
And then it’s another layer to see not only how you value it, but see the value to them. It feels like that paradigm shift from looking through my eyes to looking through my kids’ eyes and seeing how important and valuable it is through their eyes, not just because I didn’t feel like arguing with them. Because I think at first, unschooling can be seen by people as permissive or, “They get to do whatever they want,” because without the deeper understanding of how unschooling works, that’s what it looks like from the outside. It’s all about perspectives, right? So, perspectives of people looking at what we’re doing from the outside, they can feel like, “Oh, they’re just lazy. It’s just lazy parenting. They can’t be bothered to assert that control that power over, because we all know what it should look like, how a child should behave, et cetera.”
So, for us, that paradigm shift from looking through our eyes and then seeing through theirs, so yes, I want our eyes to be the intellectual understanding. “I want them to have agency and I want them to be able to make choices in their life.” And then, the next layer is seeing through their eyes, how powerful that actually can be for them and how capable they are of doing it.
ERIKA: Yeah. I think it’s definitely the default to see things only through our eyes and what we want and how things should be so that it’s easy for us or it makes sense to us. And so, yeah, being able to shift that gaze so that you’re seeing that they’re actual people, too. And of course, they would want to have agency just as I want to have agency over my own life. I mean, it’s the same. They’re people.
And I think that that’s a really valuable part of deschooling is to start seeing that and seeing them in action, because you start to see how their choices and their behaviors aren’t just random. They really are rooted in who they are as a person and they start to make so much more sense. And that helps us start building trust in the process of unschooling, because we’re actually seeing it in action in our own family.
So, now kind of a moving through that bulk of deschooling, and we’ve alluded to it a couple of times already, still challenges and fears can continue to bubble up here and there, because that’s life. There may be pieces of life that we haven’t encountered yet. Things just go wrong here and there, go sideways. And so often, as we discovered there, so much of those paradigm shifts are us peeling back layers, are us working on ourselves.
And we really do come to realize, don’t we, that when challenges and fears bubble up for us, it really is so much about us and our work to do, right?
ERIKA: Yes. Oh my gosh. Yes. All of the work of unschooling and deschooling is about us. That was definitely an amazing realization, because it’s like, it’s supposed to be for the kids!
But fears are almost always, I feel like, a result of something unexpected happening or something that doesn’t fit with the perfect picture of what we thought things would be like, maybe feeling like we should be able to control this thing that we cannot control, and then we feel fear. So, like food fears or technology fears or how they spend their time or about their relationships with others, their sleeping schedules, how much time they spend outside. I’ve heard so many fears that pop up for parents on this journey, but it’s always connected to something about us.
We are feeling judged by people maybe, or we imagine that we might be judged by people. I feel like that’s even more common than actually being judged. We might have baggage from childhood where something wasn’t okay for us to do. So, why should it be okay for our kids to do it? And then a big one for me, I definitely fall in the trap sometimes of projecting fears into the future of what kind of adult my child will grow into. If they’re like this now, they’re going to be like this for their whole lives and that might be bad. And I mean, that’s just a lot of “borrowing trouble”, as Anna likes to say.
But the thing about all the fears and challenges is that they disconnect us from what is actually happening. It’s like a thought experiment, rather than like what is actually physically happening. And it makes it harder to see who the actual child is, who is this actual person. And none of it, none of the fears, and none of any of it is about unschooling. It’s just life. And it’s our triggers from being children and figuring out how to be in a relationship, a respectful relationship, with someone who is not me. It’s just challenging.
I would say that most of the challenges that come up for me to work through, they don’t really feel like fear. It’s more like questions that pop up in my head. Like, is this okay? Or, should I be trying to control this? And once I think through it, controlling doesn’t ever make sense. It stops them from learning. It disconnects our relationship, but things like our sleep schedules or when they have conflicts with their friends or when I feel like they’re eating only ice cream sandwiches or spending too much time on TikTok, things can pop up in my mind as something that could cause fear if I let my thoughts go in this one direction. Or it can be about being curious and playing around with the possibilities, listening to the kids themselves, and finding out what the deal is.
And I just feel like putting the connection first is just always a good idea. The kids learn so much more about themselves when I don’t let that first quick response to want to control them be the choice that I make in that moment.
PAM: And I think part of that, too, is also not having the expectation that when they’re making choices for themselves, they’re always going to work out well. So, even maybe too much time on TikTok, maybe eventually they feel like, “Oh geez. I feel like I’ve been spending so much time on this,” but with that connected relationship, there’s a much better chance that we’ll have that conversation, that they’ll mention it in passing, and that we can talk about it and help them develop some tools if they want, if they’re interested to explore that. Or maybe they’re just going to be observing it for now and noticing it, but now that they have noticed it, it’s going to be more top of mind for them.
So, maybe they’re continuing to make those choices, but they’re gaining more experience. And now, they’re like, “Okay, so maybe what am I missing? What would I do instead?” Those kinds of questions help them process and move through it. And so much of it is learning about the process and gaining experience with the process of moving through challenges, just like we are getting experience with when the challenges bubble up for us.
ERIKA: Exactly. I mean, it’s the exact same. It’s exactly the same as it is for us, because we’re all people, and we’re all learning about what works for us. And I see it happen all the time where they will say, “Oh, that was too much ice cream.” It happens. But I do the same thing myself. I do too much whatever on some days. Too much Spelling Bee game on New York Times, whatever it is, and I can say in retrospect, “Oh, I probably should’ve moved my body a little bit before I felt like this,” but then they’re having that same experience when it happens to them.
And someone else telling me to stop or telling them to stop doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t help us learn what works for us and it just makes us resent not having the agency. So, it’s not worth it.
So, I’d be curious to know what your husband’s journey to unschooling has looked like. Was this a new idea to him? How did that move forward?
ERIKA: Yeah. I mean, I do think he had heard the term before we had children. He definitely knew about homeschooling. But I think he would have thought it’s this weird, fringe thing. We didn’t really think that much about it before we had kids.
We both did well in school, but his experience in school was really different than mine. I bought in. I wanted the grades. I did all the things that I was supposed to do. And for him in school, it was much more about following his own interests, making it work for him. He wasn’t worried about the grades. If he didn’t want to do homework, he didn’t do homework, but somehow he still, I think, with his enthusiasm and attitude, he made it work in a way.
In college, he designed his own major so that he could take the classes he wanted to take. He made sure to include a ton of physical education courses in college, because that was fun for him. His choices were much more driven by what he liked, where my choices were driven by, what do people want to see? What am I supposed to do? How can I get the best grades? That kind of thing. When I asked him about it, he described it as, he just saw through anything that felt like bullshit to him and would disregard it.
And so, when it came up, when Oliver was a toddler and we were talking about it, he took to the idea of unschooling immediately. He has a really easy-going personality. I do a lot more research about the kids and things. And so, if I think something’s a good idea, he’s like, I’m game, so that part is easy. But he also said it just made sense that humans are wired to learn, and they don’t like to be told what to do. And he knew that he could not be coerced into learning about things that didn’t interest him. That’s why he hated parts of school.
And so, he embraced unschooling right away. And it’s really fun to see now, because he’s become quite passionate about it in his own way. It really influences the way that he teaches at his college and it ripples out from there. I feel like it affects the other professors in his department, the way that he views things. And so, it’s amazing and exciting to see like how that happens, how it ripples out from just us making our choices. But he puts the students’ interests first. He always lets them know that he’s going to help them do what they want to do.
He has removed testing completely from his program. It’s all about having conversations with them and them analyzing their own work and things like that. So, really making it about them and their experience. And it all feels really natural to him. He’s really bothered by anything the college tries to do that isn’t about putting the students first and their needs first. And so, I would say he’s a big fan of unschooling at this point.
PAM: That’s amazing. I love that. And I love the way he’s finding ways to bring that understanding into his days, into the work, because he seems like he’s really excited about his work, too, and enjoys engaging with the students. That would definitely be an essential component of moving away from the testing and that extra structure and moving towards connecting with them and having conversations, et cetera. So, yeah, that’s really cool to hear about.
ERIKA: Yeah. It’s very fun to listen to the stories about the students. They’re coming usually straight out of high school, super rigid, being told what to do every step of the way and then they get to him and he’s like, “Oh, I’m not going to tell you what to do. You get to choose.” And they’re just like, what? And so, he works them through that initial resistance and all of the questions of like, “Is this going to be on a test?” Or, “What do we have to remember?” And he’s just like, “It’s not about that anymore. This is life now. It’s not like that.”
PAM: Wow. Yeah. I can imagine that being quite a shift, because that is definitely a new approach for, I would imagine, most of the students, right?
ERIKA: Yes. Definitely.
I’m curious whether there has been a time, I suspect there has been a time when one of your kids, their interests and the things that they’re into has stretched your comfort zone. So, I just thought maybe we could walk through one of those times so that people can get an idea of how you approached it.
ERIKA: Yeah. I mean, I do trust that my kids know themselves so much better than I do, so I have never had a desire to quash their interests necessarily, but I will say that their interests are definitely not my interests. And so, it takes intention to stay engaged with them and to find ways to support them when it’s just not at all my thing.
I would say that TikTok, when that first came up as a strong interest, it bothered me. It can feel like sensory overload to me to try to watch TikTok. And it just seemed like they could watch for hours. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Like, what are you getting out of this? And I felt uncomfortable with some of the content on there. It seems really superficial or really focused on certain body types or these fashion looks and everyone’s using these filters. And it kind of feels like being a voyeur in a lot of ways. So, I just wasn’t really excited when Maya was so interested in it.
But I did stay mostly open and curious about it and have grown to see a lot of what she gets out of it. I’ve seen that they, Oliver and Maya both, they find what it is that they like within it, despite all the noise. Where for me, I was distracted by all this noise. There’s so much there. But they find these things. They’ve found craft ideas. They find experiments to try and recipes. And they find these hilarious videos that we all are laughing about and dances to learn. And they learn tips about the video games that they like. They’ve found new video games to try.
There’s just so much there. I don’t know what it is, but they are much better at navigating that, that there’s all this abundance. They aren’t overwhelmed by that. And so, I’ve seen Maya do these little Gacha Club animations that she posts. They’ve learned more about video editing and working with sound and music. And there’s just a lot of thought that goes into it. And they really do find the things that are cool to them. And for me, it still feels like a really intense and confusing format, but I appreciate it for them in a way that I didn’t before.
I think it’s also been interesting to see how they figure out their relationship with scary things, because I’m super sensitive to scary things. So, I never was really trying to stop them from diving into those types of things, but I just can’t do it myself. I get too scared. So, things like Five Nights at Freddy’s. I don’t know. I just can’t watch it, but they’re able to show me and tell me about things that they like about it without me needing to fully participate in the same way that they do.
I can listen about it. They’ll show me some pictures or screenshots. They’ll ask questions about things. And they love that I am interested in this side way. I have acquired all the plushies of those characters, which they use a lot for their pretend play. I know all the characters and understand the world.
And then I’ve also seen how they deal with it when it’s too scary for them. There was this time that was so hilarious. They had this FNAF, Five Nights at Freddy’s game set up in the office, on the computer. And they were down the hallway at the back of the living room. So, they could still see the screen, but it was so tiny. And they were way back there, because the jump scares are terrifying. And so, they needed to be super far away to be able to handle that, but they were so curious about it and still wanted to try it and play it.
And so, it was just cool and it was funny. And it was cool that they were making it work for them and enjoying the interest in a way, progressing through it in a way that felt safe for them. And I mean, that’s kind of how all the interests feel. It’s like, I trust that they know how much they can handle and then I’m just there to participate as much as I can handle with their interests.
PAM: And I think them seeing you just embrace your limits and figuring out ways for you to engage with them, gives them that safe space to figure out ways for them to engage.
If it felt more adversarial, “Mom’s not really comfortable. She doesn’t want anything to do with this,” I feel like they could also feel that as pressure to fully engage, not watch it from down the hallway, because, “I gotta show mom that I really like this and I can handle it, even though she’s not comfortable with it.” And it’s that subtle pressure that we can bring with our attitude, with our energy. Energy is probably a good way to describe it. But see, that’s another layer of, it’s all about ourselves as we work through it.
Because with unschooling, sometimes we can feel pressure, oh, we need to fully support everything, everything. And that we need to turn ourselves off or shut down pieces of ourselves in support of our kids. That’s the fascinating piece. That’s the dance. That’s what we learn about ourselves, because we also don’t want to set up the dichotomy. It’s not like, we have to martyrly do everything and fully support everything and shut pieces of ourselves down to do so. We can bring pieces of ourselves, yet that’s the nuance, is to really understand ourselves, so instead of saying, “No. I don’t want to be involved, because that’s too scary for me,” which is a legitimate perspective, but to figure out that, I can do snapshots. I can do plushies. I can do conversation. All those pieces.
So, that is learning more about ourselves, peeling back those layers to really figure out what’s comfortable for us as a person, rather than closing things down. That’s the whole comfort zone thing in a nutshell. Because it is malleable. We can stretch pieces and it’s part of us discovering where we can stretch and where something is just feeling too tight for us right now and that’s okay and we can share that. But maybe over in this direction, I can push a little bit. I can do the pictures. I can do the plushies. I like hearing about the world, all those different aspects. So, there’s so much nuance in there. But there’s so much value when you peel back those layers. If this is something that’s super interesting enough that they want to put time in and engage with this, it’s worth our time.
That’s the trust piece, that we trust that they’re getting something interesting out of it. And it’s worth our time and effort to put into that work of ourselves, to find ways that we can support, ways that we can engage, because that strengthens our connections, maintains our connections, helps us learn more about them, and they learn more about us in that process, too. It’s that focus on relationships instead, isn’t it?
ERIKA: Right. Yeah.
And I feel like it’s going back to the right and wrong thing, too, because if we just go in straight away thinking the way we’re viewing this is right, the way they’re viewing it as wrong, then there’s the reason for them to rebel and want to do it even more. There are so many layers to it. And so, I think we just have to be super intentional and shift away from only seeing things from our eyes and our perspective, and this is right, and this is wrong, or that’s bad, to just seeing what they are seeing from those interests. And I learn a lot.
PAM: Yeah. And that piece! I love that, taking it back to the whole right/wrong. “My perspective is right, versus theirs,” because again, then they get locked into the feeling that it’s wrong. And then they can feel like they have to lean in more. Like we were talking about a little bit earlier, like I need to sit there and I need to move through it. And I feel like there’s so much less creativity in there. It makes it a right/wrong, black/white, do this or don’t do this, kind of thing. But in the middle of it, there is just so much room to creatively play in ways that uniquely mesh with us as people. And there’s just so much more richness and fun in there. Right?
ERIKA: Yeah. I was just remembering with the scary stuff. When Josh was like, have you heard about Squid Game? And I was like, yeah. And I had read a couple of articles, which is usually my way. I’ll read the plot in an article rather than watch something that seems like it’ll be scary. And Maya pipes in. She’s like, “I’ve watched it.” And we were like, what?
And so, she had learned about it from TikTok and she was interested, so she had watched a couple episodes. And Josh was like, “It’s not too scary to you?” She’s like, “No.” And then she wanted to tell me the whole storyline. And he was like, “Well, don’t ruin the plot for Mommy. She hasn’t watched it yet.” And I was like, “I’m not going to watch it. She can tell me the whole thing if she wants!” And so, it was really fun, because then she got to tell me, “So, in episode one, this is what happened.” And I got to know the whole story without having to subject myself to something scary.
PAM: Right. That’s part of her understanding you and sharing her excitement and joy. I’m sure the way she described it to you meshed reasonably well with how she knows you like to receive that kind of story.
What, so far, has surprised you most about how unschooling has unfolded?
ERIKA: I feel like I could have a lot of answers to that. But what popped up first is just how well unschooling works for things that I feel like mainstream parenting/schooling/society would have you believe that that’s not possible.
So, what I’m thinking of is, had Oliver gone to school, he probably would have been diagnosed or been recommended to various therapies and things. A lot of children have to have social group practice or occupational therapy to improve their skills in different areas. And so, it was an exercise in trust to believe that he knew what he could do and that he knew that edge where he would be then moving forward in his development. But I just kept seeing evidence that he knew. And so, with speaking, he was a little bit late speaking, but I could see his understanding increasing so much. And I could see the progress, even if it was not the way people thought it should be. And then it really happened that way with everything.
So, like earlier, I was talking about how he was afraid of the children at the playground. He’s not anymore. And that was a progression that made a lot of sense for him. He went from, that’s way too intimidating. I’m going to stay with you the entire time, to, that child doesn’t look too scary, watching what they’re doing. It was this very gradual thing where now he’s good at speaking to even adults that are unfamiliar to him and he can answer questions. And he is really good at navigating social things in his friend group. And kids love to be friends with him. He has a lot of expertise in the video games that he knows about. Younger kids always think he’s just this most amazing cool guy ever.
And so, at the beginning, I could have thought that this isn’t going to work. Like we need to have some kind of therapy in order for him to develop into an acceptable form of a person, the way society expects him to. But it has been amazing. Maybe not totally surprising, because I was believing strongly in unschooling, but it is amazing just how well it works for the kids to really develop the skills that they need in the way that makes sense to them, so that they feel good about themselves.
And it’s not about memorizing a way to interact with people. He figured out his way to interact with people and it works. I love it and I feel like I’m so grateful that that was the path that we chose to go on, because I feel like he got to the places that someone would want him to get to, but on his terms and feeling good about himself.
PAM: Yeah. So, not only in his way, but also in his time.
The typical timetable that conventionally, we feel we need to get everybody in lockstep with, really doesn’t have to be that way. Our kids can have their own ways to approach things, their own speed, just everything. And how capable they are of doing it and figuring it out for themselves. That is a big, big difference, because when you first start or when people first hear about it, it’s like, that just seems so utterly foreign.
ERIKA: Well, you get this message. I mean, it’s everywhere. The message is that early intervention is the key. Like if you don’t get them to be on this path, at this time, at this speed, that later, it will be too late. That’s the feeling and that’s a scary feeling. And so, I mean, it does take trusting them. But yeah, I think that it’s just so valuable about unschooling.
The other thing that I thought of with the surprising is just reading. Just watching reading happen is one of the most amazing things of my whole life. I was a very early reader and my kids were not, but you just don’t see that. You don’t get to see how a human naturally learns how to read without instruction. And so, watching them was incredible.
Maya one day was like, “I used to look at things and be like, whatever. But now when I look around, all I see is letters.” She’s like, “Why am I noticing letters everywhere now?” It was like she really noticed the difference in her brain of like, before she didn’t see them, now they’re everywhere. And so, she was like, “I just find myself trying to read everything now.” And she was a little bit frustrated about it because I think life before was a little simpler without all these words everywhere, but that was one of her stages.
And then, recently she’s had the stage where she’s just like, “I guess I know how to read now.” She says it like that. It really cracks me up, because it’s just so different from my experience, but it’s really cute. And I love the ownership of it. She just is like, “Yeah, I did this. Now I read.” So, it’s been amazing.
PAM: Yeah. I love that. I love that. Okay.
I wanted to shift gears a little bit and we had a conversation on the podcast a couple of years ago, and I’ll put the link in the show notes. It was episode 201, in which we dove into self-care. I would love to hear how your experience has maybe evolved since then. And this episode is coming out in the new year and I am one who loves that new year energy, as well. So, I was hoping maybe you could touch on that in the self-care lens as well.
ERIKA: Sure! I love that new year energy. It’s so fun.
So, I feel like self-care, for me, is always changing as I’m learning about myself. And unschooling is all about learning about myself. So, I feel like in the past couple of years, the pandemic has really had a huge effect on everyone, anxiety-wise and just changes in our lives. And so, I think that affected a lot of the routines that I had developed. The things that were working for me before the pandemic weren’t necessarily working for me once all of that started.
Self-care has shifted a lot to just listening to my body, telling myself there’s no right and wrong. There’s no one way. And being okay with the food choices I make and the movement choices I make always changing. First of all, because I’m a scanner and I get bored with things, but also just because I’m in a different place every day. And so, trying to be more in the moment with my self-care decisions, rather than say, “This is the good thing to do, so I’m going to now do it every day,” which just doesn’t work when things get difficult or if it just doesn’t feel good anymore.
So, I would say my focus self-care-wise now is much more on self-love or being accepting of myself regardless of how I’m doing that particular day. If I’m having a hard day, it’s okay. And if I’m having a great day, that’s okay, too. I’m really into personality quizzes. I was reading a lot about the enneagram this year and it was really helping me to accept some of these parts of me. My tendency in a lot of cases, like with anxiety and things like that, my tendency would be to be like, what’s wrong with me? Where now, I’m viewing it as more like, these are features of me. I’m sensitive in these ways. I absorb a lot of emotions from other people. It’s features of my personality and it’s not something that’s wrong with me. It’s just something about me.
And so, I don’t know. I feel like that lens has changed the way that I’ve used self-care and made it feel easier in a lot of ways. It’s more expansive now. It’s not as regimented. It doesn’t feel like there’s a right and wrong. Again, I’m back into my paradigm shift of right and wrong.
And then something else I feel has been a bigger focus now is really having a supportive community as part of self-care. I tend to want to handle things by myself and I wasn’t really using checking in with people as part of my self-care, and that has become a bigger part of my life in the last few years, too.
We coined this term “self-care friend”, like someone who can listen, but also is inspiring to keep growing. Because I don’t want someone who’s just like, “You’re doing a great job. Period.” Like, “You’re a great mom.” I like people who challenge me a bit or inspire me to keep growing.
And so, the people I’ve met on the Network have definitely helped me in that regard with my self-care. And then we also, in the Network, do a self-care check-in every once in a while, as a regular part of our monthly themes. And so, that has helped me to just think about it more regularly.
And as for the new year, I love to set some intentions or think about what kind of energy I want to bring with me into the new year, realizing logically that any moment can be a fresh start if we want it to, but for me the new year just has that special feeling about it. And so, I do like to choose a word of the year or a mantra to go into it.
This past year, I chose magic. And it really was magical. So many magical things happened this year, and it was fun to be open to that and really trying to notice the things that felt magical in my life. It was kind of like a gratitude practice in that way, to focus on magic. But this year, I’m choosing, “Do it.” Not, “Just do it,” because that’s trademarked. But, do it. And I don’t think I’ll get into all the possible meanings that has for me, but I think it’s great, because it feels helpful in so many different areas. It could be about moving my body, or eating things that feel good, or having adventures, really diving in and participating in life. And it just feels like that’s a good energy to shift to after the pandemic years of maybe not doing all the things that I wanted to do or living in that bubble a bit.
So, do it.
PAM: Do it! Yeah. I feel like that might be appealing, for me, if I’m looking through the lens of using that, it would be like peeling back that layer around how I tend to analyze things a lot.
ERIKA: Me too.
PAM: And it just reminds me that you don’t need to predetermine whether this is going to be a good or bad thing, right?
PAM: It’s going to work out. If I have the urge to do it, let’s just do it and see what happens from there. I don’t have to even justify it to myself. If something looks interesting, just go ahead, go down the rabbit hole, instead of like, oh, do I have the time? What else is this? All those little rationalizations and things that we can put on ourselves to try and justify. It ties in with the scanner personality, as well, too. If I’m going to spend time on this, do I need to make it productive? Or all those little pieces. So, I could see how “do it” just applies in so many different ways.
ERIKA: I think it also could help me stay in the moment, because if I’m going to be listening to the kids talk about something, do that. I could tell myself, “Do it! Listen to them then!” Doing all the different things at once or thinking I should be doing something else while I’m doing this. It’s just distracting and hurts relationships. So, it seems to have a lot of layers that I’m excited about.
PAM: Yeah. That’s going to be so fun. Okay.
What is your favorite thing about the flow of your unschooling days right now, as they sit?
ERIKA: Well, so you’re saying the flow of our unschooling days, but I feel like my answer is that it’s the flow of our unschooling days, because that’s what our life feels like is this flow, which you mentioned when I talked about, our interests, which was funny.
Because it feels like we have this time that we’re all together. And then we have these times when we’re apart and the kids sleep schedules are always changing. Maya’s been doing a lot of experimenting on how many hours she can stay awake and then how many hours she would sleep and these different kinds of things. And it is so interesting, but then it also ends up having this effect on all of our lives, where it’s like, sometimes we’re alone and sometimes we’re together and sometimes I sleep alone and sometimes I don’t. It’s just fun that we can have days like that. And that we can all choose what we want to do with our time and how we want our days to go and all individually get to choose that for ourselves within our family.
And I asked Maya the question, what she loves about our unschooling life, and she said that she gets to make choices about what to do and what to eat and when to sleep. And that she knows a lot of kids don’t get to choose so much. And then she said, “Well, I think that I have the best life.” And it was so cute. And then I said, “Well, I think that I have the best life.” And then Josh was there and he’s like, “I think I have the best life.” And that’s what it feels like. We all live together, but we all have our own version of the best life, because we’re able to choose what we want to do and how we want to be, who we want to be. We have the time and the space to do that.
It’s hard to even put it into words, but it’s just like this feeling of spaciousness in my mind when I think about our unschooling days. We aren’t adding these external pressures and timelines and schedules to our days, it just feels like space. There’s no rush. There’s no right way. We could try things. They can try things that I’m not so sure about. We can figure things out together. I can learn and grow. They can learn and grow. We’re all different, but we have a chance to see what it’s like to live together. It’s just always interesting. And it’s fun to see what happens next.
PAM: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I love that. And I especially love, our best life. Each individually, we have this space to be able to choose the thing, so we all feel like we’re living our best life. I love that so much. Okay. Our last question.
From your perspective where you are right now, what has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling so far?
ERIKA: I think it has to be the gift of learning about ourselves, that all of us have the gift of learning about ourselves. I think mainstream childhood takes that away from children in a lot of ways. They don’t have the time and space to learn about who they are and what they like and who they want to be.
And I think that we think that that’s what school is supposed to help with, but I think school ends up actually being pretty distracting. So, I just love to see how well we all know ourselves now and how much we have grown.
I think, hearing about Josh’s students and thinking about my own young adulthood, it’s a common thing to joke about how unprepared young adults are for living in the real world. And so, I just think it’s so valuable to live in the real world from the beginning and to have the experience of having made all of these, both important choices and also all of these millions of inconsequential choices from the very beginning. And I just think that my kids will be so far ahead of me at the same ages when they’re going out into the world and that is very exciting to think about.
And I’m also just so grateful to be surrounded by unschooling community, like the Network. It just feels like this web of love and connection and support and friendship that’s literally around the world. And I’m learning more about myself all the time, learning how to be in relationship, and how to communicate. It’s a huge gift. And being surrounded by people who are wanting to learn and grow and who are practicing empathy and practicing validation and are just so kind to their families and to their children, it’s so inspiring. And it just feels amazing to just be like, this is what my life is like. This is incredible. And I don’t know. I feel like we’re so lucky.
PAM: Oh, I love that. I love that so much. Learning about ourselves and yes, I mean, for me, too, the Network is just so inspiring. It’s just so nice to see other families.
Our lives are all full of challenges. Like we’ve been talking about throughout this call and we’re diving into people’s challenges when they bring them there, yet the fact that they’re diving into them and that their kids are fully part of the conversation and fully part of what they’re considering important and valuable, and the connection with them, all that is at the forefront. So, even when you’re talking about the hard things, even that is still inspiring, right? It’s just so many people caring and wanting to lean into doing that kind of work.
ERIKA: Right. It’s a completely different way of approaching problems than you can find in mainstream parenting life. Usually, it would be like the parent has this challenge, let’s figure out how to get the kids to shape up and solve the problem that way. And not even ever questioning anything. And so, it’s really inspiring to be around people who are taking the needs of the children seriously, really listening, and then being willing to change themselves, and being willing to listen to the other members of their family. It’s really different. And it’s really inspiring.
PAM: Yeah. And it is so inspiring to witness people’s journey, too. After a few months, as they’re moving through all this stuff and peeling back those layers and seeing those aha moments that come. And you take care of the book club in the Network as well. And we have that book club episode that you talked about how you’ve done that in person. And now you’re doing it inside the Network. And thank you so much for that.
ERIKA: Oh, you’re welcome.
PAM: It’s so interesting to read these books through the lens of unschooling and playing with the ideas. It’s just so fun and so interesting. And so many aha moments can come when you’re least expecting them. These little seeds. It’s like seed, seed, seed, seed, and then there’s just, at some point that you can’t predict, it blossoms. It blooms. It’s like, oh, this makes so much sense.
ERIKA: It surprises me! Because I feel like I understand this. I’ve been learning about this for so long, but yeah, still I feel like each monthly theme that comes up, I’m like, wait a second. There’s something that I hadn’t quite like wrapped my head around or just some new phrase or mantra or just some new question and there’s always more to peel back and more to learn. So, I just love it.
PAM: Always, always, always. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Erika. I know I’m falling all over my words, because I’m very excited. I had so much fun. I really appreciate you taking the time to put your thoughts together and to chat with me. Thank you.
ERIKA: It was so fun. Thank you for having me.
PAM: And before we go, where can people connect with you online?
PAM: Thanks so much. And we will put the links in the show notes to both of those. Thanks again, Erika. Have a wonderful day!
ERIKA: Thank you! You too.