PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from living joyfully.ca and today I’m here with Sara Davidson. Hi, Sara!
SARA: Hi, Pam.
PAM: I have really enjoyed learning more about you and your family in the Network over the last few months. So, I’m so excited to learn more about your unschooling experiences. 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.
SARA: Oh! Sure. I’d love to. And upfront, I wanted to say I’m really honored to be here and thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I’ve been listening to you for years, so this is really a treat for me and I appreciate it.
PAM: Well, thank you.
SARA: And so, a little bit about my family. We live in the Pacific Northwest in the United States and the humans in my family are Joe, who’s my partner, there’s of course me, and then Izzy and Ryan are my two kids. And then we do have some non-human members as well, which are my Golden Retriever, Toby, we’ve got two guinea pigs named Pumpkin and Oreo, we have a California King snake named Duo, and then we have, temporarily, a Pacific sideband snail named Clover. So, those are our non-human members that add a richness to our days, for sure.
And so, for Ryan, Ryan is nine and Ryan is really big into gaming. He loves all kinds of computer games and particularly he loves strategy, like Roblox Rise of Nations, where he gets to become a country and then through strategies and alliances. He gets to conquer the globe, basically, in this large strategy game. And he’s also recently gotten into ancient warriors, like the Romans and the Spartans and the Persians. And there are lots of computer games that feed that interest as well, like Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, which is this game where he can go in and create custom Spartan warriors and then fight them against each other. And then he’s also gotten into this game recently called Rome II, where he becomes these various units. He can design his army with his generals and then he can go attack other units and see how that all plays out. So, that’s really been fun.
And he’s also my numbers and stats kid. So, he knows every boost and the area of effect and the damage and the attack speed and he just knows all these statistics for all of these characters in these games that he’s playing. It’s really quite amazing, just the breadth and depth of knowledge that he has with all these numbers and things like that.
Ryan is also my big body movements kid. So, he loves to do parkour at the park. He loves wrestling. He loves being tickled, tackling this punching bag that we’ve got in our living room. Just coming up with all different custom tackling combos and stuff. And then he loves this game that we’ve made ourselves. We call it Ball Wars, where every night, we have these giant exercise balls and we don’t use them at all like they were intended, I don’t think, but how we use it as we’re all on our exercise balls and the goal is to not touch the ground and you can touch the walls, but you can’t touch the ground in any way. And so, the goal is to basically knock the other player off their exercise ball so that they hit the ground and he just loves that game, because it’s lots of kicking and rolling and just smashing into the ground. So, he’s the big body movements guy, for sure.
And then the other things he loves is he loves his fidget toys right now. He’s really into these micro magnets, these tiny little magnets that come in these packages of 40 and 50 and you can manipulate them in all kinds of interesting ways. He also loves wordplay. So, anything with rhyming or puns or jokes or anything like that, he’s really into. And then finally, a very defining and just lovely feature of Ryan is he seems to be able to get comfortable in whichever room and in whichever position he’s in. He knows how to get comfortable and he loves his sleeping bag. So, it’s just amazing to me to walk into this room and find Ryan relaxed in a position and in a way that I never would have imagined you could relax in. So, he’s that kid for me? It’s almost like, how are you sitting like that and actually comfortable? So, he’s that guy.
And then there’s Izzy, who’s 11. And I just want to say upfront that Izzy recently requested to change their name and wants to be called by Izzy. So, if I slip and I call them Isaac, I’m actually talking about Izzy. I’m trying to do that switch. And then also their pronouns. I might mess up a little bit on their pronouns, so I’m really working on that, but just an upfront. Isaac is Izzy if I slip like that.
Izzy loves to laugh and be silly. They’re a very playful person and they love playing Fortnite and Minecraft with their friends online, but in a silly kind of way, not like a seriously competitive kind of way. They’re really into driving all kinds of vehicles and flying planes. And so, what that means for them right now is they’re really into this game called Microsoft Flight Simulator, which is a super-realistic, beautiful flying simulation game, where they can fly all over the world and all different types of aircraft.
They love design. So, they’ll go into Roblox Bloxburg and build these beautiful, aesthetic houses. And they also do the same kind of design in Minecraft. They love listening to this calming music, lo-fi, while they’re doing this creating. So, that’s really cool. And then they just love their stuffed animals. Every year, we’re inviting new stuffed animal friends into Izzy’s world, because they just love stuffed animals so much. And then, thinking about the ocean and ocean conservation and plastics and things like that are also something that’s really on Izzy’s mind lately. So, that’s Izzy in a nutshell.
And then, I’ve got Joe. And Joe is 40 and he is a faculty member at Oregon State University. He’s really interested in robotics and machine learning. And though he doesn’t get to golf in real life, he’s got some favorite golf YouTubers that he loves to watch and relax to. And he loves soccer. So, every Saturday morning, I can pretty much guarantee when I come downstairs, because Joe wakes up before I do, that there’s going to be some sort of European soccer match on the television. His favorite European league is the Bundesliga in Germany. So, he really enjoys watching soccer.
And then, when he has the time, he really enjoys leisure cooking, particularly like international cuisines. He gets a lot of inspiration from Korean cuisines and things like that. He enjoys machining and metalworking, but again, hasn’t had a whole lot of time to dive into that in real life. So, he watches a lot of the YouTubers. This Old Tony is one of his favorite machinist YouTubers. He loves Marvel movies, particularly the ones with Thor in them. And I think he’s watched all the Marvel movies multiple times and just really enjoys that fantasy world. And then he also really enjoys unwinding after work by playing Fortnite with this friend he’s got who’s long distance. So, he really enjoys playing Fortnite, as well.
And then there’s me. And I’m 39 and I’m a stay-at-home mom. And I’m the primary unschooling parent. And up until 2020, when COVID really hit, I was working part-time in and out of the home, but since COVID kicked in, I have pulled back and I’m definitely just … Not just. I am a stay-at-home mom. There’s really no just, is there? That’s a full-time job, too. I love thinking and talking about unschooling. So, this is really perfect for me to be able to do that.
I love listening to podcasts, particularly ones that deal with human psychology, like Hidden Brain is one of my favorite podcasts right now. And then whenever I need like a little unschooling boost, I listen to your podcast as well, Pam. And then I also dive into the Living Joyfully Network to rejuvenate, as well, on the unschooling side.
I’ve really been enjoying playing Minecraft in this server that we created for Izzy and it’s got this international group of kids who are unschoolers who join it. And it’s been really fun for me to just watch their creativity and their flow and just get to know all these different unschooling kids and play along beside them. That’s been really fun for me.
And I really enjoy nature, but I noticed that I notice the small things in nature, like the snail or the moss growing on the tree. And oftentimes, I’ll miss the big things. Joe and I would go on vacation and he’d go, “There’s a whale!” And I’d turn, like, “Where?” And the whale would be gone and I’d miss this big wildlife event. And yet, then I’ll walk along and I’m like, “Look at the fungus,” that’s like a tiny little piece. So, I notice the small things in nature, but oftentimes, hilariously, I will miss these really big, big wildlife things like a whale jumping out of the water. And then finally, I really love orchids and carnivorous plants. And occasionally, I will do some yoga. So, that’s me.
PAM: Okay. Well, Sara, I want to say thank you so much for the level of detail, because I think that is just so valuable for people to hear. I love your description of some of Joe’s interests that he can’t or isn’t doing in real life right now, but that they’re still so valuable. It’s not that he’s “just watching YouTube videos”. These really are interests. We are, I think, tuned growing up to devalue that kind of stuff, that we need to be being productive or putting all our effort into something before we can call it an interest, something valid for ourselves. So, I loved that.
And that your kids are interested in gaming and a lot of people will stop there. “They’re a gamer. They’re big into gaming.” And they won’t notice a lot of the other things, all the other pieces of them, because we can sometimes focus in on that and not notice all the other pieces. So, I thought that was brilliant. And yes, I’ve heard about how fun your server is and I really appreciate you playing around with that. That is awesome.
SARA: Yes. I’ve loved it.
PAM: That’s the other piece, too, and we’ll dive into this, but it really shines in that piece, because we really can engage and play and have fun with kids, just as other beings. It’s not, I’m old. When you lose that power dynamic, you really can appreciate and just engage with them and just have so much fun with them, can’t you?
SARA: Yes. And just absorb all that amazing energy that kids just inevitably have. You can just soak it up.
PAM: I know, right? I think that’s part of a layer that we peel back, too, because sometimes that energy can feel overwhelming, like that’s kid energy. But when we can embrace it, like, I don’t have to be more reserved. It doesn’t mean that we have to act like kids or like they are, but we can completely flow with it rather than feeling overwhelmed by it or a little bit more reserved with it. Does that make sense?
SARA: Yeah. And it’s the difference between being childlike and being immature. You can have that childlike energy and not be very immature about it. We can just enjoy being just vibrant. And it’s so wonderful to see my kids being vibrant, because then it reminds me of how I’d like to be vibrant as well. And they kind of inspire me towards that, I guess.
PAM: I love that word. I love that word. I’m going to have to try and remember that one. It’s a beautiful description, something that works for all ages. And it really brings unschooling kids’ energy to mind.
I would love to hear more about how you discovered unschooling and what your journey to unschooling looked like.
SARA: Oh yes. My journey was quite a long one, as I’m sure many people’s are, their journey is quite, quite extensive. So, my parents were both teachers. My mom taught at the high school level and my dad at the collegiate level. And so, I was very steeped in standard education models growing up and both Joe and I grew up in the K-12 public school systems. So, we went all the way through that. And then both of us, after high school, went into the United States Military Academy at West Point. And that’s actually where we met.
So, we went to a military academy for our school and then spent five years after that in military service. And so, by the time I was pregnant with Izzy and getting out of the military, I had had the 12 years of public schooling and nine years of military school and military service. And those really impacted my vision for what I thought my life would look like. And so, when I got out of the military, I was pregnant with Izzy and I had a very structured vision for how my life would go, what my future kids would be.
And in my vision, my kids were in school. I was working full time. I was valuing a schooled education. We were doing organized extracurricular activities like in music and sports, particularly. And I had a definite idea of who my kids would be and how they would behave. And I had this vision that children were like pieces of clay to be molded. And I even remember thinking that. I had that visual of, okay, this child is going to come into this world. They’re going to be this piece of clay. And then through my interactions with them, I will mold them into the person that I know they need to be to be happy and successful. And so, that’s kind of where I entered into parenting when I was pregnant, before Izzy arrived.
But then, Izzy arrived and they made it very clear from the time that they were just a baby and couldn’t even lift their head that they had different plans. And so, they were passionate and they were determined and they were persistent and they were outspoken and they were so firmly rooted in their own sense of self. And oftentimes, their sense of self was very different than the vision I had for them. And so, they very much resisted all of my attempts to mold them and shape them as this piece of clay into the person that I thought that they should be.
And I used all the mainstream parenting techniques to try to do that to Izzy. I would punish them and I tried to reward them and bribe them and coerce them and manipulate them and even shame them into becoming this vision that I had, to shape them. And those were the tools that I was using to do that. And so, daily living, they didn’t align with my vision of them and that was causing quite a bit of tension.
And then, also with school, they seemed to do okay with preschool. It was the only three days per week, a couple hours per day. But then, when they got into kindergarten and I put Izzy into kindergarten, they clearly weren’t flourishing. And I knew this because they would come home and just kind of explode. And I wasn’t with them in kindergarten. So, I didn’t know exactly what was wrong and why the system wasn’t working for them. But I could tell that it wasn’t working for them and meeting their needs. And I tried to work within the school system to figure out how I could meet my child’s needs in the system better.
And I very quickly realized that the school really couldn’t flex the way that I was thinking they needed to flex to accept my child and help them flourish in that system. And so, after kindergarten, it just happened to be that we were moving across the country from Washington state to Boston. And I figured it was the perfect time to just try homeschooling. In my mind, I was like, I can’t screw up first grade. We’re just going to try this for a year. I know kindergarten in public school didn’t work for Izzy, so I’m just going to try something and I cannot screw them up in one year.
And so, when we went to Boston, I never enrolled them into public school. I did enroll them into an online learning academy and I started preparing lessons for them, kind of assuming that teacher role. And then simultaneously when we were in Boston, I joined a play group and I met parents that were parenting in a way that I had never seen before. I mean, they were peaceful and they were respectful and just the ways that they talked to their kids and about their kids was completely different than anything I had ever experienced. And I was really drawn to their ways of being with their children and I wanted to be more like that.
And so, also simultaneously, I was noticing how my kids were learning naturally so well. We would be having fun riding the bus and the subway and we’d be playing and we’d be going to museums. And they were just really bubbling over with all of this excitement of all the things they were learning. But then, when it came to the structured things, like the worksheets and the piano lessons they really didn’t want to go to and the online academy, they were either just clearly not really enjoying that, or actually fighting me and very strongly resisting my attempts to do the more structured stuff.
And so, it kind of started happening all at once where peaceful parenting and this idea of how kids learn naturally, it was just piecing all these things together. And there came a point about a year into homeschooling where I was fairly comfortable with the educational side of unschooling. I had watched how my kids learned and I was like, I got it. And I understood that they were learning so much without me controlling that, trying to control that learning.
But I was still pretty uncomfortable with the whole life or what some people refer to as the radical side of unschooling. So, I continued to control them in areas like technology and food and sleep, because I just wasn’t comfortable with that yet.
And so, this is a really long story, isn’t it?
PAM: It’s fascinating!
SARA: Basically, what happened was, I was moving towards peaceful parenting. I was accepting the educational side of unschooling. But I was controlling in these other life areas. And it just so happened that my kids loved technology. And so, they wanted to spend far more time on the computer playing than I was allowing. And I found myself spending very much of my energy enforcing these limits and these rules and these boundaries and clashing a lot with my kids over what I thought was a very valid thing at the time, that I was protecting them from this very dangerous thing called technology. But it got to be so uncomfortable.
My kids were just so strong. And I’m so grateful for them. They would not accept being controlled. And there were days that were so uncomfortable for me while I was enforcing these time limits and just consuming the day in this very negative energy, that I started to question the whole idea around control to begin with. And could I really control another human being? I realized, well, no, I can’t. I might be able to change their behavior, but I can’t change what they’re thinking or what they’re feeling.
And I just felt exhausted, that I was a policeman in my own home and I felt exhausted by that. And I saw how it was negatively impacting my relationship with my kids. And so, I started listening to your podcast, Pam, and other stories of unschoolers who didn’t limit technology and grown unschoolers who were grateful for how their parents didn’t limit and how that had opened up so much for them.
And there basically came a point where, after much pain, because it really was painful to release this control and work through those underlying assumptions and fears. But there came a point where I reached a threshold where I was finally ready to release that control surrounding technology.
And it really was a watershed paradigm-shift moment for me, where once I was ready to release it, I felt, I felt just this weight release. The idea that I needed to control this for a person, that was a weight on my shoulders. And when I released that, I felt this lightness and I could see now this realm and this direction that I could head where I could be connected with my kids, not controlling them. And we could have this beautiful relationship. And I could see it and I’m wanting to be there like right away. But of course, it took years and years, but I could see it. It was like in the realm of the possible now for me. And that paradigm shift I’d say happened about four and a half years ago, five years ago. And we’ve just been walking towards connection and away from control ever since. And it’s been wonderful.
PAM: That’s beautiful, Sara! Thank you. When you were talking about playing that controlling role, that policing role almost, around time, you pulled me right back to right at the beginning of my journey where I was doing the same thing. My eldest loved to play video games, but I would say, “You can play all you want after 3:00.” I still had the school timing. “During the day, we need to do more academic learning things.” And our days very quickly turned into, “Is it three o’clock yet? How much longer?” And just agonizing hours until that time came. And that was the spur. Like, this doesn’t feel right. There’s something here.
And I loved the way you said, “And simultaneously this and simultaneously that,” because that was it for me, too. It’s the different pieces. When we would go places or we would be doing something that they wanted to do, just the energy, the spark, the learning, the fun. And then, when I pull out a worksheet or something that I thought they should be learning, oh my gosh, it was like a different person showed up and they did not want to be there. And what I knew should only take five minutes was like a half an hour of, “Just one more. Just one more!”
And when you start making the connections between all those pieces, it’s like, oh. They’re resistant because it’s me. When they’re interested, look at them dive in. And that’s the learning that sticks, too. You start to see, when you go back to the worksheets, if they did it the day before, it’s gone.
SARA: The summer slide in an hour.
PAM: Yeah. All of those pieces. And then, for me, it was also, “After 3:00, dive into the games,” but choosing to start paying attention, when I was starting to get curious, this is not working. I’m not going to do this for years. This doesn’t feel good. Starting to see the learning that was happening while they were playing, like you were talking about, the stats and the numbers. I was seeing that going, holy bananas! Just because they’re doing it in this context, doesn’t mean it’s not real. That’s real learning there. That is number manipulation. That is stats. That is all the things.
And then, opening up more and seeing more and more things they were learning. It just was in a context with which, at first, I was uncomfortable and scared of and fearful of.
And when we’re in that place of fear, we get that tunnel vision where we can’t see. We can only see our fear and only see the desire to control, to mitigate that fear. And we stop being able to see what’s actually happening in front of us, which actually might be very beautiful. And we miss it all, because we’re so focused on that fear and the need to control.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. That tunnel vision. Absolutely. You really need to move through that fear first, before you can start seeing things, because when you’re in that fearful mode and you’re looking through that lens, you’re really only seeing the pieces that reinforce the story that you’re telling yourself in that moment. You don’t notice all the other pieces.
When we first connected, you had mentioned how moving to unschooling impacted every aspect of your life. And so far, I’m loving the depth and the breadth of your answers, because that is shining through already. So, I thought we’d step through a few aspects of that. I thought we’d start with learning. We’ve been talking a little bit about how your idea of learning has grown as you came through to unschooling. I was just wondering, was there more you wanted to share about that aspect? Got some more stories?
SARA: Yeah, I’ve got stories. Oh yes. Pam, I can talk forever! Just ask my husband. Yeah.
Just to show the transition and the progression here, starting out, I believed that the best learning happened in a classroom and with a teacher and that people needed a packet of knowledge in order to be successful. It was a very specific packet and it was the packet, honestly, provided by schools. And that kids needed to be told what to learn or they wouldn’t learn it. And then finally, I believed that learning was not only something that I could control for my kids, but that I actually should control in order to ensure that I was being a good parent and setting my kid up for success in the world.
And what I’ve come to learn through unschooling is that my idea of learning has just become so much more expansive. And so, now I believe and I just know it in my core, that the best learning happens when people, and my kids are people, are pursuing their passions. And I trust that if my kids truly need to learn something that’s relevant to them and that they’re developmentally ready to learn, they’re going to be able to learn it, because that’s what humans do. We are wonderful at learning. We’re learning machines, basically.
I’ve also come to realize that learning doesn’t need to look like anything in particular. Learning could be someone quietly watching YouTube on their iPads while they’re cocooned under a blanket and I don’t see them for a couple of hours. That’s learning, just as going outside and looking at ants crawling on the ground can be learning. It doesn’t need to look like anything, but it definitely feels like something which is joyful and in-the-moment and absorbed. That’s what learning feels like.
And so, I’ve really worked on and also believe now that that no type of learning is more valuable than another type of learning. So, I think it’s just as valuable that my kids learn what types of food they like or when they like to go to sleep or that they get overwhelmed with auditory sensory things. Learning that is just as important as them learning how to read or learning how to manipulate numbers. It’s all learning and it’s all incredibly valuable. And what makes it valuable is that it’s valuable to the learner. Not that I value it, but that the person actually doing the thing values it.
And then again, just that learning isn’t something that I can control for another person. And not only can I not control it, but that when I try to, it actually negatively impacts their ability to learn. I can’t control someone’s learning, but what I can do and what I try to do as an unschooling parent is to create an environment where my kids are emotionally and physically safe. They feel safe to just explore the world in the ways that they want to explore it. And I can bring in resources that I think might light my kids up. And I can engage with my kids. And I can be excited about whatever it is that they’re doing, like really be in the moment. And that’s how I can facilitate learning without controlling it.
And my final, huge, big-picture takeaway and realization was that I didn’t need to worry about learning at all, because whereas in school learning is the goal, I found that learning is never the goal. It’s just this by-product of us just living this beautiful life together. And so, as long as I cultivate and build a strong relationship with my kids, the learning is just going to take care of itself and I don’t even need to worry about it. It’s just going to happen. So, those are my big shifts in my ideas of what learning was, where I was before to where I am now.
PAM: That’s brilliant. I remember that so clearly, that realization that learning was happening no matter what. And rather, if I just focused on the relationships and helping them do the things that they were interested in doing, it just happened along the way. It’s really hard to tell somebody fresh, “Don’t worry about the learning,” when they’re first coming to unschooling.
SARA: Well, that’s probably why they arrived at unschooling to begin with was this idea of the learning, right? What do you mean you don’t have to worry about the learning?
PAM: They’re not going to school, so we’re going to be in charge of their learning. And of course, we want to help our children. We want to help them become a successful adult, that whole ethos. We want to be a good parent. So, that is where we start.
You talked about where you started and where you ended. Can you talk a little bit more about the transition piece there? What helped a little bit to help you go from one to the next?
SARA: I’ll just keep using technology as the example, because that was the really huge and painful paradigm shift for me was the technology piece. I had other shifts that I was making after that, but the technology was really big for me.
What I found helpful was that I would try to join my kids in whatever it was that they were doing, instead of stepping back and viewing it as, okay, they’re on the computer. It’s this monolithic computer time. I would try to sit next to them if they were willing to let me watch and ask them questions and I could just hear through their conversations, they would throw out these pieces of knowledge that I’d go, where the heck did you learn that? And just being with them and actually playing with them. So, I actually bought myself a gaming computer so that I could join them in Roblox and in Minecraft and in these virtual worlds. And as I did that as well, I learned how much I was learning in these spaces as well.
And I could see, oh my gosh, video games, these are real emotions. We’re dealing with frustration and fear and happiness and it’s all happening in this virtual world, but they’re very real. And so, really focusing on what my kids were doing and trying to name it specifically.
And in the beginning, I almost had to say, okay, well they’re doing this subject right now. My kid is building in Minecraft. That’s dealing with shapes. So, therefore this is math and geometry related. And I almost had to walk myself through almost assigning their activities to a more traditional schooled vocabulary for myself in the beginning, so that I could start becoming comfortable that yes. They are learning. They are doing math. It’s a very non-traditional way, but in the beginning, I needed to do that for myself.
And now, sometimes it’s fun for me to do it. Like, oh, this is geography! Ryan’s now attacking South America with his forces. He’s learning geography. It’s still fun for me to kind of think about it like that. But it’s not so much a need for me to prove that they’re learning. Whereas in the beginning, it’s pretty uncomfortable. And I was anchoring back to what I was comfortable with, which was that school model and assigning their activities to that school model so that I could be comfortable with it. Okay. They really are learning in this way.
PAM: I think that could be such a helpful transition step, because I think we need to learn that. We need to see what’s happening. We need to understand. That helps us understand how unschooling works, through whatever lens of whatever is feeling most challenging for us.
In talking for many years with other unschooling families, I feel if we take too big of a leap and just say, “They all say it’s okay for them to play on the computer. I’m just going to get comfortable with that.” So, you just let them play. It’s like, “Man, they play all day,” and you do your thing and that’s where it goes. And you just sit in your uncomfortableness and say, “Well, really, I shouldn’t be uncomfortable with this. It’s okay. Everyone’s telling me it’s okay.” That’s not going to last forever, number one. And you’re not going to see how unschooling works. You’re not going to build trust in the process of unschooling if the thing that is most challenging for you, you’re not seeing how it unfolds.
And then the relationship piece that we talked about, if you’re not connecting with them through the things that they enjoy and seeing them in action and seeing unschooling in action and seeing all the different pieces that are involved, when somebody is pursuing an interest, no matter what it is, there are emotional pieces that are part of it. There’s sourcing information that’s part of it. There’s the actual figuring things out to accomplish what they want to do. Every interest or passion can be such a window to the whole world. There’ll be a historical aspect to whatever it is. How did that interest come into the world? Where is it geographically located? Is it European soccer? Is it German?
So, if you connect with your kids through the things that they’re interested in, which is what we talk about so much when you’re beginning unschooling, just don’t worry about the things, but connect with your kids and engage with them and what they’re doing and see it. And so often, that language helps us get to, “Oh yeah, look. They’re doing this and they’re doing this. And there’s a little math. Here’s a little bit of reading. They’re reading some more words in their game now that they weren’t before, that I was reading for them before.” There are so many different aspects and it can really help to put it in the language that we know now as part of the transition that helps us.
And then we start to see how limiting that language becomes as we grow out of it. It’s like, there’s just so many aspects to this one thing. And you start to see how looking at it only through the historical lens or only through the numbers lens or whatever lens we’re doing, we see how those pieces are all connected. And that helps us grow out of the need for the language, but we need something that we can latch on to. It’s like our kids with their interests, if we watch them, they are connecting this thing with this thing and this thing. They’re growing. They’re not leaping forward because there is no connection. There’s no understanding if you have too big of a gap there. Does that make sense?
SARA: Yes. Yes. And I’m going to use your word, Pam. You’re always talking about how things bubble up for you. I love that word. I’ve tried to come up with a different one, so I don’t just steal your word, but I’m going to use it.
So, what bubbled up for me there was, for me in the beginning particularly, I needed other people’s stories. I needed to hear other unschooling stories of people that reassured me that, yes, this is possible to move in this direction. It’s not complete insanity. And I needed their stories in the beginning.
But ultimately, I also needed to cultivate my own stories. So, I could start with other people’s stories and those were enough to kickstart me, but then I needed to start showing all through my own lived experience and developing my own personal stories that also supported what other people were telling me. And so, that’s where really getting in with your kids, it’s like, I need to have my own foundation of knowing that this is true, because I can’t just count on someone else’s story. That might’ve tipped me over to hear other people talk about it and say, yeah, this has been true for my family, but that’s not gonna sustain me. And so, yeah, diving in and just really connecting and just finding my own stories and my own truths. And then being able to look back and say, yep, I get that now. And I have my own story that supports that and it just builds on itself.
PAM: It does! And what bubbled up for me there was, like you said back at the beginning, I know this in my bones. I feel this in my heart now. That is where you get to when, at first, you’re trusting, you’re borrowing some courage from people who’ve walked the path before, from other stories that you’ve heard. Okay. That makes sense to me. I want to start walking in that direction. And then we start walking.
But it’s important to then get our stories, to see that experience play out in our lives and understand it. That’s when you really feel it in your bones. Like, this is my truth now, because it made sense to me intellectually and it’s playing out with my children, with myself, whatever aspect the story is around, but that is how it’s also working in my life and my experiences. And that’s when it becomes more of a truth for us.
SARA: Sure. And that’s what sustains us really going forward.
PAM: Yes. Or else you’re always looking outside for validation. That’s the other really interesting thing.
Unschooling families are all different. People, kids, are all different, so it’s not gonna look exactly the same, but that’s where you build the trust. If all you rely on moving forward is the outside stories and outside reassurance, when a little tweak happens and something is a little bit different, you have to go back outside, because you’re not understanding it to your own depth that you can see and understand what that tweak is and be confident in how that tweak works and why that tweak works for your family and that that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with going back out, but like you were saying, if you’re forever having to keep going back out for reassurance as to what’s happening, it doesn’t sustain you. That’s a great word.
So, we had talked about this a little bit, but I want to dive deeper into relationships.
You had mentioned that big shift in how we relate to our kids, moving away from control and focusing more on connection. And that was a huge shift for me. I think for many parents, as they come to embrace unschooling, it is a big shift. So, I would love to hear some more stories about your experience with that.
SARA: So, my relationship with my kids, as we’ve moved further and further into unschooling, has just felt so much stronger and so much more connected and so much more joyful. We are more joyful with each other in this space of connectedness. And so, I now feel like I can celebrate my kids for their authentic selves. I no longer have this vision. And then, I’m no longer feeling frustrated when my kid doesn’t meet my vision. And they can sense that. They can sense that celebration and relax into that and truly hone in on who they are, because they can sense my energy around feeling really celebratory about their authenticity. So, they just feel that.
And so, I love our conversations and I love when we’re connecting while I’m watching them play a game or when I’m actually diving in and playing with them. And I also love that they’re comfortable sharing with me their selves that aren’t so perfect, that they trust that they don’t need to be a certain kind of person to be around me. They can show me all of their colors and I’m going to help them and celebrate them and validate them wherever they happen to be.
And sometimes, that means I walk into a room and a kid’s like, “Hey mom, go away.” They just let me know. And I don’t feel insulted by that. I’m like, okay. They just told me something true about themselves and I’m fine with that. Okay. I’ll go away.
And so, I just love that they have that trust in me and we have that connection where they don’t just have to be happy, but the right kind of happy, a not-too-loud happy, around me. They can be just their genuine selves. And then, I can meet them there in that genuineness and really connect with who they are in that moment and that just feels wonderful to me. And I think it also feels wonderful for them as well.
I loved thinking about this question, because it helped solidify something for me that I’d never quite thought of in this way. But before unschooling, when I had a controlling, more power-based relationship with my kids, I definitely put lots of energy into my kids. I wasn’t a bad mom at that time, but a lot of my energy, and we all have a finite amount of energy, we don’t have infinite energy.
So, I was putting lots of energy into controlling my kids. And I found that the more energy I put in to controlling them, I didn’t really get that energy back. It was gone. So, anything that I invested in control, I spent it and I wasn’t getting it back in the context of my relationship with my kids, because whether you’re the one controlling or you’re the one being controlled, being in a controlled, power-based relationship is really draining.
And so, even as the mom, I found that the more I controlled, the more I felt like I needed to escape my kids. I needed to escape this relationship so that I could replenish the energy that I had lost while I was controlling them. And again, I wasn’t controlling them all the time. I had moments of joy and connection with my kids. But again, when I was controlling, that energy was gone and I wasn’t getting it back in the context of our relationship.
And so, what I’ve found with unschooling is that I’m focusing now solely on building this connected relationship with my kids and I’m spending lots of energy, just like when I was controlling, I’m spending lots of energy, but this time that energy is spent cultivating that mindset and the stories and the patience and the presence, so that I can go and meet my kids where they are in the space of connection. And that takes a lot of energy.
But what I found is that much of that energy comes back to me now in the context of our relationship, because being in a strong, connected relationship is rejuvenating. That’s just human nature. If we’re in a strong, connected relationship, we feel rejuvenated by that relationship. And so, I no longer feel like I’ve got to escape my kids to replenish my own energy stores. In fact, what I find is that, when I’m feeling a little bit low on energy, it usually means I’m disconnected a little bit from them. And I actually need to lean in a little bit more to our connection and reabsorb some of those good feels, so to speak.
And so, I find myself being replenished in our relationship, whereas before with the control. I wasn’t. And so now, if I want to leave the house, it’s not because I’m trying to escape or run away from my kids. It’s because I’m moving towards something that I feel like is going to bring me joy. And the shift in that is huge and monumental.
PAM: Wow. Yeah. That’s brilliant.
SARA: I had never thought about it like that until this podcast!
PAM: Yeah. Using that energy lens for it, it’s so true, as you just try that on for size, because the control pieces, you are investing so much energy, which is being resisted. If everybody wanted to do it, you wouldn’t have to control them. You wouldn’t have to manipulate them to get it done.
So, that energy is very much resisted or absorbed and doesn’t come back. And that piece about when we’re feeling low energy, it seems counter counterintuitive, but to go to them more, to lean in more and soak in their energy. Yes. I often, too, found that so re-energizing, because it reminds you what’s important. Just being in that moment and the joy and the fun and it’s okay. The other weight that we’re carrying around, no matter what was the source of our lower energy, this is important and this is valuable and it’s just darn fun.
SARA: My previous self, five years ago, would have just been really confused by everything that I just said. I actually thought of an example. I was like, okay, what’s something that five-years-ago Sara might have understood. And the example I came up with of this energy system that I just talked about was making a snack for my kids.
So, let’s say I’m making a snack for my kids, but I have a more control-based relationship with my kids. I put lots of energy into making this snack. And then I go to my child and I place the snack down beside them. And they don’t say, ‘thank you’. And now, all of a sudden, I’m finding myself annoyed that my kid didn’t say, thank you. And now, I either leave in a huff feeling underappreciated or I feel the need to correct. “You need to say, ‘thank you,’ to me.” And I’m frustrated with them, because they didn’t say thank you to me.
So, I’ve lost that energy there, but then let’s say, they say, ‘thank you,’ and I’m in this control-based relationship, well, that “thank you” isn’t really that rejuvenating, because they were supposed to say, ‘thank you,’ anyway. And maybe I’m just finally relieved that they said, ‘thank you’. Oh, I corrected them enough now. And now they’re saying, ‘thank you’. Thank goodness I don’t have to remind them again.
Or maybe I get frustrated with them because they said, ‘thank you,’ but it wasn’t in the right tone. And I don’t really think they meant it. So, that’s the control-based view. And I’ve felt all that before, so I know exactly where it’s coming from.
But then let’s say I’m making a snack, but I have a connections-based focus for my kid. And again, just as in the control-based relationship, I’m putting energy into the snack. But this time, when I walk up and I placed the snack beside my kid, and they don’t say, ‘thank you,’ maybe I just revel in the fact that they’re so focused on what they’re doing, that they didn’t even notice that I came in the room. Or maybe I can get a few giggles that I’m kind of like a Santa Claus or an Easter bunny who just comes in and magically leaves treats for my kids without them even knowing. Maybe that’s my kid’s perspective, like I’m this magical being and I can do that for my kids.
So, when they don’t say, ‘thank you,’ I can still get good energy back from that. But then if they say ‘thank you,’ I know that that’s a genuine ‘thank you’ coming from a genuine person. And that really fills me up, because they didn’t have to say, ‘thank you’. But they took that time to look at me and recognize my efforts.
And so, again, with the connection, I get some of that energy back when I’m interacting with my kids, whereas when I’m more interested or more focused on the control, I still put that energy in, but then when I interact with my kids, it’s like I’m not really getting it back. And the difference is not in how my kids act and what they do. It’s all about me.
And so, that’s kind of like, “Okay, five-years-ago Sara, this is kind of what I’m talking about when I say that energy piece.”
PAM: That’s a brilliant example. I love that. And I love the point about how in that controlling mindset, there’s the frustration and the negative energy if they don’t say thank you. And yet, even if they do, there’s often the tweak that they’re parroting back it back because they’re supposed to, there’s no real appreciation or gratitude in it, or it’s very hard to sense. Because then you’ve got to try and peel back that layer if they really mean it or not, et cetera. There’s just so much weight and so much lost energy through that approach. Yeah. When we’re looking at it through energy level, I love that. That’s brilliant.
SARA: Yeah. And so, we’re talking about relationships and I can’t talk about relationships without also talking about my partner and my relationship with my partner, Joe. And so, I’ve been, like I said, working really hard to build this connected, trusting relationship with my kids. And that’s been going on now for four and a half, five years. We’re moving into that.
And what I found, though, is that for many years, I’ve been holding my partner separate. And I’ve been not quite extending him the same level of that kindness and grace and thoughtfulness that I’ve been extending my kids, because he’s an adult and he should know better and he should be able to take care of himself. And just all these stories that I was telling myself. And so, I really had a double standard there for a while. I mean, years, where I was doing these things for my kids and we were feeling so great and warm and fuzzy, and I was seeing all these wonderful things, but then here’s my partner and I’m not quite doing that with him. And I had my reasons for why.
I would notice I was trying to control my partner, like in the way he interacted with our kids, to control his relationship with the kids, or I would get frustrated because he was spending all of this time working, understandably. He’s the breadwinner. So, most of his energy is going towards making the money and working at his job. And he hasn’t spent that energy in unschooling that I have and I would think, oh, he needs to be where I am. And then getting frustrated when he’s not.
All of those control pieces that I was still applying that I knew fundamentally didn’t work with my kids and yet I was still holding them for my partner. And it’s only been within the last year or so that I’ve finally felt myself release that need to control my partner as well. It’s like all these layers of control that just keep popping up and going, oh, Sara, you’re doing it again. And I don’t want to move in that direction.
And so, I’ve noticed that my partner is wonderfully supportive of unschooling, but he doesn’t want to read about it. And this isn’t his passion and that’s okay. And that piece used to frustrate me, like, why can’t he be passionate like me about unschooling and want to talk about it all the time? And he just wanted to live. And I say “just”. He wanted to live unschooling and he’s been supportive of me, but he didn’t want to go into a five-hour conversation with me about autonomy and all of this.
So, what I’ve found is that, as I released that control surrounding my partner as well, I just feel like there’s more warmth between us and there is more connection and more compassion and that understanding and just the feeling how good it feels to be focused on connecting with my partner, as opposed to controlling and being frustrated when I can’t control this other person.
And again, it just amazes me that these layers keep showing up and I view my partner as probably my final frontier. I know there are other layers of control in there, but for my nuclear family, he’s my final frontier for releasing this control and having the same level of connectedness with my partner as I do with my kids. And so, it’s been wonderful to realize that and then to be moving in the direction of connection. And I think he can sense the difference, as well, because everyone just relaxes a little bit more when that’s the environment.
PAM: Yes! Even that overt control, even when we’re just wishing, “I wish you were as excited as I was about this,” “I wish you were in relationship with our kids the way I am in relationship with our kids,” they can feel that energy. They can feel that sense of, “I’m not living up to expectations,” that you have.
So, yeah. In my experience, it is just so much more relaxing and opening when we can peel back that next layer of control and see how it’s part of our adult relationships as well and questioning, why does it need to be there? Why do I have these expectations of this other person? Is that serving me? Is it serving them? Is it serving our relationship? To just start digging into that. “I love my relationship with my kids. How does that apply to my partner?” All those pieces. And it does bring such a lightness to it. Energy really is a great lens to look through.
SARA: Yes. It’s something we just kind of swim through I feel like. We all have this aura, this energy aura, and it is palpable. And so, yeah. That energy of judgment is palpable, including for our kids and then also for our partners. And I found that to be true for me, as well.
PAM: Speaking of, that leads very nicely to our next question, because that was another piece for me, too. So, unschooling is about my kids not going to school. So then, we worked our way through learning and then we focused on our relationships and learned the importance of that. And then that grew into our partner. And we’re often last in line there.
I was wondering if you could talk about how embracing unschooling has changed your relationship with yourself and how you just engage in your days. It’s like another layer, isn’t it?
SARA: Oh gosh. Yes. And this was definitely a byproduct that I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting this area of growth. But what I found was that, when I was restricting or judging my kids in certain spaces and having that restrictive space for them to operate in, that I had been living my life in that restricted space, as well. And I was judging myself in the ways that I was judging my kids.
And so, what I found was that, as I challenged these restrictive ways of thinking and these control-based ideas and I started to really stretch my comfort zones so that my kids could exist authentically in these spaces, I was stretching for them. But then what I found was that, when I stretched for them, I then had the space to also be authentic in those areas, where before I might not have been.
And so, I have a few examples. And again, this has permeated all of life. Pam, you knew I was going to have some examples, didn’t you? One example I have for myself where I’ve stretched for my kids, but then gone, “Oh, I can now breathe here, too,” is food. I used to feel obligated to eat all the food in front of me, whether I liked it or not. You finish your plate. You eat what’s in front of you. And so, I’ve worked really hard to release that control around food for my kids, because I wanted them to be able to trust their own body signals and to learn what foods they liked and how, and when, and how much they liked to eat. And so, watching them, they eat so intuitively. It’s like, they eat what they like. They stop when they’re done. And if they don’t like it, they leave it. It’s so simple.
Watching them, they’ll have a piece of pizza and they only liked the pepperoni off the pizza. Well, they just eat the pepperoni and they leave the rest. Whereas I’m sitting there like, “That’s a piece of pizza. Why aren’t you eating the whole thing?” And so, this is just one example of the food piece, but I finally have realized after all these years that I don’t like the crust on my sandwiches. And I’ve finally given myself permission to cut the crust off my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It’s this space where I’m like, oh, “I don’t have to eat the crust. I’m going to cut the crust off,” and doing it. And it just feels so empowering for some reason to cut the crust off that sandwich.
And so, the other piece was reading. So, for the longest time, I wished that I was more of a reader. I wanted to be one of these people that had these five books that they were reading simultaneously and they were always carrying books around and I just never was that person. And so, I was working really hard to value all the learning for my kids. No matter what the learning was or how they learned, I was working really hard to value that.
And I noticed that my kids also aren’t really book readers. They read a lot in their video games and they read a lot in YouTube and when they’re chatting in-game with people, but they don’t sit down with books, either. That’s not their preferred style of learning. And so, then it made me go, huh? Why do I think that I should be reading all these books? And finally, I realized that I can celebrate the fact that I’m not a book reader. I’d much rather listen to a podcast or watch a documentary or a movie than I would sit down and read a book. And that’s beautiful. I can celebrate that now, instead of lament it.
And then the last little piece, and again, there are so many, but I just pulled out a few examples. My whole idea about finishing things. For the longest time, I felt obligated that if I started something, I needed to finish it. It’s an art project. I gotta finish that art project. I’ve got to finish that piece of food. I’m a finisher. I just observed how my kids go so easily between activities and when something no longer captivates them, they just move on and there’s no guilt or shame that they carry about that.
And there have been times where they’ll be watching a YouTube video and there will be 30 seconds left in the YouTube video and they’ll switch it. And I find myself going, “Wait! You haven’t finished it yet! There’s still 30 more seconds!” Kind of like this, “You’ve gotta finish it!” And then, I catch myself and my kids are like, ‘Well, it’s not interesting anymore. I’m switching it,” and they’ve got 30 seconds left, which drives me bonkers bonkers for some reason. Well, I know why it drives me bonkers, but it’s just this whole idea that choosing not to finish something is just as valid a choice as choosing to finish it.
And so, it’s given me the space to be like, okay, that art project was fun for a couple hours, but I don’t need to do it. Or, I know I bought this thing thinking I would use it this way, but it’s really not lighting me up right now. So, I don’t need to feel bad about not engaging with it in the way that I thought I would. It’s just this space to be authentic and not judge myself.
And then the last little piece is the language piece for me, that’s been huge. Because I’ve worked so hard to think and speak kindly of my kids, I am much more able to recognize when I start not speaking or thinking kindly of myself. And so, because I’ve really worked to extend that graciousness to them and truly be kind and thoughtful in my thoughts and in my actions, I can see where I’m like, why am I shaming myself here? Why am I using that word to describe me? And just really changing my language around myself, too. So, those have been the big byproducts of me making space for others, but then realizing that, oh my gosh, this is really enriching me, as well.
PAM: It’s like, oh, I’m a person too. It’s so true. Because, at first, it’s the realization that kids are people, too. You hear that phrase. But when you really dig into that and what that means day to day, it fosters these beautiful relationships. And then, when we bring it back to ourselves, that’s just when it becomes more obvious when we’re not treating ourselves in the same way and then questioning, why aren’t I doing that?
And I just laughed so hard with your first story, because, just before the call, I took the crust off my peanut butter and jam sandwich. And it still gives a little thrill, doesn’t it?
SARA: Yes! I don’t have to eat the crust!
It is amazing how our own inner world grows in that space that we’re creating for them. With our kids, the space grows, it extends to our partner. And then, it extends for our inner life as well. And all of those layers, as we’re peeling back, just bring us each more authentically into the moment, without that judgment, without those expectations. And so much amazingness, for lack of a better word, just comes into being in that space when we have so many less layers that are weighing us down, back to the energy. When we can all come with that openness and energy, it just really helps these moments unfold. They unfold beautifully, creatively, joyfully, all the adjectives.
SARA: Right. And it really is self-sustaining, too. It really is.
PAM: I love that. I love that. Okay.
What is your favorite thing about the flow of your unschooling days right now?
SARA: So, I totally could not choose one, Pam, so I have a few things I’m just loving right now. I love how, from a higher philosophical level, how unschooling for me has moved beyond an educational model and has become this practice. It’s a way of life for me. So, that’s been beautiful for me.
But the other thing is I love how it’s provided this time and this space for all of us in the family to be and to explore and to all be authentically ourselves, but also interacting and learning how to be authentic with other people who are authentic in a different way than we are. And I just love the connections that I have with my kids and how joy and connection are the navigational beacons for my unschooling days and how my children really are my truest guides, because they don’t have all those layers. And so, if they’re responding to something negatively or I can feel that energy shift, I just know something’s going on that I probably want to look into, because they are my true guides.
And I just love that unschooling has helped me be so honored, like feel honored and grateful that I get to walk beside my kids and my partner on this path together. And we don’t know where it leads, but in that space of connection, it will go someplace beautiful and unexpected. And that also, I’m actually living in the beauty in this moment. It’s also the beauty. So, lots of stuff I love about unschooling, but there you go.
PAM: Oh my goodness. That was amazing, Sara. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Thank you. Thank you.
SARA: You’re welcome. Thank you so much, Pam.
PAM: I really, really appreciate it. And before we go, where can people connect with you online?
SARA: So, I am not super available online. I am on Facebook and I do have an email account. And I’m also on the Living Joyfully Network that you founded, Pam. So, those are the places that people can find me.
PAM: That is awesome. Thank you so much, Sara. And please enjoy the rest of your day.
SARA: Thanks, Pam.