PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and this week, I am joined again by Anna Brown and Erika Ellis to answer listener questions. Hey!
PAM: Before we get started, I just want to remind everyone that our Q&A conversations aren’t focused on giving anyone the right answer to a question, because there isn’t a universal right answer for any situation that’s going to work for every family. So instead, our focus is on considering the situation from the different perspectives of those involved and playing with the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves to better dig into and understand the nuances of the child. And maybe brainstorming some possibilities for moving forward if that’s applicable. So, basically, we’re sharing food for thought through the lens of unschooling. So, Anna, would you like to start us off?
ANNA: I sure will. Okay. So, this is from anonymous in California.
“Thank you for all you do to raise awareness of unschooling as a normal and healthy educational approach for more kids! I’m curious if, through your interviews, you’ve met any grown unschoolers who have attained or are in the process of achieving a rigorous and demanding degree and career. I’ve checked the grown unschoolers website too and am yet to find an example. I’m talking the level of MBA, doctorate, etc.
I’m very interested to find such an example, because my daughter wants to be a veterinarian. She is still early elementary school age and in a school that practices unschooling philosophy. I volunteer in the school enough to know that high educational achievement and self-discipline don’t seem to be of value or encouraged among the older students. Is that generally the case among unschooling communities? I love the arts and theater, too, but also feel that the world needs both the gentle, respectful, and empowering ways of unschooling and the highly disciplined, educated, and critically thinking adults to run things and save lives of people & animals.
Does the former not result in the latter? Is that an unpopular expectation in this community? Thank you so much for your time!”
Okay. So, there are so many interesting things to turn over in this question. First, the child that we’re talking about is very young, so it’s pretty common for young children to want to be veterinarians. I did, too. I did actually change my mind before college for a variety of reasons. I have continued, however, to be involved in animal work through my life, including saving many animals while I was a wildlife rehabilitator.
I do know of individuals who have pursued college and graduate work in science and math fields. I’ve known unschooling individuals who have pursued advanced degrees, including ones from Ivy League universities.
But parading unschoolers out as examples of success, whether their path leads to being an architect or an artist, isn’t something I tend to engage in, because the point for me of this lifestyle is to allow each individual to chart their own path, to follow their passions, to find what makes their heart sing. And it’s not about an end product. It’s about the journey and the connections along the way.
And if you’re unschooling for a particular end product for your child, I think there’s a high risk of disappointment. And I would also argue if you’re sending your child to school with a particular outcome in mind, you are likely to be disappointed. The whole, “expectations are pre-planned resentments” comes to mind.
I thought also it was interesting, especially if we take doctor/lawyer, for example, these are often steeped in stories, the ones that I know anyway, of, they did it for their parents. They felt they had to. “That was what I supposed to do, so I did it.” And it doesn’t always, maybe even not often, spring from a genuine love of that field or topic.
And so, that does beg the question, would people pursue those careers without someone else pushing an agenda on them? And I think honestly there would be some. And I would argue that those would be a lot happier than the ones that are pushed into it. Academic rigor and demanding careers don’t necessarily equal happiness. So, there’s just a lot to turn over with all the kind of ideas that are steeped in this question.
And I guess I would also ask the question if they are in one of those fields, and if not, to start now, because I think it’s great for someone to pursue something that they value at any age, but it doesn’t feel as great when somebody sits on the sideline and places their dreams onto another. And like, “Oh, I want you to do this thing.” That can be such a heavy weight for a child to carry, those expectations and this belief in what’s valued. And I think sometimes it just helps to examine, if one is in a demanding career, how’s that working for them and why would we think that path is good for another? And then we can share the joys of that if we feel it and then that can come about more organically.
So, if I find myself thinking of something’s important for someone else to do, be it food, career, exercise, whatever it is, I look at, am I doing that thing? What am I doing that shows that this is important to me or that I believe it’s important? And if I’m not doing that, what’s behind it? Why do I think it’s good for this person? And, for me, I value the ability to acquire knowledge. Knowing how to acquire knowledge allows us to pursue the things that interest us. And if we have that going for us, then we can go down any path with confidence. I have seen that over and over again.
The unschoolers I know who have chosen college have excelled there, because they wanted to be there. They were choosing from this rich world of choices. And I contrast that to the people that I was surrounded with in college who didn’t want to be there at all. They ended up just drinking and partying their way either through or out, because it was the first time they weren’t being watched for 24 hours and they were trying to figure out, what do I do with this time?
And last thing, and then I’ll give it to you guys, is this idea of critical thinking. So, I find critical thinking doesn’t really come into play when we’re following a scripted path. I find most schools don’t have time for critical thinking. Questioning is not encouraged. And I know that, because I’m a questioner and it was squelched constantly. “We’re not talking about that now, Anna,” “I don’t have time for that now, Anna,” “We’re going to move on to the lesson, Anna,” so many times in my school life. So, one of the things that was super important to me in my family was, question everything. We always have time for questions, including and especially prevailing wisdom and authority figures.
So, if you’re one who questions and things critically, I’m guessing many of these regimented career paths wouldn’t be a good fit. So, I think it is interesting that the questioner thinks that there’s one type of person and path for people who run things or heal people or animals. When we start to think beyond the prevailing narrative of the one path to success, we see there are infinite paths to live amazing rich lives.
And so, I think it will be interesting to see how her daughter feels as she grows up and where her path leads. I do feel confident that if she’s passionate about being a vet, she will find a way. The core subjects needed to pursue that career can be picked up easily in her late teens and then she can move on to the higher education required for that particular thing.
And I will just put in a quick plug about Blake Boles’ book, College without High School. I think it might be a good resource to get the mind around, yeah, we can go and pursue these college careers and we can have this rich life of exploring and the colleges love it. And in the meantime, if it was me, I would just enjoy this time of play, exploration, and connection. Whew! Okay. So much! My head was bursting with that question, but what did you think, Erika?
ERIKA: Yeah! I agree. It was such an interesting question, because of all the layers! So, my kids are still pretty young. I don’t have a lot of experience with grown unschoolers yet. But my initial reaction when reading the question was, of course they can get their doctorate or an MBA or go through any professional training they are interested in, because they’re choosing their path. So, I was curious, what would be the reason why it feels like they can’t or that they maybe wouldn’t? And I can think of several reasons.
So, when I was growing up, I was in a really competitive academic environment. Everyone I was in class with was following the path to career success and the expectation was that we would change the world. There were so many hoops to jump through, so much judgment and grading and testing, and so on. Our time was super scheduled and the path felt like it was just laid out in front of us.
Now, a lot of people I knew then did continue to follow that path. And a lot of people got off of it at one point or another. And for me, the shift was in college. I was on a pre-med path and realized that so many of the courses I was required to take were not interesting to me. And more importantly, I realized that they were not actually required knowledge for the work of being a doctor. These courses were rigor for rigor’s sake. Rigor for the sake of weeding out those who couldn’t handle the tough coursework. And so, I chose to step off the path, because it didn’t feel good to me to participate in that. And I just figured new opportunities would present themselves that felt more respectful of my whole humanity and my temperament. And so, that was really the first time I questioned my path.
So, when I was reading this question, I was really transported back to that time and when I think about it now, it does make sense that someone who has more time to think about their choices and has been able to question those typical pathways might be more skeptical of a program that feels like rigor for the sake of rigor. It might not feel worth all of that time and energy to jump through those hoops. But then again, it’s all about the individual. If the goal of being a doctor or being a vet is important enough to them, then it will feel like the right choice to go through the hoops in order to get there.
For me, that end goal was more just an expectation or a choice I could make that would be accepted and admired. It was about being observed. It wasn’t my passion. And so, for me, it wasn’t worth going down that path. And I’m so glad I listened to my inner voice.
The unschooling approach that I’m trying to use with my kids leaves space for them to hear their inner voice and to make their own choices. We can see infinite possibilities and move toward what feels true to ourselves and what feels good. It doesn’t mean moving away from a challenging path, but it might mean not pushing along a path that feels dehumanizing. Or it might mean finding a way to participate in the field that we love in a way that honors our whole person-hood.
And when a young person has grown up being respected and being able to make choices without judgment, then you know that that choice that they do make to go to college or to go to grad school or med school or whatever else they choose, is really because they want to. And they’ll have such a different experience of it than someone who has felt pushed through it, like Anna was saying.
The challenging part for us as parents is to not let expectations and judgments become an obstacle to our children in listening to their inner voice. And I was thinking, you can ask yourself, how much educational achievement would you want for yourself if no one was watching? Because I see educational achievement as different from learning. It’s about an audience. And is there a benefit to being highly disciplined and educated if it’s along a path that someone else has laid out for you and the result of following someone else’s expectations?
I think I’d also love to dive into the word self-discipline a bit, too. I thought that was an interesting lens to be viewing the older students at the school through. Because you’re seeing the school as not fostering self-discipline or that it’s something that they’re lacking and I’m wondering if that’s the right word for what you’re looking for.
We might call following the prescribed path, meeting expectations, looking outwardly impressive, and achieving a lot as “having self-discipline”. So, does self-discipline mean doing things you don’t want to do in order to meet your own goals? Or does it mean doing things you don’t want to do in order to meet an external expectation? Does it mean knowing the steps you need to take to reach your own goals and taking the steps even when they are challenging? And who can determine what self-discipline looks like for someone else? I would argue that it would really be up to each individual and we can’t know from the outside, just looking at them.
I would so much rather have children who are able to make choices and listen to their inner knowing than children who are pushing through for the sake of impressing someone else. And if being true to themselves means being a vet, I have no doubt that they will do just that. But if they’re pushing through, at some point, they’re going to be stuck in a life that they didn’t fully choose and that might not be fully satisfying them and it’s so much harder to shift paths all those years later.
As far as having children who are educated and critical thinkers, I have found that all the unschoolers I’ve met are certainly that! They definitely think a lot more critically than I did while I was following the prescribed path. And their education is deeper, more personal, more memorable, and more connected to who they are. I believe unschooling is so powerful in that way.
And also, your daughter is just still so young! She has so many amazing experiences ahead, so much to learn and try and do. And her vision of her future will most likely evolve as she learns more about the world and all of those infinite possibilities. So, respecting her as a whole human now and giving her space and time to listen to herself will give her such a strong foundation for doing whatever it is that she wants to do throughout her life, because there’s plenty of time and there’s a whole world of options for her and that feels very exciting!
That’s all I have for now. Pam?
PAM: Okay. I love, love, love where both of you took that. I’m so glad that we have this rich opportunity to dive deeper into questions.
And I found this question so interesting, particularly because it wasn’t really framed around ways to support her daughter, but as a generalization of observations of the community that she is a part of. And we can’t speak for the unschooling community at large, but it was so fun to dive into this bigger picture look at it.
Because, for me, it’s not about not valuing high educational achievement, but about valuing my children’s choices around what they would like to achieve. And part of my deschooling journey absolutely included exploring my thoughts around high educational achievement and why it felt important to me at first. So, I remember just bubbling around with questions like, is it the prestige of the higher degree? Is it the money I anticipate them making? Is it about them being a high achiever? Is it about comparing them against others on the productivity and accomplishment scales? What other scales might also be valuable? Is comparison to another person actually a worthwhile thing to do?
And the other piece, like Erika mentioned, is the self-discipline. I loved that lens, too, digging into that, because I see in my kids and lots of unschooling kids as they pursue their goals, their self-discipline is amazing. And I think a big part of that is because they are internally motivated, because it’s their choice.
And I’ve also found many, many, many grown unschoolers to be great critical thinkers, because they have had lots of experience thinking through situations and making choices from the little things to the big things. Things get bigger as they get older. Your child’s young right now.
In an unschooling family, I suspect there is definitely much less pressure, if any pressure, to choose what conventionally looks like a prestigious career, but that also doesn’t stop them from doing so. It truly is that individual choice. So, for example, Anna, you mentioned you’ve met lots of them. On the podcast, I’ve spoken with Alec Traaseth, who’s now in grad school pursuing his doctorate in math, and with Ellie Beck, who’s now in law school. And that is cool.
But, as you pointed out, Anna, it’s cool because it’s what they are super interested in doing. It’s not better than any other grown unschoolers or any other person who’ve made different choices. So, that’s why steeping in those questions of why we’re ranking different careers and just digging into that, I think we’ll be just so rich and interesting. What do I value? It’s almost, what is my goal as a parent? How do I see my role? What are the things that I think are important? It’s always valuable to question myself. Why do I think that’s so important? How might that play out? What might come up along the way?
And we’ll touch on this in other questions, but when you’re looking at the relationship, when we have expectations, as you said, Anna, expectations are pre-planned resentments. And our expectations on someone else can not only be contentious conversations, but they can have far reaching impacts to our relationship, to their learning.
Because when we have disconnects in our relationship, when they start avoiding us, not sharing pieces of information, because either we’ll dismiss them as not valuable enough, they’ll just feel our energy trying to shift them in the direction that better meets our goals for them. They will just stop coming to us or not as much or not sharing as much information. And then we can’t support them as well. We can’t bring new information to them. We can’t bring activities and things that they would super enjoy, that would support their rich learning in the things that they’re interested in. Our world has gotten smaller, because we have an expectation of where we want them to go in the future. So, that is all great stuff to play around with.
All right, Erika. Next question.
ERIKA: Okay. So, the next question is from Jenn and she writes,
“I have two boys, ages 8 and 10. We’ve been homeschooling/unschooling since the pandemic started. I struggle with self-guided learning versus things they need to learn like reading and writing, which they are totally not interested in. When they can, they spend all their time on devices, watching YouTube, playing Roblox, etc. I’m just curious. Do ‘gaming’ and unschooling complement one another and if so, how? Thank you!”
Hi, Jenn! Thank you so much for your question. And I think this is a pretty common place to be early on in your unschooling journey. You’re questioning what learning can look like and getting curious about how people might learn outside of school or outside of how we expect things to look.
And I think it’s pretty typical to start from a place where we’re looking for recognizable learning or recognizable activities, but also really wanting to give our kids agency and the ability to make choices for themselves.
So, now you’re seeing them make choices and they really are looking nothing like school or like what you think of as learning the basics, or the things they need to learn, as you said. But that whole idea is really fun to dig into and question and get curious about. Because if there is something they need to learn, won’t they learn it? So, maybe being curious about this idea of needing to do it. Needing for what? Reading and writing are useful skills in our society. So, they may find themselves wanting to use those skills. In fact, I’m sure that they will. And so, there will be an intrinsic desire to learn those things and in a text-rich environment, the opportunity is there. And with your support, they can acquire those skills.
But then you said they’re not interested in reading and writing. So, you can get curious about that, too. Is it that they aren’t interested in reading and writing? Or maybe that they’re not interested in practicing those skills in the way that you like to see? Or maybe that they’re not interested in performing those skills for someone who might be judging their abilities? Maybe they are just feeling great about their capabilities and how they match what they want to be doing right now. They can read and write enough for their needs at this moment.
There are just so many things to learn in life and the natural path that each individual takes to learn what they want and need to learn will look totally different from someone else’s. And outside of school, it will probably look very different than it would in school. So, that can be disorienting.
But it has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life to see how my kids approached learning to read, how it looked different for each of them and how it was so different from my experience when I was young.
The funny or interesting thing about your question for me was that gaming absolutely is the how and the why of my kids’ learning to read and type. Wanting to read the text on the screen, interacting in the chat in Roblox, watching YouTube videos. There’s a lot of these videos where there’s no speaking at all. All the story is just written out in words and these were the things that motivated my kids to figure out how to read.
I was a really young reader. I was interested in knowing what the letters meant when I was a toddler and I was persistent in getting my mom and my grandmother to point and show me the words until I could read them myself. My oldest, Oliver, started getting really interested in what the letters were when he was about four or five. He was recognizing them everywhere. So, that was the beginning of him figuring it out. Maya was older. Because she was older, I think, she had such great insight into what it felt like for her to learn how to read. She told me that she didn’t used to even see letters, but all of the sudden, it felt like they were so noticeable to her. And she was like, I just keep trying to read everything!
So, it’s clear to me that something is happening in our brains that makes reading become easier or more interesting at a certain point and I don’t think we control when that is for someone else. It feels great to give my kids space and time to be able to get there on their own timeline.
So, that was a bit of a reading tangent, but my point is that if there are skills they need, then they will acquire them. And there isn’t just one timeline or one approach that makes sense for every person’s brain. Following their interests and giving them abundance as far as games and toys and books and all the things that light them up and help them follow those interests gives them that environment where the learning can happen.
I think we have a lot of past podcast episodes and maybe articles we can link as well about learning those skills as well as all the amazing benefits of gaming! For kids who are passionate about gaming, it’s incredible to see all that they get from that interest, whether it’s learning many of those things that you might expect them to learn in school, or navigating social situations, understanding references and allusions to pop culture and literature, fine motor skills, persistence, taking on challenges, having fun and also just a relaxing place to process. The list can go on and on.
But, it’s not about, oh all kids should be gaming because it’s so great. It’s about, what are the things that my kids get so excited doing? And whatever those things are are going to be great places for you to connect with them, to validate them, and for them to learn. Spending their days feeling excited and joyful will lead to such great places. And whatever interests they have really do lead them everywhere, because in real life, everything is connected!
Last month, I mentioned Roya Dedeaux’s book, Connect with Courage, and I’ll mention it again, because it may just help with some inspiration to really dive into and embrace their interests, whatever those may be. And also, if you haven’t read Pam’s book, Free to Learn, that book has a lot of those ideas about redefining what learning looks like and questioning the mainstream paradigms. And I’m excited for where your journey will take you!
PAM: That was beautiful, Erika. And absolutely, you so beautifully described how gaming is a wonderful interest through which they can explore and learn about the world, about themselves, and reading and writing, all those skills that just bubble up, because they’re just part of our ethos, part of our lives.
And when I think back to the beginning of the journey, one of the deschooling paradigm shifts that I love, and yes, I talk about it in my book, is the shift away from seeing learning to read and learning to write as something separate from living. Like, the goal is to learn this skill. Shifting away from that to seeing how those skills can be learned through just pursuing the things we’re interested in, they’re interested in. A skill has a function. You use the skill for something, so be doing the things and you’ll find uses for the skills.
And I love that you mentioned, we’ll definitely put links to those podcast episodes about learning to read, and I even did a compilation episode, because people mentioned stories in various interviews. So, I put some of those together as well. Just seeing how reading naturally unfolds when you’re engaged in things and that’s the other really important thing is that, especially with reading, that’s a complicated skill that can take time to develop.
And then the other piece, comparing it to the way you learn to read in school, especially when they expect the skill to be very step-by-step. “Learn this. This is the sounds the letters make. Here’s the exceptions,” this little ladder. And we imagine the journey to be, I choose to do it and now I’m going to take this journey step by step by step. And we feel like, oh, we should be able to see their progression, their standard, regular progression along the various steps and then they will get to reading.
But really, when you look at it naturally and let it unfold, there are times when, I don’t even want to say stuck, but, like you were saying, Erika, your daughter didn’t even notice letters. And there was no need. That’s the beautiful thing. Not knowing how to read when you’re not in a classroom where reading is important, it’s not a big deal. Either you don’t even see them and you’re just doing your things. Or somebody else will read for you or there is text to speech or all sorts of tools. It doesn’t have to stop the learning. So, it is just so fun to steep in the idea of reading and the value of it.
And then sometimes it seems to happen all of a sudden. Maybe we’ll link to that article I have on my daughter’s journey to reading. Because all of a sudden, they’ll be like, “Hey, I can read.” It’s like, oh, okay. It’s that at that moment for them when they’re like, oh, okay. It’s really fascinating to see it individually and it unfolds so differently for each person and we don’t need to put a timeline on it. We don’t need to see regular progression. Yet, as you said, Erika, we live in a world that is text-rich. It’s information-rich. So, we can get information in whatever ways works for us. And text is there, whether we put on subtitles. We still have subtitles on sometimes. There’s just so many ways that words can surround us in our world.
And so, the goal doesn’t have to be reading. Maybe the goal is playing Roblox and picking up some reading along the way is going to be really helpful. There are just so many ways to approach that idea. So, that was a huge shift for me, from seeing learning to read as a skill, as the end goal, and living our lives and doing the things we want to do and reading is something we pick up in fits and spurts along the way. Does that make sense?
ANNA: Yes! I mean, you guys covered so much, so I don’t have a whole lot here, except that these “foundational skills” that we talk about, they’re foundational for a reason, because they are so useful as we pursue things. And when they have that use, all those pieces come together in a way that makes sense. And that timeline is different for everyone, because if you’ll listen to those other podcasts, you’ll see the richness of the non-reading brain. We talk about those other pieces, but these foundational skills, they mean so much more and I think we retain them so much more easily if they are related to the things that we’re interested in or they’re helping us along this journey that we have to get to this place we want to go.
So, reading’s not the goal. It’s whatever this interest is might be the goal of the moment or the season. And reading may be a tool that helps us get there. And then that feels so much better. And so, I had Erika’s questions. Is it that they don’t like reading and writing? Or is it they don’t like maybe sitting down or performing or doing this, because my guess is, they could be like Maya and at this stage just not even see the letters, or it could be that, “Yeah, I see enough that works for me. I don’t need to perform it for you.”
But I think really the summation is, there’s learning everywhere. And when we stay open and curious about what our kids are doing, we see the learning and we see the connections and we see that intricate web of knowledge that they’re building.
And as we’ve talked about before, that web is so much stronger and more resilient than this linear thread that you’re tight-roping along. I don’t even know if it steps, Pam! It’s like we’re tight-roping along this very linear thread that’s offered in these institutional settings. And so, I think when we can bring that mindset to observing your kids, I think the questioner, too, will see like, “Oh, okay, I see it. I see what’s happening.” And it gets pretty exciting, really.
PAM: I love that. Yes. It’s a little thread. Just the different images of the thread and the tight rope and walking that skill level, versus a web and the resiliency of that and the richness. I keep coming back to that word, but it fits so well, how rich that is.
And if you’re having a hard time on that tight rope, you’ve got nowhere else to go. But when you have a web, it’s like, oh, that textbook that I’m interested in has a whole bunch of words that I don’t quite understand. I’m going to find something else. I’m going to find a video. I’m going to find another kind of book, just anything. There are just so many other possibilities when we’re not in that one environment where learning happens. Learning is so much bigger than that.
Okay. Our last question and it’s a little bit longer, but I am going to read it in full, because it is a very rich question with all sorts of different aspects. So, I think it will be really valuable.
“Thank you so much for all you do for the unschooling community. I’ve been listening to your podcast for about six months now as we have transitioned away from school and your resources have been helpful. I have a question related to unschooling and the realities of health and biology.
So, when it comes to both food and movement, it seems like the unschooling approach is, of course, let children be self-directed! And yet, I’m wondering about the many questions you get about children who really prefer and choose to stay sedentary all day. I want to clarify. I have a slightly different question than the one you often get about “how to get kids off their devices.”
My question is more about how unschooling philosophy thinks about physical health. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Katy Bowman. She’s written lots of books, two I would name are “Move your DNA” and “Growing Wild”. She’s a bio-mechanist who connects the sedentary ways our culture has shifted to all kinds of negative long-term health consequences among humans. She’s part of the “movement movement” as I’ve heard some people refer to it. Her work really tracks how little humans move in our modern society and how serious this issue is for our bodies over our lifespan. She talks about this need for less sedentarism in terms of “movement nutrients” and I’ve found her work very, very compelling. I’m wondering what unschoolers make of this kind of research?
Sometimes I feel like the responses of guests and the Q&A episodes are that parents concerned about their kids moving enough are kind of stuck in our “schoolish” ways. And while I’m sure that’s true a lot, and even for myself, I do truly have founded concerns about making sure my children are developing healthy bodies that will sustain them over their lives, especially in light of growing global instability. And it’s just very clear that sitting all day–or most of the day–isn’t biologically compatible with a goal of long-term health and a lot of our negative health consequences are connected to lack of movement in our childhoods.
I’d connect this also to some of the panel or Q&A episodes you’ve had on food. I feel very aligned with unschooling and with your podcast/community in general, but sometimes it feels like there’s a bit of dismissiveness of the growing health crisis adults and children in our society are facing due to lack of movement and nutrition. I think someone on a recent episode said something along the lines of “changes in technology mean we will obviously live differently, sit, watch, game more, and that this is something to celebrate.” And answers like this just feel so disconnected from what the science is saying about our bodies. What am I missing? I’d truly appreciate any ideas or feedback on this.”
Thank you so much for the great question. I love all the detail and the nuances. I appreciate your concerns and how thoughtfully you wrote them down. And I also appreciate that you’re curious to explore them more deeply, because this is what I love doing. I love to just tease things apart.
There were two things that bubbled up for me as I thought about your question, because I carried it around for a few days. So, first is the challenge of controlling another person’s choices. And we talked about this some in the first question. And back to the idea of self-directed, because, for me, when I use the lens of self-directed talking about unschooled learning, it fits, but for me, it evokes a more hands-off image, leaving the child to figure things out on their own. And I prefer to think of unschooling in terms of supporting my child’s choices.
So, cultivating an open and inviting space for them to make choices, to observe how things unfold, to process those experiences into a bigger-picture understanding of themselves in the world, that web that we were talking about, and then bringing that new knowledge with them into their future choices. To me, that feels richer and more engaging than thinking of my child’s learning as self-directed. You go, you figure this out, you make this choice, you make the next choice.
Our relationships with our children matter to their learning. And I’m going to put a link to episode 148 in the show notes, which was about the value of relationships for learning. And I think you might find that interesting.
Keeping our relationship at the forefront encourages me not to judge my child’s choices or to try to control or direct them, because that can often bring more disconnection to our relationship, which in turn gets in the way of their learning, including their learning about themselves, which includes food and movement.
I also want to put a link to a blog post I wrote titled Unschooling with Strong Beliefs. The degree to which we choose to try to impress our beliefs onto our children’s choices is absolutely our choice. But I think it’s really helpful to pay attention to any cost to our relationship that comes with that. So, the example I use in the post is vegetarianism. But you can read it through any lens of a strong belief that you hold, because the impact isn’t in the belief itself. It’s in the bigger picture of the relationship, which brings up the second thing that bubbled up for me, living our strong beliefs.
And you touched on this in the first part, too, Anna. And you did, too, Erika. Not insisting that our children act out the same beliefs we have does not mean giving up on what we believe to be true for us. So, you can live your value for movement in your life, alongside your children. They can see you living it. They can see you loving it. You can share how good it makes you feel without any undertone of persuasion. Like, “I’m better because I’m doing this.” And if it looks like fun, if you’re enjoying it, they may well be more inclined to join you and see what it feels like for them to gain that experience.
So, through my unschooling lens, again, not speaking for the community as a whole, but for me, in my experience, it’s not about removing their sedentary time, but about adding more fun things to their lives. Our beliefs, whatever they are, our strong beliefs can make their world bigger, not smaller.
And it also means continuing to learn about and explore our beliefs. Just off the top of my head, you might find it interesting to explore the concept of intuitive eating. There are scientific studies that show food restrictions and obsessing over what you eat is bad for your health. So, there are just so many pieces. When we get, I don’t want to say caught up in the science, but there are lots of studies. There are studies on the whole spectrum of things, so I’m just pointing out an area that may bring up new ideas for you, intuitive eating, just because that’s one I have more deeply explored than others.
But the value for me when it comes to unschooling has always been, “Now, how does that make sense in our lives?” Yes, the studies are great and they give me some information. They give me some ideas, but how does that actually look in my life if I live this? So, instead of thinking, “Oh, I think this would be really good for my kids,” that was part of my deschooling journey, recognizing that “Oh, I am just as valuable a person as my kids. And if I think this is important for my kids, I must think it’s important for me, too.” Let’s start with me, because me is someone I have control over.
And I am going to make those choices and I’m going to live those choices for me. And then I’m going to see what it feels like. And then I have more information that I can share with my kids. And then I’m more excited about doing it if it makes sense. If I keep moving forward with that choice, with that belief, because it just makes more and more sense to me as I experience it, then it becomes part of me and I just genuinely share it and I’m happy to share it with other people.
So, they don’t see it as an expectation I have. They see it as something that I discovered that works for me. Now, maybe they discover it works for them, too, because they’re like, “Oh look, mom’s really excited about this. I’m going to try it. She looks like she’s having a lot of fun.” Or maybe what they find is something different, but it works for them, just as much as this thing works for me.
And that’s what I want to help them find. I want to help them find what works well for them. So, I can be a great example of that by living what I’m discovering works well for me. Does that make sense, Anna?
ANNA: One hundred percent. So, one of my passions, as you know, is health and wellness, and I love moving my body and I love tuning into my body regarding food and movement. And so, this was something that my girls just grew up with. I wanted them to listen to their bodies and learn what made them feel good, because basically, a coerced mind is not a changed mind. So, forcing children to move because we think it’s good for them really short circuits them learning about what feels best to them. And you touched on that, Pam.
So, my mom’s messaging about health was along the lines of counting calories and exercising to stay thin. And so, as I grew up and was on my own, I just bucked against all of that. I was not going to exercise, because I didn’t want to exist in this diet paradigm that she still lives in at 88 years old. So, even though personally, my body does best with movement—I feel better, I handle stress better, I’ve learned that about myself—I avoided it. I just avoided it to not be controlled by another person’s agenda for me. So, that’s how strong that need is for autonomy, that we can do things that even don’t feel good for us. And that’s why we put that relationship first. That’s why, Pam, what you were talking about was it’s so much about the relationship.
So, what I wanted for my girls was that autonomy and the space to learn about themselves, because that’s where that intrinsic knowing is. That’s how it sinks in. And that’s how we make those connections. But because being active is important to me and also to David, my husband, they grew up in an environment with lots of options. We picked a house with space to roam. We built a zip line. We had a climbing wall. We had a swimming pool. We had scooters bikes, skateboards, the whole nine yards, because it allowed all of us to find what made our heart sing. What was our body drawn to? What type of movement did we like?
And when you’re coming from a place of finding joy, it’s so much more enjoyable than being told what you need to do for your health. And that type of messaging just tends to really fall flat. And I think it’s especially challenging when we have parents that are sitting in the house and going, “Okay, you need to get off your computer now and go outside and play. That’s what’s good for you,” while you’re sitting on the couch saying that. So, I love where Pam went with, if this is important and it is important to me, live it, embody it, shine that through, because then people get excited about that. I get adults that get excited about the bike rides that I do and the hiking that I do and all of that. And it’s just like, “Wait, we can do things like that at 50-some years old?” And so, be that person.
My oldest has physical limitations from a brain injury. And so, her level of movement looks very different from my youngest. And there will be differences in every single person. Each body feels best with different activities, different levels of activities, different types of activities, the frequency of it.
So, I always try to remind myself that I don’t know what’s best for another. I can share what I’ve learned about myself, on my personal journey, and then they can take that as information like, “Huh. Okay. I wonder if it’s like that for me,” or, “I can try that on.” But ultimately, they will decide how they want to move through the world and what health looks like for them.
And I think I just want to finish up my thoughts about this as, I really feel like this has nothing to do with unschooling, which is so interesting, because I think unschooling actually provides space and time that lends itself to really learning about ourselves. Most school children are at desks for six to seven hours in a day and then go home with more hours of homework at their desk.
So, I’m super grateful for the time unschooling gives us, the chance to learn much more about who we are and what feels good, but I don’t think it’s an unschooling philosophy thing. I think it’s just that unschooling allows us this time to learn about ourselves and to cultivate these relationships and to understand my body. I mean, I feel like in my time at school, I was so disconnected from my body. I could only eat at a certain time. And if I didn’t like what they had there, I wasn’t eating. There wasn’t time for movement. Gym class was a joke and a horror show most of the time. So, I think, if anything, unschooling just provides this lovely environment from which we can explore and really understand our bodies and our health and really tune into when we want to eat, when we need to go to the bathroom, when we want to sleep, how that feels in our body.
So, in that way, I think it’s a great fit, but I think the question per se, isn’t that there’s an unschooling philosophy about movement. So, that was a little aside that threw me off track when I was reading the question.
Erika, what did you think?
ERIKA: Yeah, that’s kind of where I started, too. Because when I first read the question, what popped up was my own experience with learning about my body and movement and all those things. And what I remember is being seen as good and being praised for holding my body still. It’s wonderful for teachers in school if a child can be still. The kids who were moving around a lot were always being told to sit down, and so I sat. And I got so good at sitting! I was the master of sitting!
Meanwhile, we’d have PE, where we were supposed to do these certain activities that didn’t feel good for my body, and then I was told that I wasn’t good at those things. I wasn’t chosen to be on the team, because my body wasn’t good at that. Oh my gosh! I just wish I could go back to that little girl and tell her that moving however it feels good is good! And I wish I could let my little self know that there isn’t a type of person who has the monopoly on moving your body. And it’s okay to be in the body I’m in.
And it’s unfortunate, as the result of those messages that I got, it was a long journey and continues to be a journey to learn about how my body works, to find movement that feels good, and to see myself as a physical person, not just a brain. And I see my kids, not in that environment, never discouraged from moving, never judged for how they move, and they have such an intuitive sense of their bodies and abilities and what feels good. And obviously, they’re still figuring things out, too. And their bodies are growing and changing. But I think starting from the place of choices and having the freedom to move is such a huge benefit of our lifestyle.
Beyond the time and space to actually listen to their bodies, I share information with them. So, I learned that our circulatory system has a pump, which is the heart, but our lymphatic system does not. And so, moving our muscles is how we get the lymph to flow through our bodies. And I just think that’s so cool! And so, I can share how cool that is with them, that I learned that, that movement can help us fight off germs, because it helps our lymph flow through our bodies. That’s just a cool idea.
Or I could tell them how using our large muscles can release brain chemicals that can make us feel happier. And so, it’s great to give specific information, like we were mentioning in the last Q&A, when it’s really specific to help them understand maybe more about how their bodies might work and the reasons why they might hear a more general message like, “Exercise is good for you.” But why? What does that even mean?
I’m also specific when I share about the reason I’m choosing to do things for myself. But these are not lectures. It’s just conversations. It’s not long. It’s just like, “Check out this cool thing I just read!” And then also making it obvious when I’m using that information to help myself. So, maybe I’ll say, “I’ve just been feeling so anxious today. I’m going to try taking a walk and see if getting my muscles moving will help with how I’m feeling.” Or, “I’ve been on the computer all day. I really feel like I just need to stretch my body out and get out of this position.” Whatever it is.
And I see them so naturally incorporate movement into their day that I hardly realize it’s happening. They’ll switch from a chair to a ball. They’ll lay on the bed or hop on the exercise bike while they’re watching YouTube. They’ll climb in all kinds of surprising ways on the couch. They certainly move in a more organic way than I do and much more often than I do, I think because they do have a more connected relationship with their bodies. When they feel their bodies saying, “Move,” they just move. Where I tend to hear my body say, “Move,” and I go, “But I’m sitting.” And I just continue sitting.
So, as far as offering opportunities to move, again, being more specific has been super helpful. Saying, “You need to move your body,” or, “Sitting in one spot all day is terrible for you,” is so much less motivational than, “What do you guys think about going to the trampoline park today?” or, “I wonder who can shoot the Stomp Rocket the highest out in the field.” Having fun and coming from a place of play makes invitations to mix up the activities feel more exciting. And of course, I’m also careful not to have the expectation that they’ll say yes. It’s just presenting ideas and making offers.
I remember one time being out at a park with the kids and Oliver was running, running, running, and then coming back to me and telling me, “I love the feeling of getting out of breath.” And I was just like, whoa! That is so cool to have this curious and playful approach to figuring out the limits of what his body can do and what feels good. And I just haven’t found it necessary to pit my kids’ more sedentary activities against the movement activities, because we can all do both of them.
And if I may, to sum up, I was noticing that at the heart of all the three questions, really, is this concern about the unschooling rules or what unschoolers think and do about a particular thing. And I think if you’re asking the question through that lens, you’re maybe still looking for dogma or for a right and wrong or for the one answer. And, as we’ve seen by meeting so many different families on this journey, there is no one way. One way doesn’t exist. It’s about individuals and communication, and connecting with the people we love. We’re free to make choices that feel good and be creative in figuring out how to meet our needs. Talking through the concerns we have. Sharing information that we find out. Being curious.
And you don’t need some kind of unschooling permission to make your own choices. I think it can be helpful to just check in, how are your choices working for you? How are your relationships feeling? Are you pushing through someone else’s consent? Are the choices you’re making being influenced by a desire to meet some outside expectation that you could release? Just ideas to ponder and get curious about as we’re making our own paths and creating our own journey. And I think it’s so much fun!
PAM: I love that. I love that. When you were talking about how all the questions flow together, that self-directed piece, too. I think that is such a fun thing to tease apart, because in all the questions, but as you were just talking about there too, Erika, sharing these little pieces, sharing the more specific bits, sharing what’s happening for us, that is something that if I put on that self-directed lens, I have more of a tendency to step back and not share these little pieces in passing.
I think sometimes people can worry, “Oh, but I don’t want to influence them.” That can be one of the dogmatic ideas that you’re first presented with. Yet, there is such a difference when you just share something because you found it curious. “Oh, this is so interesting!” When there isn’t that underlying tone or energy of expectation that they take this to mean that they should be doing something particular as a result of knowing this or that I want them to do something with this piece of information.
When we get to that open, curious, excited-to-share space where we can share tidbits, in there they share more tidbits with us, too. And then it’s just a fun energy. Not that there aren’t hard times and challenging times, but sharing also in those times gives us so much more information that helps us more gracefully move through those moments, too. It’s not about, oh, happy all the time. Yet, it is just so valuable to share these little tidbits. So, anyway, that’s a long answer to the self-directed aspect. And I just think that is so valuable as part of the journey and peeling back all these layers. These questions were more like unschooling philosophy-related versus, how do I help my child with this particular thing? I thought that was fascinating.
ANNA: Yeah. And when we stay up there with the, “What’s the right answer? I want to know the right answer,” or even, “I don’t like your right answer,” we’re so much up here. We’re not looking at what’s happening with my children. Are my children feeling comfortable in their bodies? Am I noticing the things about them? Those questions are so valuable as we connect with each other and learn about each other.
So, that outward focus of whether it’s this authority figure or that authority figure, again, I think it kind of comes back to the critical thinking piece from the first question. That’s what I love about this. We can have these conversations, like how does this land for you? Oh, this person thinks not moving is at the root of all evils. What do you think about that? And then as they get older, we can have these really interesting conversations about those pieces. But it’s that openness and that critical thinking and the relationships and the connections, all of that mixes together to create this wonderful environment.
PAM: I love systems. I love big picture thinking. And so, I love going up and looking through that lens, but you need to remember to come back.
ANNA: To get back down.
PAM: It needs to flow both ways. And heads up, if anyone finds this experience, if I get caught there too long, I’m more disconnected from my kids. I start worrying more or I don’t know so much what my kids are up to. So, now I’m starting to think, “Ooh, maybe they’re not learning. Maybe this whole choice was bad idea.” Because I’m stuck in the big picture view for too long. And even in The Unschooling Journey book, it was like, find your guides. My guides on the journey were my kids, because that is where I learn more. That’s where I learn, does this work for us? Does this work for them? What do they think about whatever the issue is that I’m challenged with?
So, remembering to come back down into the moment and with my kids was just crucial, a key part of the journey.
ERIKA: Right. Being up there and talking about it in this abstract way of this large group of unschoolers, I feel, is super distracting, because you also don’t know all the layers that are happening within any family. So, if you’re trying to make a generalization or a judgment about unschoolers as a whole, you really don’t know why everyone has chosen each thing that they’ve chosen. And so, yeah, I think you have to get right back to your own kids, because that’s the only place that real things are actually happening.
ANNA: Yes, exactly.
PAM: And that is part of the deschooling journey, because when you come to unschooling, you want to do it right. You come with that mindset, like, my kids, this is an important thing to me. I want to be a good parent. All those pieces. And you do start by going, how do I do this well? What are the rules? Okay. Let’s not call them rules. We’ll call them principles, but I’ll go look at them and they should look like that in my family.
And so, the journey is not easy. And you’ll hear that on the podcast all the time. “Oh, I discovered that this whole going to unschooling thing was really my work to do it. It wasn’t really about the kids. It was so much my work to do.” So, it’s peeling back all these layers and these wonderful revelations and a-ha moments and that’s how we end up talking so much more about the relationship and using relationships as our canary in the coal mine, just to help us move forward, and using our kids as guides.
First, we’re looking for all the learning. I forgot, Erika, when we were talking about movement, too. It’s like, when you were talking about your kids, what jumped to mind is, movement doesn’t have to look like exercise. It doesn’t have to look like gym class. It doesn’t have to be, we go outside and we throw a ball. As we open our eyes to see more learning, we can open our eyes to see more movement.
We can open our eyes to see more of whatever. And when there’s something that I’m feeling uncomfortable about, I can open my eyes and see it in the bigger picture. Instead of saying I’m defining it this particular way, what if I open it up and let me just pay attention and see what they’re doing, whether it’s food, movement, learning, gaming, all those different pieces, whatever it is, let’s open up and see reality, not our predetermined definition of what anything should or shouldn’t look like.
ERIKA: Self-discipline, too. I think you could do the same thing.
PAM: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Anna and Erika, for joining me for these questions. It’s so much fun to dive into them.
ANNA: Thank you.
PAM: Have a wonderful day, everyone.
PAM: Oh, oh, oh! Before we say goodbye, also remember to submit your questions.
PAM: I’ll mention it and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it in the intro, too, but if you are still here listening to the end of this call, in the show notes, there will be a link. You can submit questions for future episodes, as well.
PAM: Have a great day.