PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today, I’m here with Missy Willis. Hi, Missy!
MISSY: Hello, Pam.
PAM: Hello. Now, Missy was on the podcast back in 2018, and I am really looking forward to catching up with you. For listeners, I’ll link to the previous episode in the show notes. So, you can go back and learn more about Missy’s initial move to unschooling. To get us started now …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and what’s everybody interested in right now?
MISSY: Sure. So, we are a family of four. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, with my husband and our two children. And I said a family of four, but really we have three pets too. So, you know, a family of seven, we have two cats and a dog.
My son is 19 now and he officially graduated from our homeschool this past summer of 2021. And then my daughter is 14 and a half. And their interests have stayed fairly consistent, probably even since the last time we talked. My daughter still loves horses, participates in any activity that she can related to horses. And currently, she is working or volunteering on Sundays to help another instructor teach younger children and then she also takes a lesson that day. So, she’s at the barn for about four to four and a half hours on Sunday.
My son is still very much into soccer and any physical activity that he can participate in. And he’s also working, has a few little jobs here and there. And he is enrolled in our local community college to finish his diploma. I was trying to remember, because they called it a certificate at one point and then they changed it. Anyway, he’s getting a diploma in simulation and game development.
PAM: Very cool. And how about you?
MISSY: Oh, yes. I’m very busy. I have my fingers in a lot of things right now. So, I just started a podcast actually last year. I dipped my toes into that world and got two episodes out and took a break pretty much for the holidays and then decided, with the new year, I have fresh perspectives and new ideas. And so, I will start putting out more episodes. Next week, there will be a third one, and then just staggered after that. I don’t have a particular schedule at the moment. It’s more like what works when and when the mood strikes and when people can join. So, there’s that.
And then, honestly, I love to write. I love to sit with my thoughts and try to formalize them a little bit more. So, the idea of putting together some sort of a book, it’s always in the background. And I’ve gotten so close, but then I haven’t quite pulled the trigger yet on a couple of things. So yeah, I’m still working on that part.
And then anytime we get a chance to take little day trips, we’ll jump on those. And gardening, I love being in my yard. Although, it’s the winter, so there’s not tons to do right now in the yard, but I’m sitting here looking out my window right now thinking, well, there’s actually a lot to do. I probably do need to get out there and clean some leaves and pick up a lot of sticks. We’ve had quite a few windstorms here recently. There’s a lot of limbs in the yard.
PAM: Well, it’ll keep you busy, right?
MISSY: Yeah, for sure.
PAM: That’s very interesting. Yeah.
You had mentioned to me that one of the things you like about unschooling is how it not only leads people to question the education system, but eventually other systems as well. And, as you were talking about all these ideas for wanting to share through podcasts, your books, all those things bubbling up, I could just feel that. So, I would love to hear some more about your experience with this.
MISSY: So, I think about when we first started unschooling and gave it a name, once there was sort of a title attached to it, and not that I’m attached to labels necessarily, it’s more like it just had a container. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s like we had a container. This was what it felt like and looked like. It’s as if it was a string that was attached to all these other ideas that we have as parents and just from growing up in our society.
Once you pull the string on one thing or that thread, it seems to start pulling and unraveling down the line. I will say I got to unschooling mostly because of the way I wanted to parent. I wanted to be intentionally parenting my child. And that was connection first and relationship first and also reflecting on the ways in which I was raised and those around me were raised and questioning what worked and what did not work, what worked for me personally. And I know everybody’s different and every child’s temperament is different. So, even two children in the same family can experience their family very differently depending on their temperaments.
But I remember thinking the parent/child dynamic was fraught with tension and control and lack of communication and not just for me. When I say that, it almost sounds like my childhood was terrible and it was not. So, I want to be clear. This comes from somebody who is just always a deep thinker and I’ve been that way since I was a little girl. I used to hide in my room and read books and write and had tons of notebooks and constantly was finding quotes that spoke to me and I’d write them down. I wrote letters to my parents.
So, I was just always writing and getting those thoughts that were in my head out onto something visible, to read or to share. So, having said that, it was just the reflective personality that I have. And I also have a brother who struggled terribly in school and he’s my middle brother. So, I’m the youngest of three. And when I think about his experiences, he actually was the impetus for me to go back to college and get a master’s in special education, because I saw how much he struggled and I saw also how much he knew and what he was capable of.
And it felt unfair that somebody, because he didn’t do school typically, was discarded as a “problem child” and got all these horrible labels and basically stuck into a track that essentially said, “You’re a problem. You’re difficult. It’s you that’s wrong. And it’s you that almost defective, in a way. You’re not matching what we need you to do, so therefore, you’re the problem.”
And unfortunately, in the 80s, the support system was not terribly great for children like my brother and also my parents were just at a loss, as well. They were sort of at the mercy of the school system and being told what to do and how to handle him and what was okay and what was not, to the point where he failed and was held back. So, he’s three years older than me and he was in the eighth grade and dropped out of school at 16. So, I was technically catching up with him in school, because in the 80s, if you failed, you failed. You stayed back.
So, he had two times he failed and then I was catching up to him. So, that was hard to watch him suffer the way he did. And so, all of those experiences, early experiences led to me thinking, I want to do things differently and I want to be much more intentional and mindful.
And so, when my son was four, almost five, and he could have started school at four, I remember thinking we just had my daughter, she was six months old, and I was like, there’s just no way I’m going to separate the two of them. That makes no sense to me. He’s still so little. And why don’t we just give it a try? Let’s just not send him to school, because compulsory school age in North Carolina is age seven. Which, by the way, I did not even know having a master’s in special education. That was not even talked about. Maybe it was touched on in classes somewhere, but for whatever reason, I had to look that kind of stuff up.
In my mind, I was like, he’s almost five. I have to put him in school. And thankfully, I have a community of people who were already doing unschooling and homeschooling to use as a wonderful guide and support system. So, I think I might’ve answered your question. I went on a tangent.
PAM: No, that was really fascinating. I mean, your brother’s story, I can see how that would lead you to dig into that area. Like you said, you went and got your master’s in special ed, because you could see how that system failed him. And that led you, even at that point, to question it, before you had your own children. So, that opened your eyes there.
And then, as you said, that really gets us questioning all the systems, because once there’s something that is like, this exists and is accepted in our culture and our society as a given, once you questioned that first thing, it kind of opens you up to questions. Well, what else do I imagine is a given or do I accept as a given that maybe doesn’t make sense if I look at it a little more closely?
MISSY: Yes, for sure. For sure. And so, when the parenting paradigm is investigated and you’re looking at your child in front of you, and you’re thinking, I want to honor his spirit and I want to ensure that he has the environment to grow up in that helps him become the best version of himself and support him in ways that I maybe wasn’t supported or my parents didn’t know how to support me when I was younger.
And then to take all of that, all that energy that I put into parenting him for those four and a half, almost five years, to then turn it over to a very impersonal system that is not at all set up to think of the individual. It’s all about the group. It’s all about making things streamlined and efficient for the structure of the school model. It made no sense. It just felt wrong. That’s the best way I can describe it.
Even though it felt wrong, this is the crazy thing, though, Pam, even though it felt wrong and in my heart, I knew, there was still that part of my brain. There was still that little voice in the back of my head going, but, well, this is what everybody’s doing and you’re just going to buck the system again, aren’t you? And you’re just going to get in trouble.
So, I went to NC State and graduated there with a degree in psychology and then worked for Duke university Medical Center on a research study for kids with ADHD. And I got involved in that because of the psychology professor who was my counselor, who was wonderful and I learned so much from her. She recommended me for this job and I got into the world of psychiatry and education. So, they all combine together.
And so, that was another experience that gave me such a big perspective of what it looks like, how a child’s life is so influenced by not only their parents, but when they go into the school, the teacher, the admin, and then if there’s a problem, then there’s a psychiatrist, and then there’s a psychologist. So, there’s all these people who surround this child to try to make them fit into what the system is saying.
Well, what about what the kid needs? Really what they need. And so, it’s fitting that square peg into a round hole. And I got to see that play out multiple times and for several years, to the point where in my master’s program, I went to my advisor and said, “I do not want to get a teaching certificate,” which meant I would have to have quit my full-time job and go work in a classroom for maybe four months, five months, and not be paid.
And even though it wasn’t about money, it was more about principle. Because I was like, “I’m not gonna do it.” And she said, “Well, we can work around that.” And so, she created a customized plan for me to finish my program without having to do the teaching certificate side of things. And I remember being like, “Yes, that’s a good idea.” We’re going to go that route.
PAM: Wow. Yeah. That’s so interesting. All the different lenses that really helped you see how influential the outside structure was and how much it was about molding the kids into the vision rather than just respecting the child and meeting them there. There are just so many assumptions within the system that the adults make. We don’t even come to question that the goal is to fit into the classroom for the child’s advantage, so that they can learn, because that’s the only way to learn is this environment.
So often, they feel they have the child’s best interests at heart, but they can only see that one path to get there for them. So, yeah, all those different ways that you came at the idea of questioning, it’s like just so many different bricks that came together to help you question that one system.
And I love the point, too, so many people when we come to unschooling, like me completely included, it was from the educational perspective, as in, instead of going to school, this is another way for them to learn. So, you’re questioning the education system. But as you talked about, soon, parenting comes in. At first, it wasn’t about the parenting at all. It was just about the education and how we were going to do that differently. But really, the next step when you discover unschooling and choose to start walking that path, we do start to question so much of that conventional wisdom now around parenting. It’s like, oh my gosh, there’s more here.
And I wanted to dive into a couple of misconceptions, because when we start down this path, you start hearing terms like “peaceful parenting”, et cetera. There are a couple of misconceptions that can get in our way at first when we start. So, what’s this peaceful parenting thing? And one misconception that I’ve come across quite often, and it was in my mind, too, like peaceful parenting sounds like, okay, when we get to peaceful parenting, we’re not gonna have any more conflicts. Like our goal with peaceful parenting is to eliminate conflicts, if we’re doing it right. We’re still in that phase where there’s a right or wrong, and it’s still like adults and children and children as a group, not as individuals, which you alluded to earlier. We are all so uniquely individual. We’re all very different.
One of the misconceptions about peaceful parenting is that we’re trying to eliminate conflict. And another is that the idea of being peaceful is akin to the idea of being passive. So, if I’m peaceful, I don’t want to generate any conflict. But those two ideas can really get in the way of moving to these connected and trusting and respectful relationships that we’re talking about in the unschooling space. So, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about those, because those can really get in our way, can’t they?
MISSY: For sure. Yes. And the peaceful parenting, yeah, that’s true. There’s a lot of people who think peaceful, oh, that’s passive. Or, “You’re just all over there sitting around drumming and holding hands and singing songs.” It’s just a word, but it’s amazing how powerful that word can be and also how combative people become, because you say “peace” and automatically you’re like, “Oh, you’re never going to stand up for yourself. Or you’re never going to put boundaries down. And your child’s gonna run all over you and it’s going to be chaos.” And no, that’s not what it is at all.
It’s all about that mindset that the parent has in the relationship, because our children are not born to us with all the abilities to be independent. They’re born as vulnerable creatures and there’s even the theory of the fourth trimester, which is three months after a child’s born, there’s still that next trimester where they really need to be close to the parent and have connection and they don’t need to be separated. They really do need that warmth and the comfort of a human body and a heartbeat and it’s also deeply ingrained in their brains for survival reasons. So, the idea is to be aware of what is biologically and physiologically necessary for our children to thrive.
And while we know about the physical part of it in terms of shelter and food, there’s also the emotional side. And, for me, the peaceful parenting part is about dealing with emotions and dealing with the mental health and awareness of our children and ourselves. And I will say at the beginning, when I kind of got into it, there was that question of, like you said, am I doing it wrong? Oh gosh. Did I just say something that’s not peaceful? Uh oh. I’m in trouble. I’ve ruined my child and now, he’s never going to forgive me.
So, it’s recognizing that when there is a conflict, which there will inevitably be conflict with our families, with our children, with our spouses, with everybody we have a relationship with, it’s not that we’re going to look for them. They just will happen. It’s about how we’re going to address them. Do we go straight for winning? Do we see a problem and we’re like, we’re going to be in control of this right now and I’m going to lead the way? Or do we go, there’s a problem or there’s an issue or there’s something that’s happened. Now we have an opportunity.
And so, it’s a matter of just taking a moment to realize that, if something happens that in our own brains that feels like it set off an alarm, it doesn’t mean we have to respond as if it’s an alarm. Maybe just take a deep breath if you have the option to do that. Some things obviously you need to respond to fairly quickly. You don’t want your child running out into the street. You have to use good judgment and common sense when it comes to how we want to interact with our kids.
But it is just a matter of recognizing that you have a space of time where you can stop and respond instead of react and work together versus bulldozing or just coming in with, “This is how it has to be done.” And also getting some feedback from our kids. I’ll use my children as an example. When they were younger and there were certain ideas that one child might’ve had about how the day should unfold and another one was not in agreement, if we were able to just sit and talk through that, “So, what is it about this activity that you like and that feels good for you? And what is it about this activity that you’re not happy about or that doesn’t bring you joy?”
And as soon as you start asking those questions, you realize things that you never even knew existed. For instance, one child might not want to go, because she says, “When I go, I really don’t have anything to do. There’s not really anybody there that I actually play with or I interact with.” Or they might say, “Well, the last time I went, this happened and you didn’t know about it.” So, it’s just about digging and being curious and keeping that line of communication open and always being willing to be flexible as much as you possibly can because you’re creating a relationship with other human beings that have their own ways of seeing and being in the world, too.
PAM: Yeah. And really accepting those as their truth, rather than judging them.
For me, with regards to peaceful parenting, I think one of the fundamental shifts for me at least, was the change in the power dynamic. And I think that’s what you’re describing there. Instead of thinking of our relationship or my job as a parent, even trying to use peaceful language, but still expecting that they basically fall in line. Or, “I’m the parent. I know better. I have more experience.”
It’s that shift away from that power over to really accepting that they’re another human being with interesting ideas, with information that they can share about a situation. Like you were saying, like, “You know what? Last time it didn’t go well. There was some conflict there. I’m not comfortable going in again or at least going in the same way.” So, maybe part of the conversation is, “You know what? Let’s bring something that we can do together, so then I’m there with you, so that you won’t be left on your own to engage with something.” There are so many creative possibilities when you move beyond that yes/no power dynamic or expectation that we can have of our children and just really work together.
It is a shift in that power to just seeing them as equal human beings. It doesn’t mean we don’t share our experience. Absolutely. We have that information. We may have more information, et cetera, but those are the things that we can bring into the conversation as we’re working through. What they come to trust in us is that we are open to having the conversations, because if they keep sharing and we just keep discounting their experiences, they’re going to eventually think, “I’m not going to share that, because I feel bad when I say I had a bad experience and you say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad. That won’t happen again.'” If we belittle their experiences and the information that they’re bringing to us, they’re going to pull away from that.
But when we can be respectful of what they’re sharing with us and they know that we will accept it fully and work with them to figure out ways. It’s not being passive. It is working together. When they see our effort and our trust and respect for them as a person, that’s how we move through the conflicts. And “conflicts” is a stronger word. Some of it’s just a challenge or an issue or something that’s just not sitting right with them, but you’re not going to get away from those things. That is life. Those things are going to bubble up. They bubble up for us, still. They will forever bubble up. But it’s that difference in the relationship that we have with them. For me, that’s the parenting aspect. It moves to more connection, respect, and trust, and we’ll work together to figure those things out in a way that works for everyone.
MISSY: You make me think of a time when the kids were a bit younger, we would go out when it was fall and put a fire on outside. Or if they weren’t awake, I would start it. They would meander and eventually make their way out there. And I remember one morning, we got on the conversation somehow about driving. I really can’t remember, but my son said something like, “I think I could drive as well as any other people who have their driver’s license.” And he might’ve been like 12 at the time. And I was like, “You know what? You probably could.” He was just that kind of personality.
But we got into this great conversation about what it means to be an adult and what’s the difference between an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old. An 18-year-old technically is an adult. But what about these laws about this and that and the other? And we just had this wonderful conversation about numbers and these arbitrary numbers that are put on things, instead of looking at the individuals and their abilities versus, “Well, you’re this age and therefore you can’t,” or, “You’re this age and therefore you can.”
And what I have found with them multiple times is that they know when they’re not able to do something and they’re not capable and they’re honest about it, but they’re able to be honest about it because I’m trying to be honest about what I don’t know. And what I want them to always remember is there’s strength in saying you don’t know something and you will also open up, I think, more conversation when you say, “No, I don’t know how to do that.”
Because when you go into a situation feeling like you always have the answers, or you have to have the answers, which I do feel like at least from my personal experience and what I witnessed is that when you’re in that school dynamic, you need to have the answer. And when you don’t, you feel like you should have known that or you feel embarrassed maybe or shamed or judged. And so, your goal then becomes to always have the answer, even when you don’t.
PAM: Exactly, exactly. That feeling of judgment is so pervasive. It also scares you into not answering so often if you’re not sure what the answer is, just trying to avoid being wrong or being judged or made fun of. It really shuts people down, in that they don’t want to share little pieces or ideas or even solutions that might not work, because that’s, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” from Sir Ken Robinson. His famous TED Talk is all about how school is dampening to their spirit, really, because there’s just so much fear of judgment.
And that’s what I remember from my school career, as well. It was, “I will sit here, I’ll take it all in and study it. I’ll regurgitate it for the test. Wonderful.” But there was so much less discovery, so many less questions. Like, “Okay, well, I have a question about this, but that’s not where they’re going with it. So, obviously that’s not important.” It’s a completely different dynamic.
And then when they are asking their questions, when they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know that,” without judgment, we can just pick up that conversation. That is also where learning shines, as well, because that is where their question is. That’s the moment. That is what they’re thinking about right now. So, that’s where they’re hungrily looking for new connections.
MISSY: Absolutely. Yeah.
PAM: That is also where the relationship connects the most. That’s where learning happens the most. When you have that open space to just see where things flow, see where conversations flow, see where activities flow, when you’re open to that without judgment, oh my gosh. It’s a different world. Isn’t it?
MISSY: It is. And I remember saying at some point along their journey, multiple times, I thought to myself, I’m learning more now that I am homeschooling my children than I did in school. I remember thinking like, what the heck? How did I not know this? Or, wow, this is so interesting. I am actually going to go read the rest of this book, because I want to know more. And the idea being in school for 12 years, then going off to college, then going off to more college, there was just so much stuff that was missed. And I know you can’t learn everything and not everybody’s expected to have like a million different topics that they can dive deeply into.
But I saw how, when my children were interested in something, they really became very masterful at it. They didn’t stop at just the basics. They learned. Then they read and they watched videos and they asked for resources and it was fascinating to watch it stick, too. That was the other piece of it. They haven’t had one single test. They didn’t do one project. They haven’t filled out a worksheet and look at them. They knew it.
And my son, when he was 15, he had been saving his money up to build a computer. And when he started talking to me about this idea, I remember thinking, okay, I’m going to have to take a class. I’m going to have to watch some YouTube videos. I’m going to have to call somebody. And he comes to me and he’s like, “Mom, I got it. I know what to do. I’ve already figured out all the stuff I want.”
He essentially created an Amazon shopping cart and just put everything in the cart until he raised enough money or earned enough money. And he turned 15 and we bought everything and it came within a week. And to see him put that computer together was just, wow. Because in my mind, I’m like, oh, I’m going to have to do all this stuff. And he had it under control and all he needed from me was to be excited for him and to support him and to answer questions if they did come up.
But it was as if all those years of LEGO building led to this gigantic computer build. He was sitting at the table and I’m like, oh, there’s this piece. And it clicks into this part. And then you have to pull this out. So, watching him do that, I mean, I learned how to build a computer from my 15-year-old. I mean, we learned so much from them and anybody when they’re willing to take their interest as far as they can it and their joy and their energy and their vitality around learning is palpable. So, how can you not be excited for them when you see their eyes light up and their whole body respond in a way that shows that they are fully invested? And if we were able to see their brains light up, they would be on fire.
PAM: And what’s so interesting, too, through your experience there, and I’ve had that same experience, how we still jump to classes as the first idea. “Oh, I need to learn this.” Or that we need to learn it first to be helpful and supportive for our kids.
And I love that space, like you said, “I’m just saying to myself,” because that’s one thing we learn is that I don’t have to jump in right away. It is more helpful to just see how things are unfolding so that I can have those initial, “Oh, I should do this. And I’ve got to learn it this way,” et cetera, but back to what you were talking about, react versus respond, right? Instead of reacting and jumping in with those things, just to sit with them a little bit and choose how we respond.
When we give them the space to lead, they also know that they can ask us, and that we can be there to support them. And we can pass them that part from across the table so that they can stack it together. We’re fully there and we are engaged with them around it, but that the first path that we jump to, that we imagined through this project, isn’t the only path, isn’t necessarily the best path. It’s just a possibility and it’s their path to choose.
MISSY: We can get in the way. We can really get in the way. And it’s funny, I was with my daughter, we were out today together, and we got into a conversation about learning. I’m not really even sure how that popped up. We were talking about learning and I recalled a conversation prior about how, if my kids had to depend on me for all the knowledge, they would never be anywhere close to where they are right now, because it’s impossible as a teacher, “parent teacher”, homeschooler, whatever you want to call yourself, you cannot know everything there is to know in a way that makes sense for each of the individual people that you’re in relationship with.
And so, that’s why that relationship has to be that symbiotic back and forth. “I’m here for you for this,” and being very clear on, “Here’s what I see and here’s what I understand, but here’s also where my knowledge falls short. So, tell me what you need from me. And you’ve got my full support.”
And so, it’s like with anything. My brother’s very interested in a particular supplement, for instance. I might find something and be like, “Hey, I found this. Have you heard about this?” And I’ll send it along the way. And then same with my kids. If I know what their interests are and what they’ve been engaging in, if I find something of interest that I think they might enjoy, whether it’s a video or something on an Instagram, I’ll just pop it over to them and say, “Hey, I saw this.” Just because, that’s what I love when somebody sends me something, because they know, “Oh, Missy enjoys gardening,” or, “She enjoys learning about,” who knows what? A lot of things. All the things. And somebody sends something to me, then I’m like, “Oh yeah, thank you. I appreciate that you thought of me for that particular topic.” And that’s the way I have seen over the years, it’s impossible to know everything. It’s just impossible to keep up. So, you just kind of have to get out of the way.
PAM: Yeah, to think that we would be the only resource, certainly as they get older, to support them as they’re exploring and figuring things out, rather than feeling we need to know the answers and dispense with them.
Now, I recently saw one of your posts on Instagram that was about mantras and I was hoping you could share a few of your favorites and why you find them helpful. I found that really interesting.
MISSY: Oh, the one about the parent mantras. Yes, yes. So, the thing is, like I said to you before, when I was younger, there was something about quotes for me that really resonated. And I think it’s just the simplicity and yet how profound they can be.
And so, when it came to parenting and it being a topic that I particularly enjoy discussing and learning about, it felt like a logical thing to do, to create a little list of things that really matter to me and to the relationships I aim to create with my children.
So, “relationship first”. And I mentioned that earlier, when it came to us deciding to unschool, unschooling happened because “relationship first”, so it was parenting and then the educational piece pops into our world. Like he’s five. Now he must do all the things that are on the list of curriculum and what the school says he needs to know. So, that was one.
And then, “listen, pay attention, observe”, because one thing I have noticed is that parents talk so much. They just talk too much. And there was an incident one day at a park. And of course, we’re all in a different space learning and growing and trying our best and doing what we can with the knowledge that we have. But the over-talking of children is so loud to me and I notice it a lot. So, if a child is trying to express themselves or make it clear what their interests are and the parent is just not hearing it, I remember thinking, you just have to shh. If everybody just did that it would be so much calmer.
And even my children, they were for sure very strong in their convictions of doing it by themselves. And that happened quite a few times where they would be making some sort of craft and need the scissors and I would come in and take the scissors and they were like, “Mama, do it by myself.” I’m like, okay, you’re right. And so, that whole idea of just stepping back and getting out of their way, but then on the flip side of not necessarily physically getting out of the way, but verbally, too.
PAM: Yeah, that’s a big one. You do see it all the time. Parents sometimes are fearful of what their child might say. They want to tell them how they they’re feeling or what was wrong with the situation or what went wrong for them. They feel like they’re trying to be helpful, but they are completely turning the situation and making it about them and how they see things or how they think they should be seen or felt. We tell our children how they’re feeling, rather than giving them the space and time and listening to them put together how they’re feeling. That’s a really big one. I love that one.
MISSY: Yes, but it’s almost as if parents don’t feel like they’re doing their job if they don’t interact or don’t jump in. And part of it is a matter of just sitting back and observing, because we find out so much about people if we just observe and let kids interact with the world and watch how they engage with people and things and you notice. So, I’d recommend people to get notebooks and write down their observations of their children, especially if they’re brand new to homeschooling or into this world of wanting to be more mindful.
Do you really know who the people are in your home? Can you really see what they love? Can you really see what lights them up? What activities they say yes to more of, what activities they don’t tend to enjoy. And when you sit down and become aware of that, it’s kind of striking sometimes and you go, oh wow, ooh, we were actually doing that a lot and they had told me multiple times that they really don’t want to do it. It’s eye-opening.
And then, “when you don’t know, say so”. I mentioned that earlier. It’s okay to not know. And that was hard for me. I’m not going to lie, because I was a straight A student and made the honor roll and all those things and so, I learned early that knowing the answer is important and has benefits.
And it has led me to recognize how much I probably didn’t do because I was afraid that I was going to get it wrong. And I stifled my own growth because of fear of messing up. And I called that the mistake wound, because we have that. Many of us do. Oh, the mistake wound. Well, if you do that, there’s going to be shame involved. Somebody’s going to be upset with you or they’re going to be disappointed. And so, those mistakes, you’re not allowed to make because there’s a lot of baggage that comes with them. And I have had to work a lot on being sure that I’m okay not being right and trying to teach my children that, as well.
PAM: Yeah. I found that that was quite the journey for me, too. It was healing when I could at first say it to my kids, because they weren’t judgmental about it. “Oh, I don’t know that. Let’s figure that out.” Or, “Oh, I was wrong about that.” They were not judgmental. They were just like, “Oh, okay, cool. Let’s figure something else out.” Or, “Yeah, I was right about that.” It was so much easier to do with my kids. And then, through that healing that happened, I got to a level where, that was okay. And then eventually I could say it in different situations.
At first, I wouldn’t even say that to my partner or out and about in the world, because I knew the judgment that would come with that. But when I gained some experience through it with my kids and I found how valuable it was and learned not to judge myself, then I could bring that with me. It became part of who I am and I deeply understood that it was okay. That was not wrong. And I didn’t feel that shame around it anymore. Then I could bring that part of me into more of my world.
MISSY: Yeah. It opens you up and it’s freeing. And it also connects you to so many people. Because, when you are okay with it, it makes other people feel okay with it. It makes other people go, “Okay. Yeah, no, I don’t have to know everything, because that’s kind of hard to try to do.” So, it’s very freeing and it took a while. And, like you said about your children, I felt like I was more able to do that for them and offer that space to them than I was for myself before, for sure. It takes time.
Do you want me to go through the other two?
PAM: Yeah, sure!
MISSY: There’s two more. So, “learning happens all the time, everywhere,” that again was pretty much something that I got to when we were full on in the unschooling world. Because, to watch my son learn to read just through the activities he was doing and the interests that he had, even though we never sat down and did like formal teaching of how to read. We read books together all the time and we had activities that incorporated the grammar and sentence structure and all of that on the earlier side of things. But, same with my daughter. She read just from playing Minecraft and learned how to type and spell.
And even if they’re sitting alone somewhere on a hammock, staring at the sky, they’re learning. They’re taking in information either through their bodies or through their vision or through their ears. Something’s happening. And just because you can’t quantify it or test it or have them even regurgitate what they’ve learned doesn’t mean that they haven’t learned, because learning is a continuous experience. And there’s a stacking that takes place.
Once this is learned, that connects to this, and then that stacks onto that. And how can we ever, ever pull that apart for an individual? We can’t even do it for our own selves. There’s sometimes I think about, how did I get to this point? I have no idea. I just got here. But you did it. You had so many experiences that led to that point. We just can’t break that down for our children and it’s okay. We don’t have to. It’s just the reality of being a human in the world and experiencing the world with all your senses.
That was another interesting piece, too, I’ve found. Whereas in my mind, I was trying to see all the learning, define all the learning, for them, learning was more like just the air that they breathed. It wasn’t an act that they defined. So, if somebody came up and asked, “What did you learn today?” I mean, that is almost a foreign question for them often. They’d have to sit and think, because often it’s almost like osmosis. And how do you define what that piece was, what that connection you made was?
Even if you’re sitting in the hammock and things are just spinning in your subconscious, to define and to just put on a pedestal, like, “What did you learn today?” that defining what you learned and that it has a value over and above other things that you did, just by the fact that that’s what you’re asking them.
Visually, I think of it as looking at some absolutely beautiful landscape where there’s clouds and a mountain and you see trees and you see a stream, birds, wildlife, and that is a child’s learning. It’s so big and fast and interconnected. And then when you try to ask them what they learned, it’s like chopping into the mountain and separating it out. And so, now you’ve taken this big picture and you’ve tried to turn it into little tiny boxes and it just feels cold to me. It feels cold and inflexible and rigid, instead of it being this beautiful, vast, open rolling hill and continuous experience.
PAM: I love that. I love that. It’s such a clear way to describe it, because you’re making it smaller. It’s almost like the way school breaks things into subjects. There are just so many connections that weave between them that add value to how we understand the world and the context of the world. And the need to tease those pieces apart and define them and defend them almost as valuable, it takes away something, I think.
MISSY: We rank order learning. Like, that was more valuable than that, but was it? It might’ve been more valuable to you, but was it really more valuable to your child or your partner or anybody else for that matter? It’s a very serious rank order system that we’ve put into place.
Even with the trajectory of school in general, it’s, you do this, then you do this, then you do this, and now you’ve succeeded. Yay! And that’s not really the case. We have a lot of options. There’s lots of ways to go and to be flexible. I keep coming back to the word free, because that’s the way it feels. Oh my gosh. I have to remember exactly how he said it. I heard something that Elon Musk said the other day or a quote that he had that was like, the way we share knowledge is like a mental straight jacket. And it’s sort of like, you have to think a certain way and it’s only within these confines that it’s okay, and how that stifles people’s growth. I was like, that is true. That’s a good visual.
PAM: Exactly. Right.
MISSY: And the last one was that “emotions are simply information about internal states and to not take them personally”. And that, for sure, has been a work in progress for me, because with the idea that I wanted to be mindful and aware and conscious of how I interact with my kids, there was a point in time, especially when they were younger, where I would stress myself out about it.
Because in my head, it was, if I do this, then this will happen. And if that doesn’t happen, then I did the first thing wrong, or I could have gone this way or I could have gone that way. And it’s almost like you sit here and dissect every word you say and every behavior you have. And that is not the point. So, I’m putting this out as a PSA to anybody who’s listening. You don’t have to dissect everything you say and do.
It’s more of a recognition that there are options and our children are going to have emotions and responses to things that we say and do that are theirs. And it’s not that we’ve created it or made it happen, because they’re still learning and growing and they’re exploring their own emotional terrain.
And I feel as if our role, and this comes not just from my personal belief, it’s more from science and understanding psychology, that our goal as parents is to help our children work through their emotional experiences. Not that we need to negate them or shame them, but we allow them to have them and then we also have the opportunity to talk with them about it and help them understand how to think critically about the experience and help them learn how to respond versus react. And the best way we can teach them that is by example, number one. And then again, just being willing to have that open conversation.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. I love just the idea, the mantra there, that this is information.
We’re learning more about them alongside them. Helping them process. Their emotions aren’t about us. They’re not trying to piss us off. They’re not trying to ruin our day or anything like that, that it really is about them and about what they’re feeling in the moment. And I find when I got stuck in that analysis place, it was harder for me to be in the moment with them, because part of my mind was doing that analysis and trying to jump ahead. If I do this, what will happen? And I feel like they could feel that energy. I wasn’t fully there, so, I was also less creative, because part of my mind was analytical. I was a little less responsive.
Yet when I could sink into the moment and see the learning and the observation, everything was something for me to process later for myself. In that moment, I was supporting their processing. When I brought too much of me into that moment, it got in the way more than it helped, more often than not. So, later is when I could do my own processing around it and learn more about them. I’m learning more about them. I’m learning more about myself. And that’s what we can bring into the next time something happens.
MISSY: Yeah. And this topic can be so intense and can sometimes even feel just so stressful, because there’s so much that we are able to learn now and have access to tons of information. And I do have a tendency to be a little bit of an intense personality at times.
But I do want to recommend and reiterate that there’s joy and fun to be had in all of this. And that playful parenting has been a massive assistant in our lives, because I’m a very silly person, even though that might be hard to believe. But I am. And so, I’ve been very silly with my children. And if we see something that’s funny, that is discussing an emotional situation or dealing with emotions, then we share it with each other. We talk about it.
And sometimes you just have a busy week and you’re just overwhelmed or things aren’t going right and you just need to get out of the house, but nobody wants to leave. And then you’re just like, I have to get out of the house, but nobody wants to go anywhere. And then you have to wait until dad comes home. And so, finally I was like, “I got to get out of here. I’m going to the store.” And my son was like, “Mom rage-quit life.” I wasn’t really raging. I was just intense. And I had to leave and he just laughed about it and thought it was funny.
And then there’s other things about being steady and how we try our best to look at the big picture situation and not at the individual incident or the individual person, but take that bird’s eye view and try to approach it in a more steady, balanced way. And I do feel like that has happened a lot more than a rage quit.
PAM: Yeah. I think that reminder that there is so much joy and play and fun that lives alongside the harder moments. It’s not one or the other for the most part. There are so often just seeds, almost like the yin/yang, there are seeds of other things even in these bigger, more emotional, more challenging, stressful kinds of moments. There are seeds of all the other pieces in there, too. So, it’s great to remember and recognize that. And that might be a tool or a mantra or something.
The idea of the mantra really is just little reminders of mindset switches that want to take, like a little perspective switch in a moment. This is something that I want to explore for myself. And they’re just little reminders, like in a moment when I can get a little bit more tunnel-y and forget that there are other perspectives I might want to try out, those are my quick reminders, like, oh yeah, this. “Emotions are information.”
And sometimes, it helps lighten things up. It helps me see different perspectives that when I’m kind of stuck in this tunnel, I might forget about for a while. It just helps me more quickly recover or reground myself.
MISSY: Definitely. And it’s also the idea that you don’t have to be the solver automatically. Like we were talking about, it’s just information. So, just take the information and now you have more information and you can incorporate it, versus putting out fires all the time. It’s not about running around putting out fires. And the playful piece is huge and it really does diffuse a ton of situations, even for ourselves. If I find myself getting a little wound up about something and somebody says something funny or calls me out on it, I’ll laugh. I mean, it’s hilarious. You’re like, yep. You’re right. Yep. Yep, absolutely. That’s exactly what’s going on.
PAM: And that’s part of what’s so valuable about cultivating these connected and trusting relationships, that we are open to and they are comfortable sharing little insights and observations that just go, oh, you are so right. Again, admitting we’re wrong or that we’ve gotten focused or tunneled in some particular area that we can help each other out. And our kids are so capable of helping us out, too.
MISSY: Definitely. Yes. They are here to teach us just as much as we are here to teach them.
I am curious to know, what has surprised you most about how unschooling has unfolded for your family so far at this point?
MISSY: Wow. So, surprise, surprise. Let’s think. I would say what has probably surprised me the most is the constant evolution of my children. And I don’t say that from, I didn’t ever think that they would evolve. It’s more that it’s fascinating all the different ways that they evolve.
And there’s a tendency to see our children at a certain age and think, oh, that’s who they are. That’s how they’re going to be. They’re going to be the outgoing one. They’re going to be this. They’re going to be that. And then they switch. Or maybe they become quieter, a little bit softer. And so, the ability to recognize and to appreciate that the evolution will happen in ways that you might not ever be able to predict and that’s okay. So, that’s probably been the biggest thing for me.
Because when I think about myself at the beginning of this journey and what my brain was creating for my children, I had images in my head. I had ideas in my head and maybe even expectations about what things would look like. Not all of those have come to pass and that’s okay. It’s not like what I was creating was so wonderful that if they didn’t do it, it’s like we somehow failed. It’s more just that I think that natural thing that we do as humans is we like to see patterns and we recognize that if this is happening, that that usually follows. And that’s not always the case.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. I love that. And that was something I also learned from my kids. I was more accepting of how I continued to grow and evolve when I saw how wonderful it was for them. Now, I’m me. I’m an adult. I’m fixed.
MISSY: We need a t-shirt. “I’m an adult. I’m fixed.” Oh, that’s so funny.
But it’s true. Like I said earlier about the ages, how we get attached to this idea that the age equals some list of things and we all know, even when we were children, we knew. We could see it. It didn’t feel real. It felt like somebody was trying to pull the wool over our eyes, but kids are smart. They can see through it.
PAM: Definitely. All right …
What is your favorite thing about your unschooling days right now?
MISSY: I would say, honestly, at this point, it’s just so easy, so relaxed, and we have with my son being 19, he’s just a partner in our home. He’s here, coming and going. And I just love the relationships that we’ve built over the years and I feel truly honored to be their mom.
And so, it’s as if I can, in a way, sit back and appreciate all those earlier years and the effort that I put in. And it feels magical some days. And I’m very, very grateful that we are able to do what we were able to do.
So, I would say for sure that when they get older and they take more ownership over their time and how they’re going to spend their days and where they’re going to be. And so, that obviously frees me up to do a lot more of the things that I might be interested in and not that I was not doing stuff before. I don’t want to make it sound like I couldn’t do my interests, because I do believe fully that our children learn how to live their lives by watching us live ours. And so, if we stop doing things that we love and care about, we don’t want to do that, because it’s almost as if you’re a martyr of some sort.
So, I would say that just being able to sit and watch them continue to take ownership over their lives and make decisions for themselves in ways that were different from when they were younger and loving and absolutely enjoying learning and following their interests and their passions.
PAM: Because that doesn’t change, no matter their age. That’s so beautiful. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Missy. I really appreciate it. Thank you!
MISSY: Thank you, Pam. I appreciate it so much.
PAM: Oh, it’s so much fun. And before we go, let people know where they can connect with you online.
MISSY: Okay. So, I do have a Facebook page and an Instagram page, Let Em Go Barefoot. And I started a podcast which is on Apple and Spotify and Podbean for anybody who’s on that. And I have a blog by the same name. I’m not nearly as active on that as I have been in the past, but there are some older pieces that I’ve written and you can connect with me through that. So yeah, those are the main ones.
PAM: Perfect! We will have links to all of those in the show notes. And thanks again, Missy. Have a wonderful day!
MISSY: Thank you, Pam. You, too. Bye-bye.