Pass The Bean Dip

by Laurie Wolfrum, presented at the Maine Unschooling Mini Conference - 11/2/2013

Sometimes parents, relatives, friends (even strangers!) may not agree with homeschooling, unschooling, how we choose to parent or meet our children’s needs.

How do we do what we feel is best for our families when others, especially those we love and care about, share their criticisms and well-meaning advice?

If it is a stranger or someone who homeschools or lives differently than you do-

1. Determine whether you feel comfortable answering that particular person’s questions.
a) Are they sincere?
b) Are they open-minded?
c) Are they asking out of curiosity?
d) Are they interested because they may want to understand?
e) Are they asking because they may possibly consider a different approach or idea?
If you believe the person is sincerely asking for reasons that are meaningful and valid, then you may feel comfortable not only sharing resources with them, but also sharing personal experiences and examples.

If you are not sure about why they are asking, you can be brief and general and maybe suggest a book or website so that it is up to them to seek additional information if they’d like. Free To Learn is an excellent book to offer! And you can let them know that you are available later, after they’ve looked into it, if they have further questions.

If you feel in your gut they are asking for another reason, one that you feel uneasy about or if you feel they are asking for the opportunity to judge or criticize, you can use the “pass the bean dip” approach and change the subject. Or start asking them questions to redirect the conversation. To help it flow easily, move on to a topic that you know they’d be interested in. It helps if you know at least a little about the person. However, even if you don’t, there are general topics of distraction that you can use to discreetly shift the topic of conversation: Sports. Food. Recipes. Something you know that one of their family members is interested in. Something that your kids have in common or something that they do together. The weather. An upcoming community event.

Whatever you decide to say, be kind to them. Don’t criticize, belittle or shame them for making different decisions or living differently than you do. Give them the respect that you wish they’d give to you.

Something that might help in any case is to explain that –
  • Periodically we evaluate how things are going.
  • Nothing is written in stone.
  • For now, this works for us.
  • We’ll see how things go.

If it is a close family member, relative or friend, try to have compassion and understanding. Look at things from their point of view. Likely they love you and your children and want the very best for them, just like you do. It may help to foster good relations between you, your parents and your children if you assume positive intent and make an effort to share what the kids are up to and interested in. Jim’s mom likes to look at our facebook photos. My mom and our very close family friend who is like another grandmother prefer for me to send pictures to them. Blogs are another way to share photos and happenings easily. And of course snail mail and email or a phone call can work too depending on what technology you both share!

When I used to take ballet, a teacher took the time to correct you because they thought you were putting in lots of effort and they cared to help you do better. Often, our loved ones give their advice and opinions because they care. If they do it in a respectful way, their care can be appreciated, even if you don’t take their advice.

Instead of seeing a critical family member as an adversary (ad ver sair y), a starting point is to see that you are both on the same side.
You both

  1. care for your child
  2. wish for good things for your child
  3. hope your child will be able to thrive in the world now and when they are grown
The place where you might see things differently is what it means for your child to “thrive” and how best to get to that point.

For example, here are two different ways, to look at the world that might affect how one chooses to raise their child:

  1. The world is a tough place and a kid needs exposure to the tough, cruel world so that one day he may survive in it on his own.
  2. Happy moments prepare your child for a happy future because feeling good is the norm and he will seek out that which brings him joy.
Though there are many variations between those two viewpoints, personally, I know which way I’m leaning toward!

The way you choose to live with your children is dependent upon what you believe will be more likely to lead to what is most important to you. Another person, for example, a grandparent, may feel that a different way is more of a guarantee toward a particular outcome. Perhaps how they raised you or how most of the culture raises their children.

No matter what a well-meaning family member might think, who ultimately decides how to raise your kids? You, the parents. To put it bluntly, your parents had their chance to raise you, and this is your chance to raise your kids. (Kelly Lovejoy has an excellent way of explaining this which I’ll share with you later.)

If you are making choices that are very different than the ones they made or than that of the mainstream culture, or than what they are familiar with, they may feel scared because you are doing something so different from what they know. They may feel there is too much uncertainty, unpredictability and there are less people taking that path. It feels too risky. Don’t dismiss their feelings! The way they feel might be similar to how some of us first felt when we began to homeschool or unschool.

In some people’s minds, homeschooling means there is less chance of a guaranteed outcome. At least if a kid is in school, he is getting what all the other kids are getting. And when he graduates, he will have a high school degree like all the other kids. Plus, school takes on the responsibility of education. How could parents teach their own children? Aren’t teachers better qualified to teach the kids than parents?

From an unschooling point of view, learning takes place within the learner. It is up to the learner to learn. One needs to be developmentally ready and able to learn something and one learns best when they are interested and engaged. Not when they are being forced to study what someone else thinks is important and then tested and graded. Testing and grading reinforce cramming where a person remembers certain information temporarily, long enough to pass the test. Then the information may be forgotten. That isn’t “real learning.”

Real learning happens when a person has his own reasons for wanting to know something and finds out. Real learning is meaningful to the learner and may sometimes happen almost effortlessly, without him even realizing because he is so into what he is doing.

Ie. A person might want to know more about birds because they find birds fascinating. They may use the information they find to identify birds and birdsongs. They may go on bird walks or attend Audubon programs or draw birds or become interested in bird rehabilitation or how flight works, not only with birds, but with airplanes too.

Ie. Or a person may learn much about the body and nutrition as they study martial arts or dance. And that may lead him to find out about various approaches to healthy eating, cooking, stress reduction, classical music, composers, choreography, combat systems of Europe, fencing, China, religion, spirituality, etc.

The idea is that one interest may lead to many paths - and what is learned along the way will likely be useful things that are important to the learner which makes them more likely to be retained. Connections are made and knowledge is built upon.

No matter whether a child attends school or is homeschooled, or whether or not you parent or live a certain way or practice an important spiritual or lifestyle choice, there are no guarantees in life. There is no one determining factor that will guarantee your child will or won’t be “successful,” happy, healthy, or thriving later in life.

When a child is made to go to school, often he becomes apathetic to learning. Whereas one of the benefits of homeschooling, and especially unschooling I think, is that children see learning as a useful tool and are enthusiastic life learners.

Will there be gaps if a child is homeschooled? Gaps, as if a person is supposed to know specific pre-determined knowledge at any certain age or grade?

There are gaps even if a person goes to the same school as students attend different levels of classes, take different electives, and retain more or less information than another student. And each learner remembers what they are exposed to to a different extent.

In school, you can get a cookie cutter education full of forced learning of predetermined content to be studied at certain grades. It is neat and packaged and sequential.

With unschooling, like life, it is messy and connections are built upon prior knowledge and learned according to the learner’s readiness and interest.

A homeschooler may know more or less than a schooled student about any given area that is studied in school. A homeschooler is likely to know more about areas that aren’t studied in school because they have the time and freedom to learn about whatever they are interested in and to a depth as great as they want to delve into.

Whether you go to school or not, learning continues throughout life, and more so if one’s motivation to learn is not squelched. In the end, not only with regard to school, but later in life, there are gaps between any two individuals as no one person shares the same knowledge and experiences as another.

Here’s another thing I like about unschooling - Because unschoolers are motivated and have a drive to persevere, rather than do only what is required or a half assed job, they give it their all, learn from their mistakes, and are driven to continue learning, just like they have been. And rather then view mistakes as something to be ashamed about, they view them as an opportunity for growth and learning. They may try another approach, do something differently, and move forward.

My husband loves microbrewed beer. He recently tried a new one called Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale. We cracked up at the title. The first paragraph of the beer description was funny too. But the second paragraph I loved because it sounded so similar to how I think about unschooling. I’ll share part of it with you. As I’m reading, just replace “True Arrogant Bastards” with “Enthusiastic Unschoolers!”

Too many strive towards complacency as a goal. We grow up thinking that the ability to become complacent is the equivalence of success in life. True Arrogant Bastards know that this could not be further from the truth. The real beauty, richness and depth in life can only be found if the journey through life itself is looked upon as a constant chance to learn, live and find life’s passion. Passion threatens the complacent, and fills them with fear. Fear of the new, the deep and the different. We, on the other hand, seek it out. Endlessly, joyously...and aggressively. To this end we bring you the “OAKED Arrogant Bastard Ale.” Another reward for those seeking new sources of passion, and another point of dissension for those who are not.

I recently read a TED conversation about how we live in a world with rapid change and how helpful it would be “…to be adaptable, flexible, confident, resourceful and willing and able to learn and try new things in order to cope….” And how young children exhibit those qualities and how we can learn from them how to “face our challenges with the joy, enthusiasm, and confidence (that) they show naturally.”

I think unschoolers, because their joy of learning is still intact, naturally exhibit those kinds of qualities and I agree that this IS a huge plus in our world today. I think this is partly because the approach unschooling parents take. As an unschooling parent, one of the most fun things to do is to share things with your child that you think they might be excited about or to do things with your child that they tell you they are excited about, just like you did with them when they were little. It keeps the enthusiasm of life and learning alive!

What if you have more than one child? When a person homeschools, even with multiple children, there is still more attention available to each child then when they are in a classroom setting with one teacher and over twenty students. Parents can provide the kind of environment that each child needs in order to learn and grow and flourish. Parents know their children best. And most importantly, there is no one more devoted to their children than their parents. Learning can take place at any hour of the day or night. You can read, google, knit, sew, draw, paint, bake, create, calculate, watch, listen, travel and visit according to your own family’s preferences and timetable.

If a child is interested in learning about or doing something which you don’t know, you can find a mentor for your child, look up the information, ask someone who does know or both of you can learn together. This presents a wonderful opportunity to model that learning continues at any age and that if you don’t know something, there are many ways to find out.

What if a close family member isn’t interested in reading about homeschooling or unschooling but believes wholeheartedly that you are not bringing up your kids in their best interest? What if they continue to share their not so respectful thoughts and opinions or they criticize or shame you or quiz your children even when you’ve told them not to?

If a close relative makes disrespectful comments or is being dismissive, you may need to put up some boundaries. Think of all possible choices and make the ones that feel best to you.

What are some options?

Stop seeing them.
Avoid them.
Not answer calls.
Move.
Or on the other hand,
Listen to the criticism and comments.
Let them tell you how to live.
Do what they say.
Follow their advice.
If it is obvious that you both disagree, you could say that you understand that they care and have worries, but that you are making the choices that you feel are best for your family (just as they did when they raised you) and they need to stop criticizing, be respectful and move on.

Why? Because you’re within the law, they’re your kids, and it’s your choice.

If they can not do this, you can decide to see them less often or take a break from getting together for a while. Remember that you have a choice. Getting together is a privilege and an opportunity, not an obligation.

If you need to develop more backbone to stand up for yourself and your choices, think about this. Do you really feel like you should give much clout to a person who criticizes or shames? Plus, if they do it in front of your kids, that is not good modeling (though it could be a valuable example of how awful it is to treat others that way and of even loved ones not always acting their best).

Do you need to call on your Mama Bear? Moms especially have a protective “mama bear” deep within us that helps us to speak out and stay strong when we need to. If you need to, use it to find your voice and say what you need to say and do what you need to do to take the best care of yourself and your family. You deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and so do your children and spouse or partner. Remember, it is up to you whom you allow into your space and your lives.

As long as we are abiding by the law, we don’t have to explain ourselves or defend our decisions or even provide information to anyone whom we don’t feel comfortable with, including our parents. And on that note, I would like to share with you Kelly Lovejoy’s words to consider and possibly share with your parents if you ever need or wish to:

Ask them whether they think that they did a good job raising you.

If they think they *did*, tell them that they need to back off and trust that you know what you're doing. *You* and your husband are your child's parents, not them. They had their chance; now it's your turn. If they are happy with how you turned out, they need to trust you to do what *you* think is best for your child.

If they think they did a *bad* job, then they DEFINITELY need to back waay off because you don't want to follow suit.

Either way, you win.

~Kelly
Here are some things to keep in mind:

How our loved ones feel, what they worry about, and how they treat others depends partly on how they grew up and their experiences. They may have never felt good enough themselves. Or even been told that they weren’t good enough. Likely they went to school and felt inadequate if they didn’t get good grades or know the answer when called upon. Maybe they felt that they didn’t live up to their teachers and families expectations. It can be hard to trust others if you’ve never been trusted yourself. And it can be hard to think others are doing “good enough” if you’ve never felt “good enough” yourself.

You can have understanding and compassion for your parents and how they felt growing up. However, you don’t’ have to feel like you are at their mercy. You are a grown adult and are capable of making thoughtful choices that feel right to you at this time. And you also have the right to trust yourself and change your mind at any time as you see fit.

Though you may care to respectfully hear what your loved ones think, you do not need to tolerate being shamed or criticized for your choices. It is your responsibility to set appropriate boundaries. Not only will you be doing so for yourself, but you will also be setting an example for your children.

Either way, you can do what is right for your family in each moment because ultimately you need to do right by your kids, not anyone else. (I’m assuming that you are within the law and your partner is on board here.)

With regard to quizzing your kids even if you’ve explained that you do not wish them to do so, consider how your kids feel about it - Perhaps your kids enjoy being quizzed and view it like a game that Aunt Mary or Grandma play with them. Also, keep in mind that your kids may have a very different relationship with your parents than you do. I know from personal experience that the wonderful relationship my brother and I had with our grandparents was very different from the relationship my father had with them.

So, rather than make assumptions based upon your own uncomfortableness, talk to your kids to find out how they feel. If they are comfortable with it or find it fun, maybe you can let it go and let that be part of their relationship. If your kids don’t like it now or at some future point, then you can let the person know that it is important that they stop.

It may be that instead of focusing on “How can I get my parent to respect and accept my choices?” that you instead accept that they currently disagree and focus on whether or not you want to continue a relationship with them. And if so, how? How can you maintain a relationship with your parent who doesn’t understand or agree with how you live?

Be open to the possibility that even the strongest of opinions can change. Especially if they have the opportunity to see your child grow up and be more than okay. Give them time to see how things go. In the meantime, stay positive when talking about your kids, be cordial and bide your time.

You can always use those four statements that are helpful in general

Periodically we evaluate how things are going.
Nothing is written in stone.
For now, this works for us.
We’ll see how things go

And then use the pass the bean dip approach to change the conversation.

Also, give them the same courtesy of having a different opinion than you do. Let go of any expectations that they do come around to your way of thinking and try to make the best of times that you can. I bet there are still plenty of things you can talk about and share that are joyful and of common interest. And many good times can be had and many sweet memories can still be made.

Sometimes, even though we may be grown adults and are doing what we feel is best for our families, we still wish our parents or loved ones approved of our choices, especially if those choices are near and dear to our heart. It is probably easier to not need or want our parent’s or loved one’s approval. But sometimes that is easier said than done.

When I think about what I wish for my relationship with my children, instead of wishing that they hope for my approval, I’d rather be a person that they can go to, to bounce ideas off of for consideration, and that they feel confident in making the choices that they feel are right for them and their families, knowing all the while that I will support and love them, even if their choices are different than I would make.

And wow! What a gift that would be to give to my children!

Laurie Wolfrum, 2013


Note from Sandra:
To anyone who might have read too quickly through Laurie's writing above, she wrote "(I’m assuming that you are within the law and your partner is on board here.)" and that is crucial.

There is no guarantee that what Laurie presented is binding in your situation, your area's jurisdiction. It is possible for parents to lose the right to even leave the state or county, from a custody dispute or other legal embroilment.

Some of Laurie's statements above, even though theyr'e not describing ideal social relations, ARE based on ideal legal situation.


The best thing to do is to try to understand unschooling so thoroughly and do it so well that all of your relatives smile and offer to help you.

Sandra Dodd


The handout Laurie presented with the talk above, including her new version of the Certificate of Empowerment, 2013

Unschoolers and their Relatives Responding to Questions about Unschooling What can I say to Doubters and Critics?