Family Bonding

Unschooling Life Podcast by Amy Childs — August 6th, 2014
an episode featuring Sandra Dodd

SPIFFY TRANSCRIPT, by Sandra, February 2020


On this podcast, so far, I’ve been focusing on natural learning. That’s what happens with unschooling and also happens in some alternative school environments. But natural learning is not the only benefit of unschooling.

What do families gain from an unschooling lifestyle that goes beyond just the natural learning environment? That’s the question for today’s episode of the Unschooling Life Podcast.

I asked Sandra Dodd, my favorite advocate of radical unschooling, if she could talk more about the differences between unschooling and other educational alternatives.

Sandra Dodd:
I didn’t know, when I first started, what the differences were, but over the years I’ve seen diverging paths. Because in the 1970s—late 60s, early 70s—when John Holt and some others were thinking, "We can reform schools," there was research—there was serious university research about how people learn, and that’s what unschooling ends up based on. Some of the alternative schools, and democratic schools, they based themselves on that too, but the thing is they never left the harbor. They didn’t know that there was a whole world beyond that, so they're still making a different kind of school.

If the parents are paying someone else to keep their children some number of hours and expecting a report of how the children did, at least to make it worth their money, they have all the disadvantages of school. Well not all of the disadvantages of the worst school you can imagine, but disadvantages of school that unschooling at home never touches, like dividing the world artificially into school years and semesters, with days that are "learning days" and days that aren’t "learning days".

I mean, it’s sad to say, but the schools that are boarding schools based on that, seem to purposely separate the parents from the children. And all schools need to do that, so the kids aren’t crying and wishing they were home. It... For a school to want the children to pay attention to the teachers, and to care what they say, the only good way to do that is to break the bonds between children and their parents, to some extent.

When people are dealing with the school schedule, they see the children from 6 years old to 18, more or less. And they say “We have only this many years to do what we are going to do.” That affects their view of their child's progress, whereas the child at home might reach those goals, those sort of checkpoints at 14 or 22, and that’s ok, because at home they're counting all the other things that their children did too as legitimate, in a radical unschooling family that really does unmoor themselves from schoolishness.

Another thing that happens with radical unschooling is that the relationship between the parents and the children is so close, and so warm, and direct, that it affects not just their day-to-day peace, and their learning, but their lives after the children are grown.

That’s another thing that I could not have known, when I first started, that I see now. Whereas with schools, ideally if a children develops a really strong bond with one teacher or two, and just loves those people and the very sight of them inspires them to think great thoughts, once that teacher's off duty, it’s over. It probably will not be a lifelong relationship.

For a child whose home life isn’t better than school, school is the bomb. It is still school.

So I think for a child whose parents can’t provide a better environment than they can buy them in a school, school might be great. And sometimes there are long-term relationships between students and teachers, but that’s not the goal of school. And if that relationship, if that bonding, can be with the parents, instead of paid strangers, I don’t see any disadvantage to that. So when people say, “My school, or my charter school, or my this-or-that, online school... is unschooling," I think it’s going to compromise the family’s understanding of what the potential of unschooling is.

I am trying to think of what emotion this is. It’s not resentment, jealousy… It’s something— It's indignation, I suppose? When people who are running a school, charging money for people to send their kids there, where they will keep them there every day, like the law says, and they're reporting to the state, like the law says, to then equate themselves with what radical unschoolers are doing, it’s cheatery. They are cheating, They are trying to suggest that they can do in 180 days—whatever 6 times 180 is in hours—that they can take the state requirement of hours and create, in that time, what a radical unschooling family can create in 364 days of learning.

My audio wasn’t being recorded properly at this point, but here I said something sort of snarky, like “You mean 363 days, because of 'Learn Nothing Day',” because apparently I don’t know how many days there are in a year, and Sandra said:
Sandra Dodd:
I took out the one already, it would have been 365.
And we had a pretty good laugh about that. But eventually we got back to talking about the other benefits of unschooling—things that people don’t necessarily think of as "education."
Sandra Dodd:
It’s easy to see, if you are going to nurse your baby, the bond, the nursing relationship, and the awareness, the sort of visceral communication that happens between an infant and a mom is going to be lost if that baby is put into full-time daycare. And the mom mourns for a while, and then just bucks up and picks the baby up when she gets off work. But I don’t think it can be as close. I don’t think the child will ever trust that mother as much as he would have.

We don’t... it’s painful to think about it, it’s painful to look at the effects of that. And co-sleeping helps with bonding, when parents can do it. And by "bonding" I think I mean intimate knowledge, each one of the other. The baby can read the mom’s moods, the mom can read the baby's needs, moods, awakeness, wakefullness, fear, calm, in ways that you lose if the baby's in a different room, in a different bed.

Those are just not the things that we speak of in this culture because it has to do with human instinct.

When I was a kid we were told in school that humans don’t have instincts—that we have to learn everything we learn from books. That we don’t know how to build a shelter, we don’t know what food to eat, we don’t know anything except through our culture and what we learn in books. I think that's probably true, especially if you set up a religion that says:

Anything you 'kind of think is right,' that’s a message from the devil. You need to not do that.

If you didn’t read it in the Bible, then it’s the devil tempting you not to do what you are supposed to do.

And how long has that been going on on this culture? Way over 1500 years. And so, if we were—we, millions and millions of people—were shamed about giving in to their "baser instincts." There are whole phrases that go with that, whole shaming phrases. Like: "You need to ignore your 'urges'.” And they say 'urges’, like it… it sounds nasty, you know—stuff is coming out of you.

For instincts to have been literally demonized by our culture, by our largely religious culture, it keeps people from knowing how to be. And if people feel like they have to buy a book and read what’s in the book, and there are so many different books, then the culture that was supposed to help us know what to do is totally scattered and lost.

We are so afraid of instinct.

So with radical unschooling it is possible for a family, even who skipped that part—even who didn’t have infant bonding—to, as much as possible, restore a relationship between the parents and the children, where the parents really do care about what the children think and want, more then they look in the book and see what a six-year-old should think or want.

One thing that John Holt, when he was writing about Teach Your Own, he, too, had a curriculum in mind. He, too, was thinking, not "teach a curriculum," but "Do this, instead of school, until school is out, and then you will be done, and it will be cool, you will have dodged the bullet, you will have missed out on the damage of school." That’s worthy all by itself.

But John Holt didn’t have any children. He didn’t actually do what he was writing about people doing. I respect him, I love his books, I am glad he did what he did. But then people come along, after that, and they do it. And then they shared that with each other, and then people did it better than they saw their families do it. Other families say, “Well, I wish I hadn’t done this; it was all right, but oh, I wish we had done this." And so entire lives of young people have been lived now since John Holt died, who didn’t go to school. And what those families discovered, that John Holt could not have known, is that if you live your life receptive to the learning around you, accepting of input, appreciative of the other people around you who know things, and of the resources around you, and trying not to be prejudiced against inputs like television and videogame and comic book, then what happens is, the parents' learning kicks back in. The parents, who probably had sort of calcified because of school, they soften back up, and they start to want to learn. And so they are learning along with their children, or in a parallel-play kind of way. They might all be in the same place all learning different things, sharing the good parts.

The richness of that environment of learning, where the parents and the children are exploring what they want to explore and sharing little bits along the way, sliding in and out of each others' hobbies, it is so big, it's so rich, and when the children are old enough to get jobs—mine all got jobs as teens, but in some countries that’s not as legal as it is where I am—and when they decide to move out, it’s so smooth, it’s so normal. It already seems not unusual that a child would move out, would find a cool opportunity and move out, and that the parents would help them willingly, sweetly.

And I’ve seen that now dozens of times, and I assume I will see that hundreds of times before I'm through, and most people have not seen that one time. They can’t imagine it; they don’t believe it. What they see is: when the child turns 18, everything changes.

I’ve talked to kids who said they were so scared and stressed when they were 17, because they knew when they turned 18, their parents were going to start charging them rent, or throw them out, or if they didn’t go to the university, they should go to the military—all this huge pressure to get... to get out. You are done now; we're done.

So people hadn’t considered that they could totally avoid that, that that would be a natural offshoot of radical unschooling.

Keith and I did think, early on, we said what we are doing is inoculating our kids against the trait of some, or the fact of some kids leaving with the first person who says “Hey baby, you wanna live with me?” or “Oh, let’s go get a house”, or, you know, that sort of energy of young people luring other young people out and away, to other states, to other places, to dangerous neighborhoods. We said "It’s going to have to be a pretty good offer to beat what they have at home."

And so that becomes a safety factor too. If the children know that they can stay at home, then someone who comes and says, "Hey do you want come do something with me? Do you want to come live with me?"—it better be a good offer.

A few days after recording this conversation with Sandra, she found a few notes, she’d written a while back about the topic and sent them to me. She wrote:
When unschooling is equated with alternative school, it can blind people to the possibilities of full-on radical unschooling. No matter how extremely great or different a school is from a traditional school, or the default standard, it is still a school.

Parents who are unschooling as a whole way of life, can discover what no school can find, and the core aspect of it is the family as a base for learning—for learning about family, for learning about relationships, and resources, money, food and sleep, and learning about laughter.

Music plays
The Unschooling Life Podcast is brought to you by Amy Child and


Originally there was back-and-forth, and sometimes you can hear the fade-in where Amy had cut her parts out, because the audio wasn't good. The parts by Amy here were added later. So I didn't go on at length as it seems here on the day of the interview. She was prompting me and asking good questions, but this format makes me sound (a little) more articulate.

When her podcast still had its own website, people could leave comments. At the "family bonding" page I commented: Sandra Dodd
August 9, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Although within the podcast the term “radical unschooling” is used half a dozen times, I wanted to emphasize that radical unschooling is what I lived, what I support, and what I recommend to others who ask me about how my family and the way we homeschooled.

“Radical Unschooling” is unschooling fully, from the roots, from the principles, extended into all of one’s life and being.

It has been brought to my attention twice recently (neither very politely) that people who do nothing but forego a curriculum while keeping all their other rules and limitations and separations between parents and children can (and do) call themselves unschoolers.

That unschooling-only-the-academics unschooling will not present the benefits our family gained. The honor, bonding and respect can be set aside, and some families do that. We did not. Some of the damage school (even alternative school) can do, a homeschooling familiy can do. Even unschoolers. We did not.

Amy Childs retired in 2019, and let the unschooling support webpage go. The podcasts are available in a couple of places, but I like to have them with the introductions that were on the website, as I did above. The transcript was my own addition. Amy gave me permission to embed soundfiles on my page, and once in a while I bring another one.

The Unschooling Life Podcasts

The Unschooling Life (full episodes, at OwlTail)

Apple Podcasts

Whatever, Whatever Amen

Intro / Images (without full recordings)
at the Wayback Machine, Internet Archives

Bonding Babies (links to more on infants, toddlers) Being your Child's Partner

In the recording above, from 5:12 to about 8:07, I'm talking about Instinct, and I have a page about that.