originally published May 13, 2009, on Lisa M. Cottrell-Bentley's Do Life Right blog (no longer available)

20 Unschooling Questions: Sandra Dodd from NM, USA

DoLifeRight: Tell me a bit about yourself and your family (name, children's ages, where you live, etc.).

Sandra: I’m Sandra Dodd and I live with my husband, Keith, who’s an engineer at Honeywell, and with two of our three children. [in Albuquerque]. Kirby (22) lives in Austin and works for a video game company. Marty (20) works at a Persian restaurant and is buying a jeep of his own. Holly (17) has two jobs. She works at Zumiez, at Coronado Mall (a skateboard/snowboard shop with clothing and shoes) and also for a florist who has two shops.

(There were two photos here, but I can't yet identify which they were; I will try to discover or replace them. —Sandra, 2019)

DoLifeRight: How long have you homeschooled your children? Do you consider your family an unschooling family? What does this mean for your family?

Sandra: My children have been unschooled always. Kirby was five when we first tried it out, knowing he could go back to school if he wanted to. He didn't. As the others came along we asked if they'd rather go to school or stay home, and each year we used to ask, at first. They all chose to be at home.

We knew two other unschooling families through La Leche League, so it was an easy choice.

I started writing online when Holly was a baby, and I first spoke at a local conference when Kirby was nine years old. What it has meant to our family over the years is that my children’s learning has been fairly public. We’ve discussed it at various times over the years, and they knew that their stories being out there could make other children’s lives easier. They understood that from La Leche League and from the park day, too. Being the organizing family has more responsibilities even for the kids than other families have. They’ve grown up that way.

DoLifeRight: Did you plan to homeschool your children before you actually had children? What is your own educational background?

Sandra: I was good in school and enjoyed it. I went from first grade to 11th and graduated early, and finished college in four years, so when I was 20 I graduated from the University of New Mexico, turned 21 in the summer, and was teaching in the fall. I had been trained by school reformers, and part of our required reading was John Holt (this was before he advocated home schooling, and was still working on school reform). My degree was in English with a minor in psychology, another minor (finished the year after I graduated) in anthropology, and a teaching certificate. I made very good use of college!

I took various and assorted graduate courses over the years, but didn’t finish a master’s degree, partly because of hobbies, a seriously broken leg, and the birth of Kirby in 1986.

I was pregnant for the third time before Kirby would have started school. We figured they would be in school, but attachment parenting changed things for the better!

DoLifeRight: Why did you decide to not send your children to school? What research did you do to make this decision? Were there any books, magazines, or websites you would recommend for new parents (or parents who are new to homeschooling) to read?

Sandra: Kirby took an art class when he was four, and he was TOO enthusiastic and quick and didn’t have the patience to wait for others to catch up, or to do things slowly as the teacher wanted. The teacher loved him, though, and did some one-on-one projects with him other times. Then he took a dance class he had been looking forward to, and (long story) it didn’t go well, but in a whole different way. He was sad in ways I couldn’t fix, and he wasn’t doing the groups any good either.

Because his birthday is in the late summer, we had the option to wait a year for kindergarten. We signed him up for homeschooling, figuring it was a totally risk-free year. The next year he could either go into kindergarten, or first grade, or stay home again. It was quite a luxury, to have two other unschooling families in our babysitting co-op and have a one year free trial time.

In those days, the only thing available was Growing Without Schooling Magazine. I subscribed, bought some back issues, and read every word, some of it twice. Each time an issue came, I read it cover to cover, every word.

When *Prodigy (an early e-mail program) came along, I participated in a bulletin board group—a rudimentary sort of message board. There were about 80 families represented, mostly fundamentalist Christian homeschoolers.

When AOL was new, they had message forums and chat rooms. That was a huge improvement. People were able to put collections of ideas and experiences in public. Later came web pages, and blogs.

Several of the homeschooling magazines are defunct now; online information is less expensive and quicker to come by, and takes less storage. I think any web search for “unschooling” will yield more information in one day than someone could have found in a year, in the early 1990s.

DoLifeRight: Did you consider yourself an "Attachment Parent" when your children were infants? How did this (or didn't this) affect your choice to unschool/homeschool your children?

Sandra: We were active in La Leche League, and Keith and I both fell in love with being parents, and with the ideas we were learning there. We were active in a group that had many late-night parties and meetings, and campouts, so our kids were used to sleeping in different places, and falling asleep in our laps, or in a frame backpack either indoors or in the mountains under the stars. That helped us know without a doubt that children will sleep when they’re tired, and that it’s more important for them to be with their parents doing interesting things than to be home in bed simply because it’s 8:00 or 9:00.

“Child-led weaning” and all the food awareness that went with that did a world of good for us, too. We never had fights over food with our children. They wanted to try what grownups were eating, and they were never pressed to eat anything they didn’t like the look or smell or taste of. They were free to spit it in my hand if they wanted to.

I’m sure the common La Leche League phrase “child-led weaning” resulted in the phrase “child-led learning” which many apply to unschooling, but after nearly 20 years of unschooling, I think “child-led learning” is a detrimental concept that keeps parents from creating and maintaining busy, rich lives with lots of choices.

DoLifeRight: What specific benefits to your children (or family as a whole) have you actually seen since you became unschoolers/homeschoolers?

Sandra: They are courteous, courageous and whole. They smile and laugh. They’re not mean. They have rarely ever cried. People trust them, confide in them, and offer them jobs.

DoLifeRight: Do you have a regular schedule in your life? How does this work with outside commitments and responsibilities?

Sandra: When Kirby was young he had karate twice a week and we worked with and around that. We had a park day once a week, and it had been a babysitting co-op playgroup when the kids were toddlers, and it evolved into an unschooling group we kept up ourselves after other families’ children went to school or moved out of town. Both the other unschooling families moved, but we picked up some new ones and kept that group going until Kirby was twelve years old.

Our schedules have always involved commitments to other people first (sports, park day, karate, ice skating, dance, theatre) and then things we wanted to do together (movies, meals out, visiting friends, exploring, taking the dog to run in wilder places). When Kirby turned fourteen he was offered a job, and that became a major work-around because he didn’t drive for another three years, but it was an advantage to everyone because he worked in a gaming shop, and Marty got a good discount and lots of volunteer opportunities (setting up for tournaments and such in exchange for store credit). Many of their current friends came from the gaming shop days.

DoLifeRight: How important have support groups been for you? Do you have online ones, in person ones, or a mixture? Please list any you want to share.

Sandra: We had both. Conferences were fun, and we’ve visited families we met at conferences, and they’ve visited us. Sometimes the whole family goes, and sometimes just one or two of us. We’ve hosted single kids and just a parent, all in various combinations. We’ve driven several states in several directions to visit other unschoolers I only knew online.

I’ve been writing online and collecting other people’s best writings for over a dozen years. I was doing it today. I’ll do it tomorrow!

DoLifeRight: What resources do you use for your children's "educations"? Feel free to comment on the word "education".

Sandra: We don’t “educate” our children. We help arrange so that they have so many learning opportunities they can’t possibly take advantage of them all. We have friends with interesting jobs and hobbies. We invite them over, and we visit them. We have a house full of books, music, games, toys, movies, art materials, plants, food and dress-up clothes. We don’t expect learning to happen in the house, nor in museums, but we know it happens everywhere. We don’t expect learning to happen during daylight hours or on weekdays. We know it happens all the time. So we don’t “use resources” except that we see every thing we discuss or see, smell, touch, hear or taste to be a resource. It’s not a word we use, because it’s all of life.

DoLifeRight: How did your friends and families react when you told them your children wouldn't be going to school? Have their opinions changed over the years?

Sandra: Some people overstate their cases and say “Our children will never go to school.” We didn’t. First of all, it’s not something any parent can insure. But we didn’t burn our bridges or commit to an unseen future. What we said was “Kirby’s staying home this year.” And then “Kirby’s going to stay at home again.” When people asked the inevitable questions, we said things like “It’s working for now,” or “If it stops working we’ll try something else,” or “If he stops having fun, he can go to school.” Then we were careful to make sure he had lots of fun!

Because I was a teacher, and because of my hobbies, many of my friends were teachers (still). I had a special answer for teachers who asked “What if they get behind?” I’d say “Well we could put them in special ed, and they would get them all caught up in no time!” They would blanche and I would see everything they knew about special ed passing before their eyes. That shushed every single teacher who ever asked, and there were several. They knew I knew, and I knew they knew that special ed isn’t really designed to get kids caught up and back into the mainstream.

DoLifeRight: What have been the benefits (unexpected and expected) to homeschooling?

Sandra: Speaking of unschooling, and not of homeschooling in general, I gave a talk on this topic in 2005, and the notes are here: /unexpected

DoLifeRight: How does your family make money? Do you have a job? Full-time or part-time or something in between? Can you tell us about your choices and how you made these decisions?

Sandra: When Keith and I were first together, I was teaching and he was working minimum wage jobs while deciding whether he would go back to college. He had just finished a degree in computer science with a minor in theatre and we had been married a year when we discovered to our surprise that we were going to have a baby. That was good timing. He got a job as an engineer with Sperry Aerospace, which was bought by Honeywell, and he’s worked there ever since. I know it’s a sacrifice for him to work while I got to play with the kids and hang out with other families and write, but he’s noble and a great husband and father and takes good care of us. And for my part, I’ve taken great care of the kids and the peace of the family. I’m not a great housekeeper nor always an enthusiastic cook, but we figured out ways to be happy and things have worked out well.

We never have pressed our children to get jobs, but they’ve all had jobs. Kirby from the age of 14, and the job he got at 21 paid him to move to another state, and he was making more than Keith made when he was first an engineer. It might not lead to as much as Keith makes 22 years later, but we have no idea what Kirby will be doing in 22 years, so we’re leaving a good situation alone!

Marty was offered a job making historical reenactors’ leather boots and pouches, when he was 15. He worked full time in a grocery store when he was 17 (and a few months before and after). He saved money and traveled.

DoLifeRight: How have *you* personally grown since you started unschooling/homeschooling your children? How has your relationship with your spouse/partner grown?

Sandra: Keith and I have enjoyed our children and the success of our experiments and experiences has been a joint project at which we were very successful. The effect of sharing something difficult, like parenting in a way that’s not universally acclaimed and supported, can be strengthening to a relationship. We had always worked at being courteous to each other. We always said please and thank you about any “pass the salt” or “could I have a Kleenex.” It was easy, then, to model that for our children and for them to see the valuable effect of it.

I was interested in teaching and people and writing my whole life, and the intensive experience of learning so much about unschooling and parenting, and learning to use new resources to help other people have opportunities to learn wasn’t “on the schedule.” It evolved hour by hour over the years and has brought us all many great friends and memories.

DoLifeRight: Are you able to find time to have your own hobbies, interests, and friends? Beyond your children (of course), what are your interests?

Sandra: My children’s interests affected mine, and ours affected theirs, and so there’s not a great dividing line between my hobbies and interests and friends and theirs. They have friends of all ages, as do I. I have hobbies I’ve had all my life, some of which one or more of my kids have picked up and some of which are still just mine. As the children get older the parents have more time and space and energy for hobbies.

DoLifeRight: How do you respond to other people's questions about the following: completeness of education, socialization, college plans, etc.? Do you give different answers to different people? Why?

Sandra: If I didn’t give different answers to different people, it would be recitation and not conversation. Depending what the person already knows and what and why he seems to be asking, I’ll give him an answer I think will be satisfying and possibly lead to another question. I do the same when I talk with my husband or my children or my everyday friends.

DoLifeRight: Any regrets? We want to hear the good and the bad! This is the best way to make informed decisions.

Sandra: I wish I had spent more time just sitting and watching what they were doing. I wish I had taken photographs of Kirby’s “Ninja Turtle Sculptures” (scenarios). I wish I were the kind of person who could drive for six or eight or ten hours straight, but I get sleepy. I wish I had found another driver (single adult, or teen) to go on trips with us. I wish we had gone more places when the kids were little, but compared to my own childhood they had been LOTS of places. It’s still a regret, though, because we had a car and the time. When the kids were old enough to drive, they’d get jobs. At the moment Holly’s 17 and can drive and she and I could go ANYwhere! But she has two jobs. And she’s about to house-sit/dog sit for two different families, and got a website maintenance job just this afternoon. So for a while here she will have five jobs! She can’t drive me around the country.

I regret not having had the focus and patience to watch the Pokemon cartoons and learn more about Pokemon. I had learned all about Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers, and I didn’t have it in me to do Pokemon. I wish I could have a do-over. I wish I were a girlie-enough mom to have played Barbies with Holly.

DoLifeRight: Any last thoughts or advice for DoLifeRight's readers?

Sandra: Cynicism and pessimism are poison and will destroy families and learning. Happiness and joy will create more happiness and joy, and families and learning and the individuals within the families will be better off!

A lifetime worth of thoughts and advice are collected and linked here (Holly’s lifetime, and Marty’s, and Kirby’s, and mine too, come to think of it): SandraDodd.com/

Rescued from The WayBack Machine in August 2019.

An Interview with Sandra Dodd, by Emily Subler, 1998

More interviews Sound files and videos Ten Questions with Sandra Dodd by Pam Laricchia, 2016