This week on the podcast, Megan Valnes shares some great insights as we dive deep into her deschooling experience, including finding helpful unschooling information and groups online, the parenting paradigm shifts we make as we embrace unschooling, her experience managing the diverse needs of five children, her husband’s experience as they moved to unschooling, her favourite thing about unschooling right now, and lots more.
Megan and her husband have five children, ages three, six, nine, eleven and thirteen. They came across unschooling out of a sense of desperation. Their two oldest children were in a rigorous Catholic school, but at eight years old, her eldest son had had enough and refused to go. He would walk in the school and sit on the stairs, or say he was sick.
She explains: "Now, this just did not come out of nowhere, him sitting on the stairs. There was a lot that led up to it. He had really been unhappy for a long time. I used to think that he was having a lot of problems. Now, with my unschooling education basically, I now know that it was always my problem. It was never my son but at the time I was just so overwhelmed and I just could not figure out. I think I thought I was doing everything right and really by the book as far as being a parent and trying to give him a different experience than I had growing up. I thought it was better but I never took him into account, you see. I never saw him for who he was."
He was so unhappy that Megan finally decided something has to drastically change or she was going to lose him, because she remembered from her own experience refusing to be controlled by the time she was thirteen or fourteen.
So, in my search, I feel really blessed that I came across Sandra Dodd’s website. I still remember the moment I saw it and I clicked on it and this whole new world was opened up to me. It was like the clouds parted and the angels sang and the beam of light shined down upon me. It was just this awakening. I mean I was lying in bed and I looked my husband and I was like, “Oh my god, we have to do this!”
Over the next year, Megan wrapped up one last project at work and got prepared to stay home with the kids. In the meantime, she started making some changes at home. Things like letting go of restrictions on TV, video games, and food. Little steps in preparation. Then one day she picked up her son from school and said, “You're not going back; we're ready.”
And that's when things really got started. Megan described it this way: "It’s a big difference when you are making those little changes, but they are still in school. Then when you finally bring them home and it really happens, that was where the big learning curve happened. It was like someone unlocked the shackles you didn't even know you were wearing."
I asked Megan about her experience learning about unschooling—how she found solid and helpful information online about unschooling. She emphasized the importance of being open-minded and how, at first, she didn't realize how narrow-minded she was around her core beliefs. It can be a confusing and painful time as we challenge so much of what we believed to be true. Then she shared some great insight:
"When we start asking ourselves those really challenging questions I think it’s important to have a group that can really sort through those answers. Not just tell you, ‘Oh, it’s okay, you're angry, mom, and we all have those days.’ I don’t want that. There are certain times I want to be coddled and I know who to go to to be coddled. But when we are really getting down into the depths of unschooling, I think it’s important to have a group that can really help you work through that and has the courage to say things that will open your mind or shift your perspective.
I think you have to find who you connect with, whoever that may be, who you can hear the best and then, make sure—for myself it was just try not to walk away just because I got offended. There were times where I felt almost like my feelings were hurt. You know, I would write in and I would be like, ‘I did not really want you to tell me the truth about it.’ (laughs) And then I would hear those words and it was just important to step away from the discussion for a little while and think about it. Which is hard online."
She followed that up with: "You need to do the work. It’s exactly like you said, opening your mind to the possibility. Because unschooling is a simple philosophy that when you read it, you are like, ‘Oh yes, that makes so much sense.’ But to actually implement it and fully integrate that philosophy into your life, it’s so different because it radically contradicts what we grew up knowing and understanding about the world. It’s like suddenly four plus four does not equal eight. Or, there is a possibility it might equal nine. Is it possible to stretch your brain out that far? Where you can think, ‘It’s a possibility what I have been doing all these years was not right?’"
Megan remembered how when her son first came home from school he watched TV constantly, maybe 18 hours a day. He would eat his meals watching TV and sleep on the couch in front of the TV. Every now and again she would get angry about it and she wanted to figure out the root of her anger. She wrote about it in an online group and she clearly remembers Joyce Fetteroll (EU014: Ten Questions with Joyce Fetteroll) replying with the analogy, if your son had two broken legs, would you be yelling at him to get up and go running? All of a sudden the situation made so much sense to her! He was broken somehow inside from his traumatic school experience and needed time to heal—even if the injury wasn't visible on the outside. She had been thinking, ‘What are you doing? Why are you just sitting there? You aren’t in school any more, go outside, play.’ His TV watching had been making her feel like an inadequate parent. But his choice to watch TV wasn't really about her at all. It was about his healing.
That was a great example of the parenting paradigm shifts that happen as we deschool and move from control over our children to connection with our children. Here's how Megan described the process:
"Being disconnected was what was normal for me. When I came to unschooling and was starting to let go of all those controls, that led me to start learning more about myself and why I had those control issues over my children and what did that mean for me. How did I need to connect back into myself and connect with them and really making the effort to play with them, to watch TV with them, to sit on the couch and watch my son’s shows with him. To play their computer games, to really get into their world, helped me heal and helped me learn, I think, what a true connection means.
So, that was just part of the work and the process of putting down all those thoughts and ideas and opinions that I thought were so right. Shifting my perspective and trying something new because playing with my kids was really foreign to me. At the same time, Pam, I was only this kind of person parenting. I have always been fun and little bit crazy and a little bit wild and wanting to do things and I just have kind of a vivacious personality, it’s who I am. But when it came to parenting, I would turn into this different sort of person, like I thought I had to put on this persona. I was always so worried about how other people are judging the situation. For myself, I never really cared what people thought about me but, all of sudden, when I had kids it was like, ‘these kids need to be perfect and people need to think that I'm doing a great job and know that I'm a fit parent.’"
Megan shared how she sees that playing out: "I think as parents we feel like it’s our right to just unload our opinion on our kids. With conventional parenting, you’ll tell your kids, “Oh my god, your hair is a wreck, your breath stinks, go brush your teeth.” You would never say that to anyone else. And somehow that’s okay to say to your children. So, becoming more mindful also is a huge part in connecting. Being more mindful of what you say and how you say it. How are you treating these people that happen to be your children."
And what has that meant for her relationship with her son?
"I am just so happy I found it when I did because now our relationship is so amazing. We are so connected. I do not have to control him anymore. I really can say that I trust him in what he is doing and that is a long time coming. I mean that’s probably been in the past year that I felt that way. That is not saying everything is perfect. Being in connection with your children and your family is not saying that you never have an argument or get upset or have issues. It’s not always hunky dory. But it means that we can really discuss issues when they happen."
Then I asked her about her experience with finding ways to meet the diverse needs of five children. She explained:
I really had to learn that it’s okay for them to be different and that my second and third child love doing classes, they want to try anything, they will go to a park day. Anything I throw at them, they are usually willing to try it. My oldest hates classes—ever since he we pulled him out of school. He has tried a few classes here and there at my urging. Because, in the beginning, when you first start unschooling, you’re like, ‘wow, look at all these classes, let’s sign up one for every day, then we’ll go to twelve park days a month, and we’re going to meet all these people!’
Then we talked about weaving the different needs together and Megan shared this gem:
It really did not work for our family and I learned that quickly and that was part of learning to trust my son and knowing that he knew what was best for him. He just does not like park days, and that was hard for me to understand in the beginning. I thought, ‘do you not want to make friends?’ And he was making a lot of friends online. But I was discounting that.
I think the biggest way of meeting needs is by staying connected to your kids and knowing who your kids are. Which is huge, because there are certain things I know my oldest son and my fourth child—my two introverts—are not going to like. So, we talk. I always run everything past everyone, but I do not get offended or take it personally if they do not want do it. The option to say no is always available. That is how we are.
Yes, it’s just life. It just really starts to flow and I think whether you have one kid or you have five—obviously the workload increases a little bit, I think, but—it just it hits a flow. There are ebbs too. I actually have been discussing this with a good friend of mine (Lisa Celedon). We were talking about the ebbs and she said something really beautiful: that during the ebbs the tide has pulled away and there are all these unexpected treasures on the beach that you can find.
That made a lot of sense to me because sometimes like we are all flowing so well, and everything is going great, then we feel like we start to ebb and it’s like, ‘okay, what’s going on?’ Taking that downtime which is really what it is and looking for the treasure in it. Maybe everybody needed a break. I think we get so caught up in another cultural thing, being busy. Because if we are busy then we are worthy. Then that means that we are productive human beings and we are worth our weight in gold and gosh darn it, we are going to make the world a better place. You know, sometimes it really is okay to have that down time. Your body needs it, your brain needs it, kids absolutely need it, and they know how to give it to themselves naturally.
When I asked about her husband's transition to unschooling, Megan thought it came more naturally for him because he had no good memories of school—he hated it and ditched most of high school. He was also already more easygoing about things like food and letting the kids choose what to wear or play. That said, there were some challenges. There were times she would send him tons of articles and marked up books, but that didn't work so well because when she would push things on him, he would resist. Which is a natural human reaction.
Eventually, what we learn about the negative consequences of trying to control our children helps us recognize when we're trying to control our spouse or partner. Moving from control to connection with this relationship as well makes for a much more peaceful household.
And finally, I asked Megan what her favourite thing about their unschooling lives is right now. Here's what she said:
My favorite thing right now, it has got to be my relationship with my kids and my husband. It has opened up so many doors, windows, worlds to me that I did not know existed. It has just opened my mind to so many levels. I just did not even know this could exist—this true family harmony and happiness is real. I feel like the Velveteen Rabbit. I finally have become real. I may not have any eyes and my fluff is all kind of worn out and worn down, but I am real and feel on such a deep level with my kids and with my husband and I don’t know what could be better.
Just amazing.Pam Laricchia