In early May, 2017, I was a guest on Pam Laricchia's podcast "Exploring Unschooing." The topic was Changes in Parents. When Pam announces a new podcast, she describes it beautifully, and then those e-mails poof away (as far as aI know), so I'm saving this one here! I have reformatted slightly for your reading ease.
This is so you can listen here if you want, but if you go to Pam's page, there will be a list of lots of links below, and a link to a transcript. ~here you go~
I'm excited to share my conversation with this week's guest, Sandra Dodd. She shares some amazing insights into the unschooling journey and the changes in parents that happen along the way—when we choose to dedicate the time and effort needed to do it well.
You can listen to the episode here or read the transcript here.
We've both found that there's a bit of a theme to the kinds of questions people ask, depending on how far along they are on their unschooling journey, so we thought it would be fun to align our conversation that way as well, with questions organized around beginner, intermediate, and advanced topics.
To start, we dove into the ways that preconceived ideas and prejudices, the ones so many of us have picked up growing up immersed in conventional society, can limit our thinking and get in the way of moving to unschooling.
For parents, deschooling is the detoxification and recovery from all of their schooling and, in some cases, whatever teaching they may have done. Yet it's not something to be done all at once. It would be so overwhelming to tell brand new unschoolers, “Okay, here it is, you need to review everything that’s ever happened to you.”
Sandra explains, "They don’t need to do it in advance, they don’t need to do it right at first. So, it’s so big, but it’s also so gradual, it’s just like living and breathing and eating and sleeping. Because every day a little more can come to the surface and be examined as it pops up."
When they're first starting out, parents need to learn mostly how to learn without books or classes or teachers. The challenge with giving new unschooling parents a kind of checklist is that we have grown up to practically worship them—we've learned that being successful is all about having that list and working it. Being efficient and accomplished makes us feel good.
I love what Sandra had to say about that:
Unschooling isn’t like that at all, even in the long term it’s not about the completion of a project at all. It’s about becoming the sort of people who see and appreciate and trust that learning can happen. And who can travel with children, not just drag them along or push them along, but who can travel with children along those interesting paths together not until you get there, but indefinitely.Understanding why unschoolers make the choices we do—not just making those choices—is an important part of the unschooling journey.
And for beginning unschoolers that sounds also a little esoteric, a little foofy. And not solid. They want to know what do I do when the kids wake up in the morning? So, the beginning information is very often, “What do I do?” But the information that will get people from the beginning to the intermediate is why. "Why do we do this?"
Something else that can be challenging as we start out is finding sources of unschooling information to trust. Try to find voices that resonate with you. Find a group. Look at a lot of groups and find one you like, and stick around and read it a lot. Sandra recently wrote this about her website:
No-one is ever likely to read my whole website and I don’t ever need them to. It’s not written to be read from one end to the other any more than a pharmacy is intended for someone to start at one end and eat, drink or inject every substance in the whole room.I bolded that because it's I think it's a precious gem of truth.
If you find a page that does help you, guess what? It will help even more if you read it again after a year or two. And if you read it after you’ve been unschooling for five years it will seem that the first time it was a black and white postcard and now it’s a technicolour movie. Because you’ll understand it better and you’ll see the subtlety and the artistry of what people wrote and maybe you’ll wish you’d been able to understand it better sooner.
Unschooling ideas, like "say yes more," are reasonably easy to understand, on the surface. They are the, "What do I do?" answers we mentioned earlier. But don't stop there. There's a depth and subtlety to these ideas that takes extended time and thought and experience to discover. Continue to hang around unschooling ideas and discussions, even when you don't have a pressing question. Keep reading and thinking. Go back to read and listen to things six months, a year later and you will discover new insights. To mix metaphors, you will find another layer of the onion to peel back.
And the reward will be that technicolour movie of deep understanding, not to mention wonderfully strong and connected relationships with your children, even as adults.
That is all part of the journey.
As we moved into intermediate levels of unschooling, where natural learning is reasonably well understood and now there’s a dawning realization of the importance of our relationships, we talked about a quote I pulled from a great five-minute video Sandra recorded a few years ago called Doing Unschooling Right:
My definition for unschooling is creating and maintaining an environment in which natural learning can thrive. The environment I’m talking about—what we sometimes call an unschooling nest—is not just the physical home, it’s the relationships within the family and the exploration of the world outside the home by parents and children both. The emotional environment is crucial.You can see this in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where the more foundational needs of shelter/food, security/safety, and love/belonging need to be satisfied before our children's attention can comfortably turn to learning and creativity. Without both their physical and emotional needs being met, their learning will suffer.
And I know I've mentioned it before, but it's a great connection to make here. In Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “the joy of complete engagement.” He goes on to explain, "There is no space for consciousness, for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual, and a sense of time is distorted.” So much great learning happens when we're in the flow!
And to bring it back around to the importance of the emotional environment, to get to that place of lack of self-consciousness, you really need to feel safe. He writes: “[T]he family seems to act as a protective environment where a child can experiment in relative security, without having to be self-conscious, and worry about being defensive or competitive.”
Bam. The emotional environment is crucial, from whatever angle you're looking.
On that note, Sandra shared a quick exercise that anyone can do:
Imagine you’re going to be away for a whole week and you need someone to stay with your kids. What attributes should that person have? Mature, honest, attentive? Yeah. Somewhat attentive, kind of attentive, or really attentive? Cause these are your kids there. And you’re going to be on another continent. The person should be fun and happy, maybe, I would think the person should be sober for the whole week. Should be a safe driver and someone who’s willing to cook. Picture that person pretty well and think, shouldn’t you be that way yourself then? Don’t be a person you wouldn’t even leave your own kids with.Meanwhile, we're still learning about learning. Remember to keep going back to these fundamental unschooling ideas. Sandra describes it well:
This is another level of unschooling where, at first, the parents are so excited they want to know everything the kids have learned and they want to share with the kids everything they think of, and after a while the kids can get crowded with that and the parents can go on automatic and get a little maybe monotonous. If they get to the point where they can discover something fascinating, go look at it in person, read about it and look at a video about it and not tell their kids, that’s kind of another plateau of unschooling. Where the flow of learning in the house is not just between parents and kids. Learning becomes part of the substance and the air of the way that family lives and that’s going to help again as the kids get older. Set the example of living as a learner.And as we moved our way to the perspective of parents who have been unschooling for a long time, we talked about how it's a different mindset, a feeling of openness and release. Sandra thinks of it as climbing a big hill—at least the hills in New Mexico where she lives. :-)
Down at the bottom of the hill some people are climbing and the beginners wander up and they see other people climbing, and they might not ever want to take a step, but they might want to watch.That's been my experience as well. It's a journey, a climb.
And then, when you start going up, in front of you all you see is the hill. I’m used to hills in New Mexico, so all you see is the hill and the trail and a bunch of rocks. And behind you, you know you don’t want to go back down there, that’s the place you’ve left. You’ve consciously decided not to be down there, you’re going up the hill. But in front of you it’s just more hill.
When you get to the top and you crest it, you can see the whole world. A lot. That you could not possibly have begun to see before you got there. But you can’t get there without going up the hill.
So that’s what it seems like to me, you can’t be a long-time unschooler without going through all those other stages.
Sandra adds: "From that expansive larger view though, having completed that climb in the only possible way which is gradually, your life changes because you’re up there. You can see all the way down. You can see all the places you used to be, if you look back. All that school and childhood, you can see all of that. And you look in front of you and you see the whole big wide world and your kids are ready for it, if you did well."
And that seems like a lovely place to end.
If this summary intrigued you, we go into much more depth in our hour and a half conversation. This might be one you want to listen to, or read the transcript.
And I wish you all the best on your unschooling journey. :-)
You might rather read the transcript here.
I've been biking more than walking, lately, so I haven't been listening to many podcasts....today I decided to walk. It's a beautiful autumn day, and I downloaded Pam's recent podcast with Sandra to listen to...
I'm so glad I did. I laughed out loud..I got emotional in a happy way, I found $10 at the side of the road (true!), and I carried on listening when I got home and mowed the lawn. ❤
Thank you Sandra, and thank you Pam, for all you do and for making our lives so much more awesome!
Other audio of Sandra (and others)