My Unschooling Interview on Mile High Mamas

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A few weeks ago, I was honored to be interviewed about my family’s experiences with unschooling for the popular Denver-based blog, Mile High Mamas. In honor of back-to-school time, Mile High Mamas ran a three-part series featuring some non-traditional schooling methods including homeschooling, unschooling and a post about charter schools.

If you ever wanted to know more about how the kids and I go about our unschooling lives, what drew me to unschooling, my thoughts on getting into college, and my favorite things about unschooling, I encourage you to read my interview.

Have more questions for me about unschooling? Leave a comment and I may address them in a future post.

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Talking about Unschooling with Barb Lundgren

Barb Lundgren

I recently had the opportunity to attend a free talk about unschooling by Barb Lundgren, a mother to three (now) adult unschoolers. Barb is also the founder of the Rethinking Everything Conference and the editor of Home Education Magazine, devoted entirely to unschooling.

The talk was at the co-housing community of Nyland in Lafayette, Colo., and was facilitated by Leslie Potter of Pure Joy Parenting.

Barb Lundgren and Leslie Potter

I took some notes and would like to share a little bit about what I took away from the evening. It may seem a little disjointed, but I just wanted to put these thoughts “out there” for anyone who is interested in learning more about unschooling and/or how children raised with unschooling might “turn out.” Some of my thoughts which expand on Barb’s may be interspersed.

Regarding whether kids need to learn to do X, Y, or Z at a certain age

Traditional parenting assumes there is a certain time for each thing to happen in a child’s life. Unschooling, on the other hand, relies heavily on TRUST. You have to trust that your children will learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it.

  • It’s not uncommon for unschooled kids to learn to read later than kids who go to school. One of Barb’s sons didn’t learn to read until he was a teen. Once he did, however, he read the Lord of the Rings trilogy twice in about six weeks.
  • A boy attended a Sudbury School, where children are allowed do pursue whatever interests them. This boy was very interested in fishing and spent all of his time fishing and learning about fishing until he was 17. At age 17, his interests shifted. He left fishing behind and moved onto computers. He started his own computer software business and by age 21 sold it for $1 million.
  • John Holt, an educator and author who coined the term “unschooling” was asked, What do ALL kids need to know (in terms of academic measure)? His answer: Nothing.
  • This isn’t about academics, but is one of my own examples of kids learning to do something when they are ready. My kids were never interested in learning how to ride bikes. While many kids are on two wheels by age 5 or 6 or even 3 or 4, mine had no such interest. They rode their scooters and were plenty happy with them. Then all of a sudden this summer (at ages 7 and almost 10) they decided they wanted to learn to ride bikes. We got them each a bike (because they’d long outgrown the ones we got when we *thought* they’d learn to ride) and within about 5 minutes of my husband running up and down the street with them, they were doing it on their own. We’ve since gone for many a family bike ride.

Family bike ride
Like I said previously, unschooling is based on trust. It is about living life on our own terms. Barb said, “You have to believe your child is here to enjoy his life.”

Being free leads to responsibility and accountability.

On Control and Anger

The number one reason people experience anger is that they feel like they are being controlled. This applies to children as well as adults. Think about it this way: If someone (your spouse, for example) told you it was time to get off your computer and go to bed and you were in the middle of something that was important to you, how would that make you feel? You would want your spouse to support you, not tell you what to do when and how to live your life. Your child probably feels similarly. Try to put yourself in your child’s position. Think about how you would want to be treated. Perhaps there’s a way to talk about it kindly without demanding they follow your orders ASAP.

Irritation opens the door for communication. If one member of the family is doing something that bothers another, have a family meeting. Involve everybody. Discuss it. Come to consensual solutions.

On Video Games

Video gaming used to stress Barb when her children first started playing them, but then she made it into a challenge of sorts. Could she do better than the video game? She’d ask her kids questions like, “Who wants to go camping?” or say, “Let’s have a party.” That way she was still getting quality time with her kids.

If you miss your child because they are spending so much time on their computer, Xbox, etc., let them know. The next time they aren’t playing a game, tell them you miss them.

It may be reassuring to some parents that Barb’s kids no longer play video games or watch TV as adults, but they watched a lot of TV as teens. Of course that’s not to say that all kids will stop playing games or watching TV as adults.

On College

Because there is so much information available on the internet — between Google and YouTube, one can find the answer to most anything — the only reason college would be absolutely necessary is to become a traditional physician, an engineer or a lawyer.

Many unschoolers seek out entrepreneurial opportunities.

How Do Unschooled Kids Turn Out?

As mentioned previously, many unschoolers choose to forego college in pursuit of entrepreneurial opportunities.

In Barb’s case, one of her children is now a business owner, one is an organic farmer and one is the founder of a sustainable community. Barb pointed out to me, however, that it’s impossible to duplicate another’s unschooling experience. She said, “Unschooling is successful and deeply satisfying when deeply listening and connecting to one another. That will produce radically different experiences for each.”

Interested in learning about what other grown unschoolers are doing? The blog I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write has a page called Unschooling Grows Up: A Collection of Interviews by grown unschoolers.

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Final thoughts

Unschooling is based on TRUST. I can’t emphasize that enough.

You don’t have to feel secure in unschooling. You just need to “feel secure in loving your child.”

Barb’s book and website recommendations

  • Connection Parenting: Parenting Through Connection Instead of Coercion, Through Love Instead of Fear by Pam Leo
  • Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently–Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage by Kyle Pruett, MD and Marsha Pruett, MD
  • Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood by A.S. Neill
  • Enjoy Parenting by Scott Noelle

More thoughts from Barb can be found here:

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In his own time

One of the many things I enjoy about unschooling is that my kids get to work on a skill when they are ready, not at an arbitrary time when someone says they should.

Up until last summer, my son (who was six at the time) had shown no interest in drawing. This was in stark contrast to my daughter who has loved to draw since she was very young. I wasn’t really concerned about it, but one day when I was at the store I decided to pick up a few pads of drawing paper, crayons and markers to bring home and strew*, if you will.

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After arriving home with the supplies, I announced to the kids what I had bought and set the supplies out on the table. I honestly thought my daughter would dive right in, while my son Julian would shrug and go off to play Legos or Minecraft.

However, Julian came right up to the table, opened up the fresh new pad of paper and markers and immediately started drawing. And drawing. And drawing. He literally sat at the table for a good hour or two, filling each page with a new creation. And getting progressively better at his drawing.

He ended up filling the entire drawing pad with pictures that day, even turning much of it into a story which, when asked about it, he narrated aloud. He later said to me, “When I started this book, I wasn’t very good at drawing, but I got better and better.” And it’s true. He improved a lot that day. The beauty of it was that it was all at his own pace and in his own time. He was never asked to draw against his will before he was ready, therefore was never turned off to drawing.

I loved that he could see his improvement and that he took pride in his work.

Unschooling isn’t always easy — it involves so much trust — but it’s moments like this that reaffirm my decision to do it. I believe my kids will learn what they need to learn in their own time. It’s my job to trust them and help them along the way.

“All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” — John Holt

*Strew: to place objects in the path of kids without any expectation, coercion, or force of use.

More about Strewing from other bloggers:

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Play Matters

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We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. – George Bernard Shaw

It’s 11:41 p.m. on a Thursday as I lie in my bed listening to the murmur of my kids from the next room. They are very involved in their play — something that often occurs in the late hours of the night when one might typically expect children to be sleeping. But they play so well together in these late-night moments, creating elaborate stories, developing characters (tonight it’s a city of talking Matchbox cars), working through conflict, working on their communication skills, developing dialogue, and more. Who am I to interrupt them just because the clock says it’s nearly midnight?

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Play is the work of the child. – Maria Montessori

According to Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and acclaimed author:

Human children, who have the most to learn, play far more than any other primates when they are allowed to do so. Play is the natural means by which children and other young mammals educate themselves. The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practiced by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.

Additionally, counseling psychologist Gayatri Ayyer says,

Research shows that playing is paramount to our physical, intellectual and socio-emotional development. The play I’m talking about here is the unstructured, spontaneous and imaginative escapades that we had in our childhoods; not the structured and organized sports of today. The benefits of playing are immense. They learn different academic concepts, the rules of behaviour with peers, manners, friendship, decision-making, conflict resolution, cooperation and competition.

Eventually I may ask them to wrap up their game for the night, but for now I am grateful that tomorrow (like most days) we have nowhere we must be in the morning. For now I will enjoy the sweet sound of my children getting along, the sound of imagination, the sound of play.

Play matters.

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New Unschooling Blog by Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta

OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a slacker when it comes to reading blogs. I’m all “hey, look at me! I have a blog. Read *my* blog!” And yet, <gulp> I rarely read anyone else’s. There are a handful that I try to keep up with, but unless someone specifically shares a post with me or I happen to stumble upon something that piques my interest on my own, I just don’t see it. I’m a little embarrassed about it, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. Am I? I have a hard enough time trying to keep up with the happenings under my own roof. 🙂

I guess that’s why I feel compelled to tell you about a blog that I actually AM reading — like every day even! Leo Babauta, creator of zen habits and mnmlist, recently started an unschooling blog called Unschoolery. My husband is a big fan of Babauta’s and told me a while back that he’d posted a bit about his family’s experiences with unschooling on zen habits. I liked what I read then and was even more excited when Jody told me the other day that Babauta dedicated an entire blog to unschooling. (So much so that I shared it with several unschooling friends and now I’m sharing it with you.)

leo-babauta-and-family

Why is it exciting that Babauta is writing about unschooling? #1) He’s intelligent. #2) He and his wife Eva have been unschooling four of their children for the past five years. #3) He’s passionate about unschooling and sharing the philosophy with others. #4) Thanks to his other blogs he’s already got a huge following. #5) He’s a best-selling author. #6) He’s a man. This might seem a little weird to point it, but most of the unschooling blogs I’ve come across to date are written by women. Perhaps more men/dads will be more open to the idea of unschooling as a result of this blog.

In addition, Babauta writes clearly and concisely about his family’s experiences with unschooling, yet does not claim to be an expert on the subject. In fact he even says, “We have a bit of experience, but we’re still learning. We still don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We love it.” I think that’s a sentiment many of us unschoolers can relate to. I feel like we are always learning, half of the time not knowing what we’re doing, and all the while loving it.

Some of the Unschoolery posts I’ve most enjoyed include:

Because Unschoolery is only a month old, I’m expecting a lot more great content from Babauta. If you are at all interested in unschooling, this is a great blog to read. I plan to keep up with Unschoolery – for information, encouragement and inspiration.

Photo by Eartha Goodwin

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Encouraging our Kids to Dream Big (Despite our Fears)


My friend Jill recently posted a link on her Facebook page to How to Mentor a Kid with Big (Possibly Unrealistic) Dreams by Lori Pickert from Project-Based Homeschooling. The article touches on something that I’ve struggled with in the past. What’s the “right” way to respond to your kids when they have dreams that are beyond what you think they can accomplish – either now or ever? Do you encourage them even though you *know* it’s not going to work? Do you attempt to let them down gently to avoid disappointment and tell them you don’t think it’s possible? Maybe we are trying to save them from embarrassment or even save ourselves from embarrassment. Maybe we are afraid of failure — either for ourselves or our kids.
What’s a mom to do?

For example, my 6-year-old son has often said when he grows up he is going to invent a machine that makes him become a kid again or he’s going to time travel or become a super hero that does X, Y, or Z. When he first started voicing these lofty goals, I wasn’t sure how to react. My first thought was, “that’s probably not going to happen, buddy” but I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I’d try my best to encourage him, even if I felt like his ideas weren’t based in reality, but it was a struggle for me. Was I doing the right thing?

Pickert says:

Before you move to stop your children from trying to do the impossible, take a breath and remember what your job is: to mentor and support, to brainstorm and listen, to remind and reflect. Your job isn’t to step in and tell them their ideas won’t work and their plans are doomed.
Remind yourself:
You don’t know what your kid can do.

One example shared in the article is about a child who wants to write a novel and have it published by a real publisher. Something similar came up for my daughter a few years ago. Unfortunately, I hadn’t figured this all out yet and rather than encouraging her and then (potentially, but who knows?!) see her fail, I thought I was being a good mom and tried to prevent disappointment by explaining how hard it would be to do or something along those lines.

Pickert points out that when you respond that way, “You haven’t prevented disappointment — you’ve only brought it from the misty future to the right now, and you also killed all the learning and skill-building that would have happened in the interim.

Choose to deliver your bad news — that her dream is statistically unlikely — and what will happen to her ambitions? What will happen to her idea of herself as a writer? Will she wait and start her writing career at 15? At twenty? Never?”

Had I encouraged her, who knows what would have happened. But I’m not beating myself up over this either. I live and learn, just like the next person. All I can do is hope to do better the next time.

There are a lot of great examples and quotes in Pickert’s article (and comments following it). So many that I want to quote here, but I will just recommend that you click over and read it yourselves. If you have a big dreamer in your life, it is worth the read.

You cannot predict the path an authentic, self-motivated learner is going to take. When you guess — and then decide to go ahead and pull the plug because you know it won’t work out — you eliminate all the learning that happens along the way.

It really goes along with the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” The journey is all about the learning, the trials and tribulations, the mistakes and the triumphs, the tears and the joy. When we tell our kids, “This just isn’t going to work,” we remove the opportunity for them to experience all of those things.

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Confessions of a Reluctant Gamer: Playing Minecraft with my Kids

I should have known when I married my husband Jody — an avid gamer — that someday down the road our future children would be gamers as well, but I didn’t think much about it. I kind of thought my husband would eventually grow out of his gaming “phase.” I mean, grown men don’t play video games and Dungeons and Dragons forever, right? Right???

After 12 years of marriage I think it’s safe to say that the gaming “phase” is not a phase at all. It’s just a part of who he is, just as much as not gaming is a part of who I am. And I am OK with that. I may have fought it for a while (ok, for years and years), but I eventually learned that it wasn’t productive and I wasn’t going to change who he is, so I’ve mostly accepted it.

So now we have a 6 year old (who just lost his first tooth!) and a 9 year old (how did that happen?!) and they both LOVE computer games. Minecraft is a favorite in this house, as well as Roblox, Sims and a handful of others. Unlike my husband, who has accepted that I’m just not a gamer, the kids have not been so easily convinced.

minecraft

When they first started playing Minecraft I joined them a couple of times. I had a hard time moving my character around and — big surprise — just didn’t get into the game. So I stopped playing with them. I figured Jody could play with them as he enjoys it and they were placated…for a while.

Fast forward several months. Ava would periodically ask me to play Minecraft with them. I would find an excuse or tell her it’s not my thing or whatever. I just really didn’t want to play. However, when she asked me the other day, I considered my answer carefully. I know the game is important to her and I want to support that and be a part of it, even if it is hard for me. So I said yes. Ava was ecstatic.

I’ve since played with them a few times and I’ve gotten a lot better about moving around and was surprised to find that I was actually having fun collecting wood and other supplies for the kids to build us a house. And I was surprised by how well they shared resources and helpful they were to me when I didn’t know how to craft a stone pickaxe or torches or whatever. And how much they appreciated me playing with them. I’ve heard several times from both of them, “it was so fun when you played with us, Mom!” And ya know what? It really was.

And so I’m trying to do a better job about playing with them when they want me to even if it isn’t my favorite thing to do. Even if I need to vacuum or water the garden or load the dishwasher. Today I even initiated it myself and it was fun. The time spent connecting with them is priceless. Who knows how long they will want their mom to play with them. But for now they do. And for now I will.

I’d love to hear from you!
Do YOU play any computer/video games with your kids even though you are not into games? What has your experience been? 

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Learn Nothing Day 2013

From Learn Nothing Day by Sandra Dodd:

Unschoolers need a holiday.
When people ask if they homeschool in the summer, they say yes.
When people ask when they have a break from learning, they say never.
This has gone on for a long time now.

July 24 is Learn Nothing Day — a vacation for unschoolers.

As unschoolers, we tried our best to take advantage of our vacation day from learning, but alas, we failed.

We’ve only been up for a couple of hours and already we’ve learned things! I learned a new exercise as part of the Daily Hiit and that the kids prefer their bagels untoasted. Ava learned how to spell several words, the color of her friends’ eyes and their Zodiac signs (she’s creating some of her friends in the Sims game). Julian claims he hasn’t learned anything, but I am skeptical. He’s watched a few gaming videos on YouTube, played with the chickens, collected eggs and then dried off some toys in a centrifuge (salad spinner).

Both kids also proceeded to ask questions about why it’s Learn Nothing Day. Those darn kids and their questions. How do they expect to NOT learn if they are always asking questions!

It’s only 12:41 p.m. so we still have the whole rest of the day to try to avoid learning, but we are meeting friends at the pool this afternoon. Is it possible to avoid all learning while swimming and being with your friends? We’ll do our best, but this is going to be a challenge!

If you want to learn more about unschooling, you can check out my post What is Unschooling?. Just whatever you do, don’t read it today. I wouldn’t want you learning something on Learn Nothing Day.

Are you an unschooler? Did you participate in Learn Nothing Day? How did it go for you? Please share in the comments! 🙂

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Sew much fun!

One of the things I love about unschooling is that I’m often exposed to things/experiences that I might not explore on my own if it weren’t for my kids. One of those experiences that’s come up recently is sewing.

I’ve had my mom’s old sewing machine in my basement for years. I had a brief desire to learn to sew (beyond what I did in home-ec class in high school) when Ava was a baby. I tried sewing some diaper inserts for her FuzziBunz. My mom helped me with them and it was fine, but I never got excited about it. Once a few inserts were sewn, back into the basement the sewing machine went.

Fast forward nine years (has it really been that long?!) and my formerly cloth-diapered baby has expressed an interest in learning to sew. Some friends of her’s recently made doll clothes for her American Girl doll for Ava’s birthday and another friend sewed a dress for her own doll. There’s nothing like friends learning to do something cool to give you a little push in the same direction. Ava decided she wanted to learn to sew too.

I hauled the old White Jeans Machine from the basement and was pleasantly surprised to find it already threaded, since I really had no idea how to do it myself! Ava and I grabbed an old shirt and I set her up to practice. She loved it!

Ava learning to sew

Then the needle came unthreaded and it was up to me to figure out how to thread it again. Thankfully the sewing machine has a little diagram on it which made threading it easier than I thought. It took a little trial and error, but I got it going again. Woot! I got to learn something too! The practicing resumed.

A couple of days later we made a stop at my mom’s house to check out her fabric stash. Ava picked out a few fabrics to try making doll-sized pillows. And I chose several scraps to make into prayer flags for our sunroom — something I’d actually been wanting to do for several weeks after reading a guest post Create an Outdoor Space You Love on my friend Sara’s blog. I already added a few throw rugs and twinkle lights, but it still needed more color.

Pretty fabric

After I helped Ava a bit with sewing her doll pillow, I was excited to get to work on my prayer flags. I ended up needing my mom’s help with loading a bobbin, but once I got that down, I was set. It felt good to made something and I’m happy with how they turned out. I plan to make a second set for Ava’s bedroom.

Homemade prayer flags in my sunroom

I think it’s pretty awesome that my mom’s old (can I call it mine now?) sewing machine sat for years without getting any love, but when the time was right, it was here for me, for Ava, for us. I’m happy to have it and am thankful that my mom passed it on to me way back when. I’m excited to see what kinds of things we create using this old machine and curious to see if my son will want to play with it too. He’s done a tiny bit of sewing on it so far that first night I got it out. Time will tell. I do know that this time around the sewing machine won’t be retiring to the basement any time soon!

I’ve since started sewing a little dress for Ava’s doll. I’m mostly just playing around, but I’m having fun and isn’t that how all of the best learning takes place anyway?

If anyone has any tips for teaching kids to sew or fun, easy sewing projects for adults and kids, I’m all ears. A friend of mine just told me about these paper sewing sheets for kids and I plan to print some out for myself as well as Ava. And I just came across 10 Simple Sewing Projects for Kids. I’m guessing there’s a whole lot out there if I just start looking. Yay sewing!

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Just when ya think you’ve got it all figured out…

We’ve been unschooling for a relatively short period of time, but over the past couple of months I felt like things had really started falling into place. I felt like I gained an understanding of what unschooling is all about — and what it isn’t. Like I was saying YES more often than saying NO and it felt good. Like I could let go of the little things and not sweat the small stuff. Like I started to really “get” what my kids needed from me and how to provide it. And we were all getting along SO. WELL. And it felt great. And perhaps I started to get a little self-righteous ’cause I knew what I was doing (or at least I thought I did). That’s where I made my first mistake — thinking I had it all figured out.

And then this thing happened that shattered my confidence in my skills as an unschooling mama and as a parent in general…

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The long and the short of it is that there was a misunderstanding between me and my 8-year-old daughter Ava and it turned into an ugly, UGLY, sad battle of wills (good Lord, we are both stubborn as hell!) that left both of us in tears.

I thought my husband had told her one thing and I was trying to support what I thought he’d said. Turns out (I learned the next day) that he never said it. (Had I just asked him what he had told her instead of assuming, I’m pretty sure the whole thing could have been avoided. Yes, that is what you get when you assume.)

That night I pretty much went against everything I had learned and been doing for the past couple months and I’m sure that caused an enormous amount of confusion and frustration on my daughter’s part. And once we were in the thick of our “battle of wills,” I didn’t know what to do. Should I “give in” and rescind what I told her? Will that be “letting her win?” Do I stand my ground no matter what the price? Does it really matter if she does X, Y or Z? Do I even know a damn thing about anything right now??

Ugh. UGH!!!

We were obviously not going to get anywhere continuing what we had been doing. I felt terrible and was at a total loss. I had no idea what to do other than to pick up my phone, retreat into my bathroom, close the door and ask for help.

I texted my good friend Rebecca (also an unschooling mama) to ask for her advice. She listened. She reassured me. And she gave it to me straight, but without judgement. It helped me sooooo much. I also let myself feel my feelings (something I think my sister Carrie would have been proud of) and let myself cry. And I had a little talk with myself, “You don’t have to know what to do 24/7, Amy. It’s OK to make mistakes.”

Once Ava had calmed down and I had taken several deep breaths, I took Rebecca’s advice and talked with her (Ava). I let Ava see that I’d been crying. I told her how I was feeling. I apologized for our fight and told her that parenting can be hard stuff and I don’t always know the “right” thing to do. She came to me for a very welcome hug and we sat together for a while.

Eventually I asked her if she had any suggestions on what we should do (one of Rebecca’s tips). Guess what? She did! We came to a solution together and it all worked out — not the way I had thought it would when our “fight” first began and probably not the way Ava anticipated either, but it worked out and nobody was in tears. Nobody felt that they hadn’t been heard. Nobody went to bed that night feeling defeated.

I later came across this quote from Buddha that I think illustrates nicely one of the things I learned that night:

It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.– Buddha

Although that night didn’t go “according to plan,” with the help of my friend, working through my feelings and talking with Ava, I conquered myself. And that kind of victory was pretty sweet.

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