The kids and I just sat at the table together for close to an hour. We laughed so hard Sydney snorted her soda. Our bellies hurt and we begged each other to stop so we could catch our breath.
The kids got into a spelling challenge and grabbed notebooks. We talked about all sorts of light, fun things— and a couple of things that were a little heavier.
We only sat down to have cake- a delicious lemon cake we made yesterday, that we all love. It has lots of sugar and flour and a delectable buttercream frosting.
When the kids were ready to go up to their rooms they both thanked me for the cake, gave me a hug, and went upstairs with rosy cheeks and smiles. As I walked back to the table I saw this scene and decided to leave it for a minute…because it’s so beautiful.
I hope my kids will always enjoy cake at my table wherever it is and however old they are. I hope when they pull in a chair at my table they know when they push it out again their bellies and hearts will be full.
I could say “no” to cake and time and other things that draw them near. I’m so grateful I was shown another way. A way that understands emotional and mental health are important. A way that values connection and critical thinking. A way that knows food serves many purposes and tables should be comfortable.
I have some more years with my kids at my table eating most meals with me- cooked by me, or Kristopher. I can’t make their tables comfortable when they aren’t with me. I can’t help them leave with a full heart if I’m not there.
I can set the foundation now though so that comfort, love, and acceptance are what they know at my table, so that when they need it they know where to come.
Yes. I’ll leave this scene for a minute. It’s so beautiful and I love it so much. ♥️
Life Learning and Homeschooling Might Not Be What you Think
Sometimes people think homeschoolers casually and nonchalantly decide not to send their kids to school. Sometimes people think we don’t understand the education system, academics, or how it all works. Sometimes people think we are a simple-folk-a-livin’ in a bubble.
That very well may be true for some. I’m thinking of religious homeschoolers especially.
As for me and mine (tee-hee), I chose not to send my kids to school because I understand the education system. I’m well versed. I spent time both as student and faculty learning it. Living it. I was formally trained in how to “educate” children.
Life Learning is Highly Intentional
Since the decision not to send my kids to school I’ve spent my life learning about and observing how children learn, thrive, and engage. It’s literally my life’s work. All-day. Every day. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year. It’s what I do on an intense and constant basis.
While our lives are relaxed, my decisions, actions, and interactions are not casual. While it might look like all we do is play (which is accurate) I observe and foster learning, connections, and meaningful understanding all day every day.
I feel like it’s worth putting out there so that people have a better understanding of many homeschooling families and how much we understand what’s happening- how thoughtful, educated, and intentional this decision is. It’s worth knowing because too often we are seen as outliers not just in numbers but in understanding.
We are outliers in both, I suppose, but not in the way many assume. Many of us have a deep understanding and value of not only learning but other things too. Things like critical thinking, emotional-intelligence, self-worth, self-compassion, self-love and living a peaceful and happy existence. I do not mean a new-agey etherial existence but one that allows us to operate from a calm and contented place- one where learning is able to happen all day every day. We understand the relationship between these things, learning and meaningfully contributing to society. We know the value this holds in making the world a better and more loving place.
Every day we see how much people learn just from living, some refer to this as life learning. We see the results of creating an environment where curiosity and creativity are supported. This often means removing blocks like access to resources, enforcing arbitrary sleep requirements, and switching focus from exploring the rabbit hole to food or chores.
Many of us choose to homeschool not nonchalantly or because we are stuck in some ideology. For many of us, religion and the subjects being taught in schools has no bearing at all on why our kids do not attend.
For a large number of us, we choose not to send our kids to school because we understand that the very act of living is learning- life learning. We see that when curiosity is supported on a whole-life basis, instead of hindered by arbitrary requirements, kids not only learn everything they are “supposed to” but a million things more. We watch as these things stick, are easily recalled and contextually and appropriately applied in an innovative way.
There are lots of different reasons people homeschool. Even within homeschooling circles, there are vast philosophical differences. More and more though parents are deciding to partner with their kids to learn through living. Because this is unfamiliar to the majority of us I think it’s worth noting how thoughtful, researched, involved, and committed living this way is.
Assumptions about homeschoolers are plentiful. Some, sadly, are accurate. For so many of us though we are contributing great things to this world by choosing to live this way with our children.
I hope these thoughts are helpful for others. Maybe you have a loved one who is homeschooling this way and you wonder how it works. Maybe you have a loved one who doesn’t value the way you are choosing to live. Maybe you live in a small conservative community of religious homeschoolers and find yourself subconsciously swayed toward school-at-home.
Whatever the reason, I hope these words offer some clarity and helpfulness in figuring out what works best for your family. I also hope they offer those who hold inaccurate assumptions about homeschoolers to reconsider. For many of us, this is our life-long, large, and meaningful way to contribute to positively changing the world.
This piece was originally published on a different blog by the same author in 2012.
Deciding to Homeschool and a Marriage
My husband and I have so much to work on in our relationship. Here though, is the commonality that keeps us moving forward:
Owen (almost 6) did a very short stint in preschool. On his second day he did not want me to leave him, and he cried. I’ll never forget the look of fear and confusion on my baby’s face. The teacher convinced me that he would be okay, and I left.
I was shaking and I was dizzy when I got to my car. I finally turned the key and drove around and around. I called my husband and he stepped out of his office. “This isn’t RIGHT” I said. “NOTHING ABOUT THIS IS RIGHT. Owen was CRYING and SCARED and you didn’t see the look on his face that acknowledged that for the first time in his memory I did not listen to him and left him distraught.”
Never once did my husband say that Owen would be okay. He did not utter a single word that “kids get used to this sort of thing all the time”. He did not tell me that “mothers always feel this way”, or that “it gets easier”. He did not tell me that it was what was “best for Owen”.
Instead, we debated whether I should go back right then or wait until school was over. We both agreed that if he did not want to go back he would not; that if he wanted to be with his mother, he should be.
When I went back to the school, Owen was playing outside with other children. At this point lots of people will tell a mother in my situation that it really was for the best and that her child had only cried for a few minutes, so it was “worth it”.
This was not true for us. Something changed for Owen and I that day. He was more guarded, distant. He didn’t throw his arms around me and tell me about what a wonderful day he’d had.
Though it was a good one, Owen never went back to that preschool.
The next year we made one more attempt at school- never with tears and it was always Owen’s choice whether or not he stayed. I never felt right leaving him, and he never reallywanted to go. We both thought it’s what “had” to happen.
A couple of months later and without a plan, Owen attended his last day of school.
As Owen enters “school aged” this fall, my husband and I are still figuring out what all of this means. As we have some heated discussions, I am brought back to that day three years ago, sitting in my minivan, shaking and crying.
I recall the words from my husband “you are right Jen. Nothing about this is okay. We have wronged our son and we will adjust. Go get him. See if he wants to come home with you, and if he does, take him. If he wants you to stay and play with him and the teacher won’t allow it, bring him to a playground. It’s okay if the teacher is upset with you, or thinks you are making a mistake, she is doing what she thinks is best and we have to do what we think is best. He is ourson and we do things differently.”
I have come to realize how rare and difficult it is to ignore what those around us say in order to meet the needs of our children. With all that needs work in our relationship, this is the one constant that needs no adjusting: my husband and I are both committed to meeting the needs of our children. In comparison to this, fixing all of the other stuff is easy.
This piece was published on a different blog by the same author in 2016.
It happens every year. Fall rolls around and kids go back to school. Many of my fellow homeschool families are busy forming schedules and registering for classes. For us though, Fall is just like Summer, which is just like Spring, which is just like Winter. While we love the change of seasons, they don’t bring required changes to our daily routine.
It’s lovely. We chose this. It is what is best for our family. We are committed to living in a way that fosters family connection, real life learning, and passion following. We believe that our children are people and are learning to practically apply that to daily life. With every fiber of my being I believe that this is best.
But still, every fall it happens. Without even realizing it I demand more of my kids. I’m upset with them for not “wanting” to do more school-like things. I get angry because we have spent another day not doing anything that looks like what a September day “should” look like for a 7 and 9 year old.
“Should”, of course, refers to what the rest of most of the world is doing- to what I did as a child… right along with what all my siblings, cousins, and neighbors did…. with what my parents and all of their siblings, cousins and neighbors did… starting school. What September “should” look like is so deeply ingrained in me, that my anxiety from choosing differently peaks in the Fall.
Except I did not know that. I had not realized until this year that autumn does not only bring crisp air and beautiful colors, it also brings expectations and the reminder of how out-of-the-box we are living.
We are first generation homeschoolers. As Boston Irish Catholics, my entire lineage attended Parochial school- where the teachers and priests were always right, and Childism was the basis of their education and culture- where routine, inflexibility, and standardized learning were fundamental.
We did not simply deviate as far as homeschooling- we are Unschooling. This is perhaps the polar opposite of what my parents and their parents experienced as children. Living this way is not for everybody, but it is exactly what my family needs and I love it. I am grateful for our life…for our choices…for having the courage to step our of a box that was not working for us and trying a different way.
Yet here we are. Another Fall where I find myself unsure and floundering. Where I start thinking I should be “boss”, our schedule should be set, and bedtimes should be inflexible. Even though I do not actually believe any of this.
The “Fall routine” is so ingrained in me that its expectations subconsciously change my relationship with my kids. It disrupts their world- and mine. Every year.
Now I know- I am aware, and that changes everything. Next Autumn, I will be prepared. I will know what is coming and will acknowledge it.
As Fall next approaches, rather than letting anxiety and expectations creep in I will be able to say “hello”, tell them that they serve no purpose in this family line any longer, and send them on their way. I will remember the only changes we need to embrace are the colors of the leaves. I will breathe. I will relax into this life we have designed that brings us joy, growth, and connection. Most importantly, I will practice gratitude that my kids’ fall looks so different than mine did.
A few Halloweens ago my two kids were ready to head out the door about 30 minutes before we were scheduled to leave for trick or treat, just like they are every year.
As we were walking around that night I said to my husband “well, I guess it’s not true that they never want to leave the house.” See, I had been struggling. I am an energetic extrovert (when I’m not in an introverted period). I like to go, go, go. I like to be out of the house doing things I classify as fun and/or productive. It’s the world I grew up and and it’s what I knew. It’s what feels good to me most of the time.
I have one child who is a homebody. They like to be cozy with their family at home. They like to have us mostly in the same space chatting, laughing and playing- sometimes independently, sometimes together, and sometimes independently together.
I have another child who also likes to be home sometimes. They also get a little stir crazy and like to go out of the house regularly. Because our children’s learning is our priority, we take the preferences of everyone in the family into consideration and meet them as best we can.
There had been a frustration brewing about how to get all of our needs met with such different wants and needs during the day. As the leader of our family, this was exacerbated by my deep need to be out in the world amongst people. We had made a few adjustments that had helped but I could not get past expectations about what a day should look like.
I found myself thinking things like “they never want to do anything”. “They never want to leave the house. Make no mistake, I only counted doing as things done out of the house. Eek! These statements were made from emotion and ignorance rather than fact, and I was caught there. I could not see what was actually happening because I was stuck in my vision of how things are supposed to happen.
So that Halloween was a big shift. Both of my kids were so excited to get dressed up and trick or treat in our awesome neighborhood. As always, we had a blast. I started thinking about what other things make my kids excited. Some involve leaving the house and some do not. One of the many great things about Unschooling is that we can fill our days with fun things that happen wherever we want! I realized that night that having a good time together was really good for me, and of course, for them (duh!), and therefore their learning.
I started to realize that both of my kids love going to professional sporting events, theater, museums, shows, Costco as long as it’s not crowded, amusement parks, and other places I like too. My vision was so laser focused on something else that I missed what was right in front of me. I also began to understand how much doing was happening at home. So. Much. Doing!
So I adjusted my expectations and the priority became enjoyment. To accommodate my own needs I started to really take note of what my kids enjoy out of the house. They love riding their scooters/skateboards and playing basketball and soccer with me. They mostly love to go swimming as long as I go in too (I’m pretty fun 🙂 ). They don’t like large crowds, chaos, or being physical in the hot sun. They like hiking in the Rockies where it is cool and mostly shaded. These are all things my husband and I love, too. And they all get us out of the house, happily.
Adjusting my expectations was a game changer. It mostly helped me to see my children for who they are and better tailor their learning environment. Happy, comfortable children learn better and retain more.
From time to time I still find myself needing to get out when my kids are comfortable to stay home. They are older so I have a little more flexibility but mostly they still like us to be together. So now, if I just need a quick people fix I suggest we run out for a slice of pizza at Costco, a Slurpee, a drive by Ikea (both kids love this because they love to see the flags and it feels European) or to the library. All of these are quick, fun-for-all-of-us things that don’t take any preparation or thought. They are easy and it allows all of our needs to be met.
Changing my perspective in this way has helped us to Unschool better, create more calm, remove resentment and entitlement, and create an environment where my children have more mental energy available to learn instead of wasting thought trying to convince me of who they are.
I’m glad I was open to the shift. Seeing my kids for who they are is the best part of Unschooling.
Author’s Note: This post is intended mostly for other Unschoolers. If it helps you to see things in a useful way, that’s great! If it feels totally incomprehensible to you, that’s okay too. Unschooling is a different way of living that puts learning at the forefront of a family and it takes a lot of learning on the part of the parents to understand it. Here are some resources if you are thinking of or are currently Unshooling: click here.
I am often asked how we started Unschooling, what Unschooling is, and how one can get started with Unschooling. It’s a complex question with a reaaaallllly long answer. It has taken me years to get to a place where I feel like we are Unschooling well. It has taken reading, watching, listening, trying, and debunking a lot of things that cause parents fear. It has taken getting over defensiveness, thinking I know about learning, and making myself a better person. It has taken a lot more, too.
So when someone asks me what Unschooling is or how to get started I am not sure how to respond. I could tell them that it is a way of learning out in the real world instead of in a classroom. I could tell them it is about creating a peaceful environment so that my kids can learn contextually at whatever hour of the days they feel the desire.
I could tell them that it is removing arbitrary fear about the things we parents have been implored to fear. I could tell them that for the sake of my children, and their learning, I have learned to think critically.
I could tell them that Unschooling is allowing kids to learn – really learn- in ways that stick. In ways that make sense. That my role in all of this is to be sure my kids have all the resources they need to pursue whatever fascinates them at the moment. My role is to be okay with them quitting, giving up, and trying three million new things. It is to be okay letting that guitar go untouched. Being okay with not taking lessons opting instead to learn on their own.
I could tell them that Unschooling means getting to know my kids in a way I would not be able to otherwise- that there is a depth, connection, and intimacy that comes from living this way- that cannot come with any other way of living. I could tell them that getting to know my kids for who they really are, rather than who I mold them to be, is a gift beyond measure and that living this way has healed parts of me that were buried a long time ago.
I could tell them that people will think they are lying, or showing off, when they don’t complain about their kids and instead talk about how happy, not perfect, life is. Or that they are full of bullshit when they, when pressed, share that their kids help out around the house without being asked, even though they have never had a chore.
I could tell them that learning to Unschool well has nothing to do with my kids and everything to do with me. That I had to get better, get over it, up my emotional intelligence and allow myself to be seen for who I really am, too.
I could tell them this and so much more. Ultimately though, none of that really matters. I have learned that those who are looking to live this way will find a way and that those who say they want to live this way (but for whatever reason don’t really) will dismiss everything I have shared.
I have learned that the best response I can give to people who are looking to live the Unschooling Life with their children is to guide them toward the best resources to help. While there are a whole lotta people pretending to Unschool (friends, there is no membership card! Only you and your kids will know if you have done a good job) there are only a few that can really help get us there. Here is what I recommend after loads and loads of research, personal experience, and no personal gain from recommending -or not recommending- anyone.
There are two Facebook groups you should join right away. Be SURE to read the pinned posts and FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. These groups are full of volunteers who run excellent, helpful, and laser focused groups to help us learn to Unschool well. PLEASE NOTE: I recommend that you find these group by clicking the linked words here. There are other groups, with similar names, that lead families astray.
How I use the above groups: I pick a thread or search for a topic and read the entire thread top to bottom. There are no quick answers when it comes to learning to Unschool well. These groups provide wisdom and insight from experienced unschoolers. Word choice is dissected. Conventional beliefs are debunked. Fears are addressed. Critical thinking is modeled. It was years of reading through Radical Unschooling Info- all the backs and forths and ups and downs- that helped me to learn to Unschool well. Read as often as you can and be patient!
Jen McGrail is an incredible resource. She writes about all sorts of pertinent subjects and most of all about Unschooling. Jen and her family own and run an Unschooling Conference every year in Phoenix. If you really want to get a sense for how Unschooling families live, I can personally recommend Free to Be Conference. Click here for Jen’s website, The Path Less Taken.
While her no-nonsense approach can be a transition for those of us not used to it, Sandra Dodd’s approach is what I mostly credit for my family learning to live so peacefully and to be able to learn all the time. In addition to the group above, Sandra has excellent books (including a reprint of The Big Book of Unschooling!) and a website. Click here to find both.
Pam Larrichia has written books, blogs and hosts a Podcast all to help families understand Unschooling and learn to Unschool well. Her work and interviews are wonderful resources and are ones I personally recommend and have used. Click here for Living Joyfully with Unschooling.
Joyce Fetterol offers not only her writing, but a wonderful Tool Box you can order to help you stay focused on keeping your family relationships front and center so that you can Unschool well. Click here for Joyfully Rejoycing.
For now, these are the resources I can personally recommend. If you have others that you think I should include please e-mail me and I will check them out. Please do not leave them in the comment section as they will be deleted.
With just the resources above you can get to the Unschooling Life with your family, but only if you are willing to do the work.