Many months ago now I was reading a book by Barbara Sher and really liked the quote she had about judging yourself. So I wrote it down on some card stock and taped it to the bathroom mirror as a reminder for me.

A few months ago, a cold was creeping up on F and he was feeling very emotional, so he posted something on the mirror. We had been talking earlier that day about how there’s always someone in the world who thinks you’re awesome, and he took that to heart.

A few weeks ago I came out of the shower and noticed another note on the mirror, this time from M. He said he liked what F and I had posted and wanted to contribute his own words of encouragement.

Making Choices, Taking Charge

Offering children choices is one of the central principles of unschooling, and I think most people know what it’s like not to have had enough of them growing up. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made, though, has been in going too far the other way with my children, sometimes offering so many choices that they get overwhelmed and frustrated. And the number of choices hasn’t been the only problem; I’ve also withheld guiding them because I feared I would be controlling my kids too much. That is not good unschooling.

It took me a quite a while to see that unschooling is not about putting the child in charge as much as possible. The parent still needs to lead her children while thoughtfully offering choices as they come up in everyday life. Sometimes it’s choosing between a few options for a meal, or deciding what game to play or what to wear. But leaving every little decision up to children, and sometimes offering too many options, all the time, is actually neglectful instead of empowering, resulting in their being burdened by too much responsibility (which definitely gets in the way of connection and learning!).

Another huge downside of my not taking enough charge was that I was not paying close enough attention to my kids’ needs and preferences, and therefore not really seeing them. I would often ask, for instance – usually disrupting what they were doing – how many chicken fingers they wanted, what sauce they wanted to go with them, what they would like on the side, etc. In my mind I wanted to make sure they knew they had options, but in practice I was saying that I wasn’t paying attention to their needs. I was also communicating, in my attempt to control how much food I was serving (mostly because I was afraid to waste it), that food should be limited. Those subtle messages I was conveying, namely that their preferences aren’t important to me and that eating needs to be regulated, add up over time, creating distrust and feelings of scarcity.

Keeping all of those observations in mind, I’ve been stopping myself lately from asking and just acting instead. As an example, F enjoys getting his little pot of tea every evening after dinner. He and I sometimes forget about it, but last night I remembered. Standing in front of the kettle, I considered asking him if he wanted his tea, but then decided to just make it. When I placed the pot and cup on the table in front of him, F’s delight made it clear that, in that moment, he felt loved. And interestingly, by simply making the tea instead of asking first, I felt like I was offering something from the heart instead of from a sense of “have to”, which made it sweeter for me, too.

So as I continue moving towards unschooling, I’m learning that giving what’s needed or wanted without asking, and especially without being asked, is the greatest kindness we can offer our children. It is the most direct way of assuring them that “I see you, and I love you.” And that is good unschooling.   

A Poem

I used to write poetry, mostly when I was in my twenties. I didn’t write a lot because my inner critic was overbearing at the time, and made me very insecure and therefore unmotivated. And despite the privilege I had of participating in a university poetry group (somewhat intimidatingly called the Algonquin Square Table, headed by a published poet), I just couldn’t indulge in the amount of writing I wanted to.

Since then I’ve written a poem here and there, but over the last year or so I’ve been feeling much more drawn to writing poetry again, remembering how much I enjoyed playing with words while memorializing a particular feeling and/or event in my life.

I consider writing to be like a game or puzzle, and one that’s so specific to the writer that only the writer can solve it. And like an asymptote (a curve forever approaching, but never reaching, the x-axis), the artist never entirely completes the puzzle, even when he or she is finished working on it.

Anyway, I recently discovered a fragment of a poem I had written when F was a baby. I still like it, and today added a few lines and a title, and figure it’s worth putting “out there” so that I can start getting a little braver with my writing overall. Here it is.

Grandmother’s Visit

You were in my arms
when we said goodbye,
waving through the window,
and once she was out of sight
you looked at me
with sympathetic eyes,
and sighed,
as though you had already learned,
in your less than half year
on this earth,
a thing or two
about the impossibility
of mothers.

I started this poem before I discovered unschooling, and have wondered in the last little while what it would be like to compose poetry with an unschooling theme. Perhaps with my blog writing I’ll gain enough inspiration and experience (and courage) to one day do just that.

Relationships Are Everything

I am currently nearing the end of a session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help me manage anxiety. It’s been a very positive experience overall, thanks in large part to the compassionate and encouraging psychologist I’ve been working with. And aside from acquiring tools to deal with and overcome anxiety, I’ve learned that it definitely has roots in my janky self-acceptance skills (which is definitely not good for unschooling, as I will explain later).

I want to also confess that I am easily carried away by my emotions, and while that makes me a passionate and charismatic person, it can get in the way of rational decision-making. Fortunately, I’ve become a lot more rational in the years of deschooling and in the weeks of CBT I have done so far, and I am pleased that in the situation I’m about to describe, I acted on my values thoughtfully and carefully.

So here goes: My husband, E, and I met up with a financial advisor/planner about a year after we moved to the city we currently live in on the Canadian west coast. I will call him Peter. Now to be sure, we aren’t exactly your typical investing family. In the summer of 2015 I decided that my boys would not be returning to school so that we could unschool, and about a week after their last day of Junior Kindergarten (for M) and Grade 2 (for F), my husband was laid off of his web management job. And then almost three months later, we decided to renovate and sell our house so that we could travel for a while. We ended up closing our house sale almost exactly a year after E lost his job, in July of 2016, and we took a 10-month-long road trip through Canada, the U.S., and New Zealand, deciding to return to Vancouver Island instead of southern Ontario.

E was unemployed when we first connected with Peter in the fall of 2018, as he was still figuring what direction to take work-wise. So at the time, we were living off the proceeds of our house sale, were not rushing into work, and were homeschooling (which meant our kids came with us to our financial planning meetings).

At first I liked Peter. He was friendly, worked with a well-known investment group, and we had a bit of background in common. His sweet assistant offered drinks to our kids while they quietly played on their iPads in the reception area. Not long after we became Peter’s clients, we were invited (kids included) to a comedy show put on by his financial group.

After that positive start, I would occasionally e-mail Peter to request some money from our investment accounts, and I always got curt replies, even though I attempted some personal engagement with almost every message. And the couple of in-person meetings we had with him during that time didn’t feel quite right either, awkward and generally uncomfortable.

This past Christmas, we hadn’t been invited to the show, nor had we received a Christmas card from Peter’s office. I didn’t really care about the show, but I did think that not sending out cards was unprofessional, given it would cover two major holidays, one of which marked a new fiscal year. But I more or less forgot about it until I e-mailed Peter last week about our investments. I began the message wishing him a Happy New Year, and said that I hoped he had had a good holiday with his family. I told him what I wanted done, and ended my e-mail by saying I was looking forward to our annual review scheduled for later this month. The next day I received his reply that he had done what I had asked, and signed it with “All The Best” as though we would soon be parting ways. And that was it. Not even a “Happy New Year” to his client, a week into 2020.

Now for me, the most important aspect of life is relationships. It doesn’t matter if it’s holding the door for a stranger, discussing the grocery list with my husband, or resolving arguments between my kids; how I interact with another person, and how he/she interacts with me, really matters. Moreover, when it comes to business, I firmly believe that good business is borne of good relationships. Given that investing with a financial advisor is (hopefully) a long-term relationship, it’s a win-win when there is trust and mutual respect, elements that develop over time through kind and committed communication (even when it’s brief).

But my primary instinct, as it tends to be, with handling Peter’s brusqueness was to disappear. So my first thought was to simply find another investor. That felt like the easiest route, certainly, but after a while it also felt like avoidance, and not much of a solution to defusing my frustration. I eventually thought about how it would be better for everyone involved if I simply told Peter about my issue and saw how he responded. If he responded well, then I would be able to trust him that much more, and he would be able to trust me more knowing that I respected him enough to talk to him instead of just jumping ship. If he didn’t respond well, then I would have evidence that my distrust was warranted, and I would be able to confidently take my business elsewhere.

After a few hours and a slow build-up of nervousness, I e-mailed Peter back. This is what I wrote:

Hi [Peter],

I’d like to think in your several years of financial planning/advising you[‘ve] learned that good business comes from good relationships.

It’s one thing not to invite clients to a show or to even send out holiday cards at Christmas, but to not have the time or inclination to wish a client a happy new year when he/she has contacted you directly is not just discourteous, it’s bad business.


Once I sent the e-mail, I felt surprisingly confident that I had done the right thing. And I wasn’t nervous, either, when I read his reply that followed soon after, which said that he had not intended to be rude, but that he was rushing to get things done because his wife was in the hospital. He also explained that they rotate invitations to their Christmas show because of limited seating, and that they had sent out cards at Thanksgiving (which was really odd to me, when we received one) in lieu of Christmas cards. And then he wished me a happy new year.

Peter’s wife being in the hospital, especially when they have a toddler at home, is clearly a huge stressor, and I truly felt bad for him for that. But it didn’t for a moment make me regret my initial response given that he had been sending me aloof e-mails for a while. So I seized the opportunity to model what I think good communication looks like, by replying with the following:

To be honest, the show and card stuff isn’t really important to me. But personal business relationships definitely are, and I felt it necessary to address this point given your history of curt replies.

That said, I’m very sorry about [wife’s name] being in the hospital. I’m sure that it is very stressful for you, especially with a young child to worry about as well. I hope things get better soon.


So what does this all have to do with unschooling? Well, the amount of thought I’ve put into what may be perceived as a trifling situation shows that I’m pretty quick to discount my feelings as unreasonable, overreactive, and shameful. And that is one of the most pernicious outcomes of so-called self-control. The very frequent thought I have that “I shouldn’t feel this way” is as anti-learning as it gets, in the same way that not following personal interests because they supposedly waste time (and maybe money) is. This internalization of someone else’s rules, someone else’s thoughtless criticisms, doesn’t just get in the way of learning, it also fragments the thinking of the learner.

The big question for me is, why shouldn’t I feel this way? Given my own experiences, my body, my brain, this point in my life, and this particular situation, I’m reacting this way for good reasons (even if I don’t know what they are). This doesn’t mean, of course, that every feeling needs to be resolved, or even validated, but sometimes my emotional reaction puts a spotlight on my values, as it did when I got upset at Peter’s poor social skills. And if I not only ignore but evade that call to action, because of fear of vulnerability, I am not moving in the direction of my values, and therefore not moving towards becoming the principled person I want to be. (The key, of course, is that I act calmly and thoughtfully, as I aim to do with all of my interactions, with varying degrees of success😉).

I read somewhere recently that we don’t determine our values so much as we discover them. And the same can be said for the values of our children. In the same way that their feelings are real, and manifest as behaviour with good (and sometimes unknowable) reasons behind them, it is better if we love them “no matter what, and even when”** so that they can offer the same compassion to themselves as adults, or better yet, feel secure enough with themselves to not need much of it at all.

One of my favourite metaphors for this kind of acceptance comes from Sandra Dodd in an episode of The Unschooling Life podcast, where she compared children to seeds (that are whole from the beginning), and will grow into the tree of that seed no matter how much we try to shape it into our own idea of what that tree should be. As unschoolers, we support our children’s growth by meeting their specific needs.

As I’ve been learning, self-doubt stymies learning and creativity, and even joy. I personally know how deeply frustrating and paralyzing it can be. Living faithfully in accordance with one’s values and their principles, which is at the centre of unschooling, is very much worth the vulnerability and the solid relationships that come of that courageous way of living.

** From Dr. Paul Jenkins, not an unschooler but a master of positivity with a focus on relationships.

On Staying Calm

Eric and I decided that we should all go for a walk downtown on Christmas day to see a light display near City Hall. We were all, admittedly, pretty tired after the two days of festivities, but we wanted to walk to help digest our big lunch, and also to get some much-needed exercise. F was annoyed with us for making him go, and brooded about it throughout the 25-minute walk, reminding me periodically of his frustration by walking into me ever so slightly, and getting extra frustrated when M walked too slowly in front of him.

We arrived at our destination only to find the light display not illuminated. Eric checked online to see when it would be turned on, only to discover that, for some reason, it wouldn’t be that day. So I directed us to the closest tree that was lit up (because it was not part of the display), which required a step up onto grass. F didn’t see the step in the semi-darkness, and tripped over it and fell onto the muddy lawn, covering the outside of his right pant leg, as well as his sleeves and hands, in dirt. Once he stood up he started to cry, and despite my frustration at his mood and now this clumsiness and upset (as well as the unlit display), I put my arm around him and didn’t say anything. This was very hard for me to do.

What I had wanted to say was, “See, you were so grumpy about going for this walk that you didn’t see the step, and now you’ve fallen and gotten wet and dirty, and if you had just made the best of it instead and not ruined it for the rest of us…”. Basically, my first reaction was that F had deserved to fall because he let himself stay in a bad mood and annoy everyone else.

But as much as I wanted to berate him, I kept my mouth shut and just held him. While doing that I reminded myself that getting angry at someone who is already upset not only doesn’t help, but makes the upset person feel much worse about what happened to him and creates justified resentment towards me, undermining the trust in our relationship. And then the anger came back, and then flipped back to compassion (lots of thinking in only a few moments!), and I ultimately resolved to simply take care of the situation by pulling out the wipes from my backpack and cleaning off F’s hands. We continued our walk, and though F was sullen the rest of the time and wanted to be left alone, he had gotten only a little wet and it was mild outside, so we got to see other beautiful light displays before returning home.

In hindsight, it has occurred to me how part of my immediate thought when F fell was that he “deserved” to trip and fall may very well be rooted in my former religious beliefs (I was raised Lutheran). There is so much talk in Christianity about human unworthiness, and how people deserve all the bad that comes their way as punishment for their own “wrong” thinking and action (or simply by being born “in sin”). I have never put this specific childhood conditioning into context like this before, or seen how it might contribute to my beliefs about what people do and do not “deserve”. I could certainly consider it as another avenue through which some of my harmful thinking has come, in any case.

Deciding what someone deserves is also a way to lay blame as a means to coping with our own distressing feelings. I was angry at F for being so disagreeable and not finding a way to feel better, and when he fell and started crying, my anger peaked enough for me to think “this is what he gets for behaving so miserably”. I was essentially mad at him for not behaving the way I wanted him to (despite his tiredness and disinterest in the walk). Of course we have a history, and that certainly contributed to my thoughts about what he does and doesn’t deserve, but it didn’t make me right in that moment, or in any other moment before that.

All in all, I’m really glad I said nothing and acted towards improving the situation, even by just holding my boy. Hopefully it will be easier the next time I find myself feeling like punishment is warranted.

You can find different and interesting unschooling discussions about the concept of “deserving” here and here.

Waking from a Little Sleep

M was talking to me the other day about the sleep he gets in his eyes, after having brought it up a few times before. This time he asked me if I remove my sleep every morning. After answering that I do, I thought about how big the things that I no longer think about are to kids like M, whose life experience is so much less than mine.

I also thought back to how fearful I was, as a child, of the many things I didn’t understand concerning myself, my relationships, and the world-at-large – all of which felt like universes unto themselves. That fear was compounded by the atmosphere of fearfulness created by the adults in my life, as well as my own high sensitivity, which led to more anxiety and a limited ability to reason situations out or to understand outcomes. I also learned early on to be distrustful, and so was apprehensive about asking someone older for help; I ended up dealing with most of my frightening experiences alone.

Because of all of these factors, I grew not just around fear but also into it. And so when M asked me about the sleep in his eyes, I saw again how big life is for little people, and remembered how passionate I have always been about helping them to understand the world so that they can fear it far less than I did when I was small. Most importantly, I want to keep them from feeling that they have to face their fears alone.

I’m very glad for reminders like this of what motivates me to unschool, especially because there are still moments when I’m standing in fear, wondering what is “wrong” with me, why I am so weird and unconventional in my thinking.

But here again is my life’s purpose.

Deschooling Epiphany, Part Two

The first time we rented the (full-sized) keyboard, I bought some music for myself and a book of introductory lessons. The lessons weren’t very interesting to M, and I played a bit on my own, but felt the old pang of disinterest-with-a-touch-of-shame that I always had around pianos. We returned the keyboard several weeks later without issue.

I figured it would be more of the same this time we rented the keyboard. M was very keen to have it set up as soon as possible so he could try it out. He spent many hours that first full day learning, with my help as well as with the help of an app we purchased. His interest didn’t last much beyond that, but unexpectedly, my interest in playing was piqued. I pulled out the book of popular Beethoven pieces that I had bought the last time, and started experimenting. Over the next several days, I found myself drawn to playing, and noticed my feelings when I made mistakes and otherwise felt frustrated. I also was surprised to see how much I had learned during those years of lessons, despite how awful I had felt about myself while taking them. I also watched piano videos on YouTube, to help remind me of what good piano-playing sounds like, and pretty soon I was feeling much more at ease sitting at the keyboard.

It’s been over a month now, and I sometimes sit down to play, and sometimes leave it for several days. But my resentment and shame have gone down considerably, and I am able to focus much more on the enjoyment of playing. I have definitely gained a fresh perspective on what it means to make music.

This deschooling epiphany has begun to seep into other aspects of my life as well. I was re-watching an episode of Gilmore Girls with my husband recently that has a scene in a classroom at Yale University. For a moment I thought how wonderful it would be to be able to read so many great books and to be able to discuss all those impactful ideas. It then occurred to me that I had had that opportunity when I attended university, but at the time it felt more like something to just get through, especially given the quick due dates and constant evaluation. In hindsight, it was kind of a shame that I hadn’t taken more advantage of my time at university, but I also know that I had so many pressures and dysfunctional ideas about learning during that period (none of which were my fault, just circumstance), and so it really couldn’t have gone any other way. And it feels really good to be able to heal that part of my learning experience as well, which will also benefit my boys if they decide to pursue “higher education”. 😉

And for a bit of a break from all this learning seriousness, here is a link to a funny take on going to university:

I’m so glad university didn’t cost me $120,000!

Deschooling Epiphany, Part One

A few weeks ago, M expressed an interest in classical music after listening to some on a drive with his Papa. I took this new interest to heart, and when I happened upon a production of a child-oriented play called “Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery”, which was taking place a few days later at our local theatre, I right away told him about it and got us a couple of tickets.

We went to the play in the late afternoon that Saturday, and I was really excited to be accompanying M to The Theatre for the first time. I rambled on about how happy I was to be there, explained the chime calling audience members to their seats, etc. And then the theatre darkened and the play began. First there was a male character giving the audience some background to the story, and then a female character emerged with her violin. Not long after her appearance, she began playing that violin, and I watched as she swayed with the music and became immersed in the beautiful melody she was creating. And that’s when I was hit by a visceral deschooling epiphany.

Before I describe the truth that suddenly overcame me, for the sake of my ego I want to explain that while what I discovered will appear completely obvious, and, well, duuhhhhh (as Disgust would say in that “Inside Out” movie)… it was still a revelation to me because of my many years’ experience reluctantly taking piano lessons.

So here it is: The purpose of learning to play an instrument is playing that instrument!! Wow. As soon as that very thought entered my mind, I thought back to my piano lessons and realized that the purpose of learning to play the piano is not to be tortured with practice, not to pass exams, to please parents or the teacher, or to win competitions; it’s being able to express yourself through music. Learning to play an instrument means you get to play that instrument and submerge yourself in all the wonderful music that that ability opens up for you. Learning to play means experiencing playing, which is the only  reason to do it. Whoosh! What a revelation!

Shortly after I became aware of how my idea of playing the piano was so disconnected from what it actually means to play music on the piano, I got sad and a little angry that I had been so completely misled. I always felt my time had been wasted trying to learn the piano (and from the beginning I was, in a few ways, set up to fail), but watching that talented woman play her violin helped me to realize that it wasn’t just time that I had lost, it was also a true understanding of the experience of music that was denied me because of backwards and harmful priorities.

Anyway, I was very grateful for that unexpected moment of insight, and I was glad that M enjoyed the play. A few days later he asked if we could rent a piano keyboard like we had a little over a year ago, and so we did later that week…

Dissecting Self-Restraint

I overheard in a store recently a man say to his wife that he didn’t want to buy anything for their daughter there because he wanted to “teach her restraint”.

Not so long ago I would have internally responded to that statement with a good amount of indignation, given my own evolving behaviour. (Actually, my indignation tended to be part “why doesn’t everyone think like me?!”, and part “I need role models for unschooling; why don’t more parents unschool?!”.) Nowadays I’m much better at clearly seeing why parents behave the way they do and letting it go – especially given the zillion mistakes I’ve made over the years – and at accepting that not everybody knows about or understands unschooling the way I’ve slowly come to understand it myself.

Anyway, I would like to discuss the issues I have with what this dad said in that moment.

First, what could this dad have meant by “restraint”? It’s possible he was looking to push his daughter towards “self-discipline” or “self-regulation”. These concepts can be defined as voluntarily following specific rules set by a parent/authority or the child herself. Sometimes those rules revere self-denial for (often vague) reasons, such as not eating certain foods because of perceived negative health effects. The trouble with the concept of self-regulation, though, is that it requires consistent adherence to (often arbitrary) rules, whether they make sense for the person at the time or not. This mindset deprives a child of the opportunity to choose for herself a course of action that best suits the situation, which in turn limits her learning and understanding about about life in general as well as about herself. This is why unschoolers generally value principles over rules; principles can guide our actions but are open-ended, allowing for choices in the moment, while rules confine us to a rigid way of seeing and thinking about the world, discouraging mindful decisions and the profound learning that comes from them.

Second, to me the idea of “teaching” a child restraint is really about manipulating her into not getting upset about being told ‘no’, specifically, or about disappointment in general, and is especially harmful to girls who today are still expected to keep their true feelings hidden. This restraint gives the dad a sense of control over his kid’s behaviour, and perhaps eases his conscience when he wants to say ‘no’ (especially if he doesn’t really have a good reason for doing so). And while it’s good, of course, to support a child through disappointment, deliberately causing the disappointment creates distrust in the parent/child relationship, effectively cancelling out any good done by the support. In fact, the relationship may be worse-off than it was before the parent-caused disappointment! And that’s to say nothing of the ignorance and egomania on the part of the parent who thinks that he alone is responsible for “teaching” his child self-restraint, as though children don’t have countless opportunities to learn to manage their more difficult emotions simply by living. I remember having to handle a lot of waiting, boredom, and disappointment as a child, and not only because of the adults’ need for convenience and control; I couldn’t control the weather, my birthday came only once a year, the laws of physics sometimes brought me a good deal of unhappiness, and often friends didn’t do what I wanted them to!

Another factor in the father’s “lesson” could be that he didn’t want to give his daughter something he felt was “undeserved”, maybe because of her behaviour earlier that day, or because she hadn’t earned it with chores, or it wasn’t a special occasion. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the idea of giving his daughter something she wanted just because she wanted it and he could give it to her. Giving could really be that easy for parents, but if it’s not the way they were raised, and they can’t see the situation with a more generous and loving perspective, that option might not just feel counter-intuitive*, but even impossible! And that limited thinking can also stem from the belief that giving a child what she wants makes her spoiled and unable to handle disappointment (neither of which is true, by the way).

To summarize, disappointment regularly shows up in the lives of people of all ages, and so does not need to be arbitrarily and/or artificially created for the so-called benefit of children (i.e. so that they learn “self-regulation”). Nor is it in the best interest of parents’ relationships with their children to initiate disappointment: Kids are intuitive enough to know when their parents could have avoided hurting them and didn’t, and that can be downright heart-breaking at the worst of times. And what loving parent would want to deliberately break his or her child’s heart?

*Here’s a link to a page that explains why “follow your heart” isn’t necessarily good advice in the context of unschooling:

It’s amazing how much interpretation and discussion can come from one randomly overheard sentence, isn’t it? For more on the importance of words (and choosing them wisely), you can visit this page: