Exploring Unschooling

Exploring Unschooling

EU335: Unschooling “Rules”: Always Say Yes

October 27, 2022

This week, I’m excited to share our first episode in the Unschooling “Rules” series!

We use the word “rules,” in quotes, to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as an unschooling rule! It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new, but we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody is going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade—or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, for inquiry, for agency, and for growth.

In this episode, we’re diving into the “rule” to say yes to your kids. We explore why people may find themselves trying to always say yes as part of the paradigm shift to unschooling. And we also talk about how always saying yes can lead to frustration, disconnection, and resentment. I share one of my guiding questions, “Why not yes?” and we dive into a few examples of how conversations about context and a focus on working together to meet everyone’s needs can create such valuable learning for the whole family.

We hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!

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PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from living joyfully.ca and today, I’m joined by Anna Brown and Erika Ellis. Hi to you both.


PAM: Now, before we get started, we wanted to remind everyone that with this Unschooling “Rules” series, we use the word rules in quotes to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing. It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new. But we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody is going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, for inquiry, for agency, and for growth.

So, in this episode, we’re diving into the “rule” to say yes to your kids. Now, conventionally parents are so used to saying no to their kids’ requests for any number of reasons. They don’t want to spoil them. They want to avoid a big mess to clean up. They’re busy and they don’t have time to play and so on. It’s not that this is done with any particular malice. It’s more about the power dynamic that’s inherent in conventional adult/child relationships, right? The parents’ needs take precedence over the child’s needs.

So, when we begin learning about unschooling, we’re encouraged to question the that script. Since our children are going to be learning through living rather than through following a curriculum, it makes sense for them to engage in lots of experiences, to follow their curiosity and see where it leads. That’s often when they’re in a flow state learning almost through osmosis.

But to get there, we are actively encouraged to stop saying no to our children’s requests and start saying, yes, absolutely. The challenge comes when we, striving to be a perfect unschooling parent, take this idea on as a rule, seeing yes is good and no is bad. Full stop.

Now, always saying yes to a child’s requests can be as thoughtless as always saying no. And that’s because context matters. Human beings, individuals matter. A little thought and conversation goes a long way to discovering if the request makes sense in the moment. So, even if it’s a small request with a pretty easy yes, narrating our thoughts as we walk over to the cupboard to grab the paint can help our child see the kinds of things that we can consider.

So, we might say, “Oh, the table’s already clean and the plastic tablecloth is right here for us to toss on top. Let’s go grab the paints and paper from the cupboard.” It also gives them the opportunity to pipe up with their thoughts, too, to be part of the process if they notice something. And that way, from their perspective, we are not just a gatekeeper of random yeses and nos. Instead, we’re their partner in accomplishing the things they want to do. That is what we’re looking at with unschooling.

And when situations get more complex with more needs and more constraints at play, they have some experience now to draw on as we dive into conversations around ways to get to the yes that work for everyone involved.

So, what helped me in this transition time was to tweak that rule into a question that I could ask myself. So, instead of feeling the admonition to say yes always, I would ask myself, “Why not yes?” What that did was put me in a mindset of leaning to the yes — yes was right there in the question — while still reminding me to take a moment to think about the context, because that’s where the meat of it is. That’s where we’re learning so much about ourselves, learning so much about our kids, learning so much about where everybody is in that moment. Learning about the environment, just learning how to make choices and decisions. That’s the richness of unschooling, not an offhand yes or no. The richness is in the moment.

Okay, so Erika, what are your thoughts?

ERIKA: I’m so excited to dive into these unschooling “rules,” quote unquote, because as someone who grew up being a very good student and a huge fan of those A+’s, I know there is a certain appeal to rules and to just being told what to do. I’ve experienced that draw towards wanting to do things the right way and to have all the right answers. So, I absolutely get the reason why people latch onto a so-called rule, like always say yes, and treat it as a rule from on high to be followed no matter what in order to be a good unschooler.

But what’s so interesting about the unschooling journey is that it’s exactly those rules that tend to be what create challenges and sticking points along the way. They’re the places where parents will say, “I’m trying to do this.” Like, “I’m trying to always say yes, and it’s not feeling good. I feel like unschooling doesn’t work for our family.” If I say yes when I’m feeling really uncomfortable, or if I’m pushing through my fears and the messages I’m getting from my body, pushing through my emotions, pushing through my capacity over and over again, I can reach a breaking point, and this is when I feel like a martyr.

I may think things like, “I do everything for them. When will my needs matter?” Or, “I feel like I never get a break. Don’t they see how much I do for them? It’s never enough. I just can’t keep doing this. I feel like no one cares about my feelings.” And thoughts like that are warning signs. I am being martyrly. I’m not communicating my feelings and needs, and I’m thinking that I have to do things in a certain way, even if it’s not working.

And I also get why it’s common unschooling advice to say yes more, because our culture’s treatment of children includes excessive use of the word no. Kids do not have the same rights as adults. Adults are encouraged to use their power over their children to get them to comply, and good parenting is really equated to having complete control over your children, maybe in a loving way, but the power dynamic is there and it’s adults who have the power. Saying no to children as an automatic response is considered acceptable and perhaps even good for children, because of this idea that children should know they can’t just get what they want. And saying no puts them in their place in that power dynamic, which is at the bottom.

And so, questioning that makes sense and it’s revolutionary to begin with. Turning those automatic nos into yeses could be a way to approach changing that structure. But the version of unschooling that I love isn’t saying that children now have the power in this same power dynamic and that the adults have no power. It’s changing that relationship completely to try to eliminate power-over as a dynamic. Everyone in the family’s needs are valid and important regardless of their age, and everyone has autonomy, has a voice, regardless of their age.

So, I also wanted to add that adults can use their culturally-given power over children out in the world in order to make sure that the children’s voices are heard and that their consent is respected when we’re not in our unschooling homes. Anna?

ANNA: For me, whenever I notice that, “I should be,” or anything similar, I know that it’s time for me to dig into what, what’s that about? The idea that there’s one way to be in the world is a very helpful idea to toss aside.

So, there’s so many ways to be in the world, and there’s not one way to parent or unschool or, I would argue, to do anything. But when we’re changing a paradigm, that pendulum swing happens so naturally. We want to distance ourselves from the action that now feels out of step or even wrong. But swinging to that far side can be just as problematic, like Pam mentioned. And as it relates to, “say yes,” if you’re saying yes to something that doesn’t feel good, your energy is not aligning with your actions, and kids really pick up on that. But they don’t exactly know what to do with it. So, then sometimes it ends up with behavior pieces or just a disconnect between you.

And you’re also missing the opportunity for you and your kids to learn how to consider other opinions, how to look at the context, how to see what someone else needs, how to solve a problem, and find a solution that feels good to both parties. And that is such a helpful skill to carry with us through our lives. So, we don’t want to overstep those opportunities or miss them somehow.

And I love, Pam, your, “Why not yes?” Because it creates such a great space, a space where we’re questioning that snap no. We’re absolutely questioning that. And we’re looking at the whole context. And in that context, we can see the limitations of our own capacity, what the environment can support, while keeping an eye to finding a way to meet the need.

So, instead of the power struggle, it becomes a chance, again, for collaboration, to be on the same team, for learning more about one another. And I think what I found and I’ve heard it echoed in other families, is when you build that foundation of trust that needs will be taken seriously and are something that we’re all going to work towards, it becomes so much easier and faster to communicate about our capacity at any given moment. There’s a trust that we’re going to figure it out. So, even if I’m needing to say no right now, because I don’t have the capacity to do it, there’s a trust that that’s not a closed door. That’s just a, we need to pause a minute and start having some discussions about it.

PAM: Yeah. I think that speaks of the relationship that we’re building over time. And sometimes, it can take a lot of yeses, depending on how much experience our kids have with us saying no. It’s not like, oh, all of a sudden, I’m going to change to asking myself why not yes? and saying yes more. And then, it’s like a light switch. Now everybody knows and now we can all talk about this and yeah, they’re not going to come at me with all these requests that they want.

Because I found over time that the requests faded a little bit. Not that they disappeared at all, but that they had more agency to do things and they also had so much trust that we would figure out a way, even if it wasn’t now for capacity issues, environmental issues, timing, all those pieces. They didn’t have to come with the big energy to convince me that this was really important to them.

They could just tell me with words. And they trusted at this point, through experience, not just because I said, “You can trust me now, I will listen to you.” That’s great to say, but you have to earn it. Trust is something that comes with experience. It’s not a switch that we can turn on.

ANNA: But I think, too, that it’s not just, okay, so you have to say this automatic yes for five months. It’s more that you’re not saying the automatic no, but it’s the transparency, I guess is what I’m trying to. You’re explaining the context along the way as you are making the decision.

Because I think it’s that arbitrary yes or no that’s very confusing to kids. And so, just a very quick example from our house that from the outside would look like, oh, you have this rule where you’re saying no. The girls grew up in Charlotte, which is in the south part of the United States. And bugs are no joke. Like no joke. And so, we would eat in the kitchen. That’s just what we did. And we did that, because if we were eating around the house, we would have bugs all over the house. So, it’s not a, I’m saying no to you eating out of that. It’s, we’re all talking about they don’t like bugs. I don’t like bugs. Here’s a solution.

So, it feels so different. It might be a common rule in someone else’s house, but with no discussion, that can feel arbitrary, versus giving that context. So, I think that kind of thing is so important.

ERIKA: Yeah, we’ve had that exact situation too, also living in the south. And we also just eat in the dining room, but it’s because the kids don’t like bugs. And so, that’s a good solution. But I’ve seen the automatic yes with that exact situation, as well. And it’s like, oh well, I guess we’ll just deal or whatever.

But I really liked, Pam, when you were talking about even when you are easily able to do something, to mention the things that are coming into your mind. Because I was thinking of an example of a kid who’s just fully in the moment. Kids are always right in the moment. “It’s midnight, but I just watched a video about making slime. I want to make slime right now.” It makes so much sense in their brain, which is right in the moment that, “I want to do that right now.” And what’s not popping in their head is what time it is, what materials we have, the cleanup. None of that is going to occur to the excited child. And so, as an adult with that bigger perspective, just to share those things, every time they come up in your mind gives so much information.

PAM: And there’s not a right yes or no answer to that question. You may be feeling excited and you happen to have the stuff and, let’s dive into it! That’s awesome. And then sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Maybe you don’t have one in the ingredients and, “Oh, we’ll go out in the morning and get that thing,” so you can bring that yes energy with you.

But I think that piece of narrating and sharing, that is where the richness is. That is everything. That’s what takes the arbitrary out of it. We may be thinking all those things, so we know it’s not an arbitrary yes or no, but unless we mention it, they have no way of knowing. They came up with this great idea and then they get a yes or a no, and then we can get the backlash when there’s no’s, etc.

And we talk about the time it takes to move through a tantrum or upset. Do I want to spend that time or do I want to spend the time upfront sharing, having the conversation, letting them know the pieces that just aren’t lining up in this particular moment to do the thing that they’re wanting to do. And we’re going to talk a bit about the future and look, it looks like we can do this tomorrow. We can do this next week. Or we can grab this thing. The conversation — that’s where the connection is. That’s where the feeling of teamwork is. It really comes down to that relationship and connection, doesn’t it?

ANNA: Right. And something else I wanted to say about it, too, that I would see in some friends’ houses was because, like Erika was saying, we had the friends that said the automatic yes to things that where I was going, “Eek!” But what I noticed was they would say that automatic yes for a period of time, until it got to be too much for them. And then they would scream. And it was, “This is a terrible mess!” And I’m like, oh my gosh. And the kids were like deer in headlights, because it was fine 10 minutes ago, but now it’s not. But if we’re honest and we’re talking through that context and what’s happening for us, again, even if we’re moving towards the yes or no, it’s not even about that. If we’re being honest about, oh, I’m feeling worried about the cleanup for this, and if we have time to get to there for that, then it’s not the surprise. And I feel like you’re not creating this pressure cooker in yourself, because you’re being honest about your capacity and what you can do and what your concerns are. Because they are kids living in the moment. They’re not going to think 20 steps ahead when they’re super excited about something. And while we don’t have to bog them down with that, we can still provide some context that’s super helpful and helps us feel better. It’s just a calmer environment overall.

ERIKA: Yeah, I have an example from real life. I would like to tell a story.

So, my daughter Maya loves animals so much, and I do, too, but I’ve never really felt compelled to own pets in this intense way that she does. I love observing animals and connecting with friends’ pets. I have a lot of friends that are dogs who I love so much, but Maya is the next level. She wants to have an animal sanctuary. She wants to have 12 dogs of her own. So, she’s asked about getting a dog for most of the time that she’s been alive.

And I know that for me, owning a dog is outside of my comfort zone, and I have a lot of reasons why it feels like it’s too much for me. We have an apartment without a yard and, for many years, we didn’t even own the apartment, so a pet felt like that would be a liability. We love to travel. The whole family does, and so that seems like that would add a challenge. Pets can create unexpected expenses in addition to the expected ones, and we are a one income family. I get overwhelmed by household tasks and adding a pet adds a lot more household tasks.

And so, over the years we talked about it a lot and I validated and empathized with her. And together, over time, we figured out things we could do in the meantime, like visiting our friends that had dogs, offering to pet sit, and so on.

And so, an opportunity came up where Maya and I could pet-sit my sister’s giant menagerie of pets for a month, and I felt really nervous, but I also felt like this was something big that I could do — it was just outside my comfort zone — in order to fill her need for a while and it would still be manageable for me. So, we did that. It ended up being so much fun for both of us, and I let my sister know that if she ever needed help again, we would be so happy to do it again.

And as we thought more about it and talked more about it, and I talked to my sister more about the experience, my sister offered the suggestion that we could borrow her smallest dog to stay with us at our house for an extended period of time. So, that would be a chance for Maya to have a dog at home. And for me, it felt doable because I already know Marty and I love him, and he’s not a puppy. He’s really easy going and he’s small. And it felt like that situation of knowing the dog and being familiar with him, that removed a lot of my concerns. And my sister can take him back if I ever need her to, which solves most of the rest of my issues.

And so, it really became a situation that I felt like I could handle. And so, then my next step was to check in with my son and my husband about it, because I knew Maya would be on board, but I needed to make sure they were also okay with this plan. So, we talked it through and there were more potential issues like, would Marty be chewing up Oliver’s toys? Or would he be getting in the way when Oliver wants to use the computer?

And so, we came up with plans like putting a baby gate on that room that Oliver is in most of the day, so that he doesn’t have to worry about the dog. And so, we all agreed that we could do this, try it out in order to help Maya meet her strong need to have a dog with a solution that could work for everyone.

And the fun part now is that there are still so many possibilities. We can still decide at any moment if it feels good to keep him longer than the original plan or to bring him back to my sister sooner. We could talk about all the things we’ve learned about having a dog. Maya has learned so much about the annoying parts of owning a dog, and what are the fantastic parts, and what would we imagine doing if we had a dog of our own and then wanted to travel.

So, we have a better sense of what that could look like. Does having to take him out for walks since we don’t have a yard work well with the way that we want to live our lives? And so, we’re just learning so much and I am trusting completely that we’ll just keep communicating about all of our feelings and our needs and our concerns and what our visions are for what we want our lives to be like. And we can figure out ways together to make it happen in a way that feels good for everyone. And it’s just been a really.

And Maya knows, too, that her goals are really important to the whole family, and that we’re always going to be trying to figure out a way to help her follow her path, too.

ANNA: Yeah. And what I love about that story is, it’s a perfect example of why it’s not a yes or a no. It’s never that cut and dry. And when you share the context of it, everybody’s learning. Maya’s learning, you’re learning, everybody’s learning. And that’s the beauty of this.

PAM: Yes, exactly. There’s no yes/no and there’s no pass/fail.

ANNA: Right!

PAM: Go back to those grades. Nobody’s coming to grade you and we don’t need to grade ourselves or our kids. That does not need to be part of the conversation. And I think when we think about things in yes/no, pass/fail frameworks, that gets in the way of that the teamwork energy, of everybody trusting and feeling able to share their thoughts without being judged.

Because if you’re passing everything that everyone says through the yes/no filter, does it pass? Yes? No? That can get in the way of coming up with a plan. Instead, those are all seeds. Erika’s story is just a beautiful example of so many seeds being planted along the way until they bubbled up to this particular moment. But this isn’t the end of the story at all. There are just so many possibilities.

Things aren’t yes/no, now or never. None of those dynamics really help these conversations around the things that our kids are wanting to do, are interested in, all those pieces. It’s more, why not yes? How can we make this work? What are the other pieces to consider? Who else is involved? There’s so much in those conversations that we can bring with us forward over time. It doesn’t need to be a yes/no, now, never, or forever, all those pieces. 

ERIKA: Yeah. And I really think Oliver, who is not a huge part of this story, I think it’s super valuable for him, too, because I keep checking in with him. What are the things that aren’t working for you about this situation? Or what are the worries that you would have about bringing Marty to our house? But I think him seeing me supporting this, even though I’ve talked about all the challenges of it, I feel like he’s learned a lot from it, too, and also feels seen and heard, that his needs regarding Maya’s needs are also important.

PAM: And they bring that knowledge with them. They see how hard you are working and also considering for something that she’s super interested in. He knows that he will get that same trust and energy from us if something ever bubbles up for him. So, for him, seeing how that is playing out is just a beautiful example of how things may play out for some need that he has in the future. And I bet it feels good to him even knowing that you guys are considering everybody else’s needs, not just hers.

ANNA: The other cool thing about it, too, that just came to mind that I think is important when we’re talking about saying yes and finding these ways through, is that it isn’t just about you, Erika. You were solving problems using a large community beyond even your immediate family to go see dogs before you could do this, then go have the pet sitting experience. So, I think it helps our kids realize that we’re not the gatekeeper of yes and no and granting. That was not a role I wanted to be in. I wanted to be in this team behind going, how are we going to make this work? I don’t even know, but let’s start looking at our resources. Let’s start bringing in help. Let’s start figuring things out. And so, that really changes that, I’m asking and you’re granting kind of thing that can happen in a lot of families.

PAM: Yeah. And also the the energy that we have to solve it, that we have to be the one that fulfills-

ANNA: All the things.

PAM: Yes, exactly. Yeah. That’s so beautiful. All right. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. It was really fun, really fun to dive into. I’m excited for more episodes in this series.

ERIKA: Me, too.

PAM: Thanks so much, and we will talk to everyone soon.

ANNA: Bye.