Exploring Unschooling

Exploring Unschooling

EU340: On the Journey with Nora McDonald

January 19, 2023

This week, we’re back with another On the Journey episode. Pam, Anna, and Erika are joined by Living Joyfully Network member Nora McDonald. Nora is an unschooling mom of two living in Costa Rica. She shares her journey to unschooling as well as two major a-ha moments she has had in the last year.

We talk about getting to know our children better by dropping expectations and really listening to them as well as how valuable it is to drop our sense of urgency when it comes to getting through difficult moments. Nora writes so eloquently on the Network about her big realizations, her thought processes, and her challenges, and it was so fun to bring some of her insights to the podcast.

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

Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.

We invite you to join us in The Living Joyfully Network, a wonderful online community for parents to connect and engage in candid conversations about living and learning through curiosity and connection. Our theme this month is Being Intentional, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of curiosity and presence.

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So much of what we talk about on this podcast and in the Living Joyfully Network isn’t actually about unschooling. It’s about life. On The Living Joyfully Podcast, Anna Brown and Pam Laricchia talk about life, relationships, and parenting through the lenses of connection and curiosity. Find the podcast in your favorite player here: The Living Joyfully Podcast.


PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from LivingJoyfully.ca and today, Anna, Erika, and I are excited to speak with Living Joyfully member Nora McDonald. Welcome, Nora!

ANNA: Hello.


PAM: So, to get us started, can you give us a bit of an introduction to you and your family?

NORA: Yeah, sure. Okay. I’m Nora. I’m British, as you may hear. And I am married to a Costa Rican man called Luis. And we have two kids, Ruben who is eight, and Liam who is five. And me and Luis met in Costa Rica and we’ve sort of gone back and forth quite a lot, but we’ve spent more of our relationship in Cambridge, in the UK, but actually at the moment, we are in Costa Rica as of seven months ago. This is my third time living in Costa Rica, Ruben’s second, and Liam’s first. So, it’s a bit complicated.

So, I was going to say about how we got into unschooling, because I always like hearing about that. So yeah, I was sort of thinking about, it feels like a gradual journey towards it. I discovered gentle parenting and that kind of thing when Ruben was a baby. So, that made me feel like I was doing something slightly alternative. But that was kind of it.

And then, when I was going to have Liam, we went back to the UK from Costa Rica at that point. And so, we actually had the same doula that we’d had with Ruben. We had the same one with Liam and she is a home educator, I think still. And so, we ended up having much more conversation with her about home education than we did about babies. And so, we looked into it after that and ended up home educating and I didn’t really have a philosophy for a while. I was kind of exploring things.

Ruben has always been very anti-being taught things, so we were pretty relatively laid back. But the big dive into unschooling happened about March 2021 when Ruben was really kicking back on the very, very strict rules that we had about tablets and TV and stuff.

And so, I was kind of aware of unschooling and I was like, that always seems to make sense. So maybe I should go and see why lots of unschoolers don’t have these really strict limits. And I distinctly remember being like, “I’m never going to go that far, but at least maybe I could go and see what the thinking is.” And luckily, I had an unschooling friend, Lorna, who sent me loads of links and told me about the podcast and she was in the Network on here. So, I think I listened to two episodes of the podcast and then I was like, “Yep, this is for me,” and joined the Network.

So, yeah, I can’t believe it’s only been like a year and a half since that happened, because it’s been quite a journey and I’ve just been sinking deeper and deeper into it. And it’s completely changed my life, as I like to tell people, because it’s been so many great skills about being in relationship with other people, communicating, identifying where my beliefs come from, challenging everything, saying, is this working for me? All of this kind of stuff that we talk about has been amazing.

But yes, so, to fast forward to now, the kids are super into tablets and video games and YouTube and it’s a huge interest for both of them. Lots of Minecraft, lots of Roblox happening. And it’s actually really nice, because Liam, I think quite recently, has got up to Ruben’s level with Minecraft and Roblox, so they’re playing together loads. It’s really cool. And Ruben’s also been playing with a kid from a Network family in South Africa, so that’s been really nice.

And they also like swimming, bowling, any kind of physical fighty play, wrestling or acting, Minecraft, or any of that kind of thing. It was funny, because I was thinking about this and I was thinking about what they enjoy doing and they have a lot in common, but they’re such different personalities. So, Ruben is very sweet and caring and likes the same things and the same people. But once he likes something, he really likes it. So, he’s completely delighted if one of his favorite people would join him in one of his favorite games. He’s really into his interests.

Whereas Liam is the comedian. He has this amazing comic timing. And also, he really knows how to enjoy himself. I just so often look over at him and think he’s just the embodiment of the phrase, living your best life, because he’s great at just like chilling out and he just seems to know how to have a good time, I think.

And then I am a stay at home parent, thinking about maybe trying to do some work, but I don’t know what to do with my life. So, we’ll see. Since the kids both really like being at home, I have got quite into podcasts, which has been really fun. So, obviously the two Living Joyfully podcasts, but also anything about psychology, human relationships, history. I used to really love history and I’ve really been diving back into that, which has been super fun. And I like reading and cooking and eating. I’m quite excited about that one, because my cooking mojo totally disappeared during lockdown and it’s finally coming back. So, I’m getting back into baking stuff, which is cool.

And Luis is super into maths and science and engineering, that kind of stuff. And he just loves building things and taking things apart. And also swimming and water polo is big. He’s going back to his water polo team here, which I think he’s really happy about. And he just says he likes learning stuff when I asked him. Which is really great, because it means he’s really good at listening to me telling him all the stuff that I’ve learnt, whether it’s unschooling or any other podcast. He’s a very patient listener to the summaries that I give him. So, that’s us.

PAM: That’s the best! It’s so fun. I love that that he is a good listener, too, because that is a part of our process sometimes, is synthesizing it for ourselves so that we can share it with others. So, that’s a fun piece as well.

And I loved hearing just a bit about that technology journey. It is a pretty common one. Absolutely. Because it’s so unconventional. Even though, we’re starting to hear more stories about tech not being as vilified conventionally. I love that, because I remember when I first started reading about homeschooling and the kids first came home. I was just hearing those bits about unschooling, it’s like, okay, that sounds really curious. I mean, “I’m not going to go all the way,” but when you start learning more about it and it starts making more sense, that’s it. You don’t have to make the decision right at the beginning, right?

You don’t have to decide, “Okay, I’m doing full on unschooling. Let’s start. I’m going to go learn about it.” No, it can be, “You know what? I’m curious about this. I’m going to learn some more and learn some more.” And it’s like, baby step by baby step, I can just say, “Oh, this feels good. This is looking good.

What else you got to offer?” And then I take another step, right? Did it feel like that for you, Nora?

NORA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, with the technology thing, it was kind of interesting, because I also did a webinar with a British psychologist called Naomi Fisher. And so, my unschooling friend Lorna was like, “Don’t do anything really suddenly,” but after I’d watched this webinar I was like, “No, I can’t. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t enforce it.” So that did happen quite quickly. But it was because I was so convinced. But there’s definitely been lots of baby steps to get to where I am now and lots to come, I think, as well.

PAM: Forever.

NORA: Yeah.

ERIKA: I love that so much. It reminds me, too, of the beginning of my journey, too, where some things were just like, “This is it. Jump right in.” And other things were like, “Well, I’ll never get there.” Then you realize it’s just this journey and it just naturally happens.

So, I have really enjoyed a lot of the a-ha moments that you share on the Network. I feel like you’re so great about sharing the process as you’re realizing things and taking us through the realizations and then how things used to feel and how they feel now. And I just think that’s so valuable for everyone. There was a story that you shared around shedding the sense of urgency that you had about like pushing through things, getting through a car ride, and other examples like that, and just how transformational it was to drop that sense of urgency. And so, I was hoping that you could tell us about that here.

NORA: Yeah, sure. Okay. Basically, we had this big change, because in Cambridge, in the UK, we didn’t have a car. I don’t drive. So, we had this wonderful cargo bike that I really miss or buses or walking. But we are in San Jose in Costa Rica, which is not the most walkable city, and there’s not much public transport that takes us where we want to go.

So, we’ve had to do cars a lot more. And the kids were even less happy about this than I was. They really hated it. We’re sort of getting there now, but especially at the beginning, they really just did not want to be in the car. And so, my first instinct was just, we have to do this. We’ve got no choice.

We’re just going to have to push through. They’re just going to have to hate it. All we can do is go as fast as we can and hope that there’s something nice at the other end. And that was how I was expecting things to go.

But luckily, because I’m in the Living Joyfully Network and there’s so many conversations about being creative, about different people’s needs, and respecting their needs and everybody’s needs being important, and probably loads of other kind of useful mindset shifts, “There’s plenty of time,” luckily, I was able to just stop and go, “What on Earth am I thinking? I can easily make this better for them.” And it just took 30 seconds for me to think, do you know what? We’ll just stop whenever they say they need to stop. So we just stopped worrying about being late for things, which in Costa Rica is fine anyway, which helps. But also I’d rather we arrive happy and slightly late and just prioritizing us being okay.

We just decided we were going to stop and we also always get an ice cream now whenever we go anywhere. So, it’s just these really simple, basic things. We’ve done stops that are like a five-minute stop at a park that we happen to be going past. And we’ve done a stop that was like an hour in a little town getting an ice cream and having a wander around. Ice creams are often involved, but it seems so simple, but it was amazing to me that I just was on this autopilot of, “We just have to push through. We just have to do it. Bad things happen and all you can do is push through them,” both for me and my kids, I think. And it was just amazing how revolutionary it felt to me to just stop and go, “Okay, no, we can think creatively about this.” We can improve the situation as much as we can. And obviously there’s a limit. But it makes such a difference, I think, as well, just the kids knowing that we are trying everything that we can to help them feel better.

And, yeah, I feel like I probably still am working on making this automatic, but I’m definitely trying to make it a habit.

So, the other example of this that I thought of was trying to get the kids comfortable going to the dentist and we found this very lovely dentist. But what I’m hoping that we’re going to be able to do is, rather than just say, okay, we’re going to go, we’re going to do everything we can to get their mouths open so she can see, I’m going to contact her and be like, “Can we just pay your fee for an appointment and then just hang out? We’ll teach you to play Minecraft. They’ll get used to the room. They’ll get used to you.” We don’t have to just push through everything.

It feels so simple now, but it’s been like this huge life mindset change for me.

ANNA: Oh my gosh. It makes such a difference though, right? Because we can just really tunnel in on, okay, this is what we’re supposed to do, have to do, how it has to look, and let’s get it over with, this bad stuff. But we can change all of that immediately, like you said, and it really just takes a few seconds to think about, okay, we can now start brainstorming and think about the different ways.

And I do love the Network for that, because I do think we’re kind of steeping in that creativity. We’re steeping in all these different ways that people have done it. And so, it really is. I think it’s easier when we have that community around us.

PAM: It really is. It’s so surprising, like you talked about the moment where you were like, “Hey, I don’t have to do that.” There are so many things where we feel like, okay, you know, life isn’t perfect. There’s going to be some things we dislike. Let’s just get through it as fast as we can.

That is just such a normal way to see something, first approach to something, and that little switch that says, “Oh, but hey, what if we didn’t?” It’s like that’s a little thought experiment that I love to play with myself. When I’m feeling stuck with something, no matter what it is, it’s like, what if it was the opposite? What if I wasn’t stuck? What if I thought that this was great. What if we could have the most fun ever on car rides? What if we love this dentist? How would I be acting then? That’s what opens it up for me. We’d be stopping when we saw something fun or we felt like an ice cream. We’d be bringing fun things to do in the car. We’d be laughing, chatting, or headphones on, whatever it is for us as individuals.

But that thought experiment is that quick shift for me that just helps me realize, oh, there’s another way to look at this. There are so many more possibilities that we can play with. I love it.

ERIKA: Yeah, I was thinking how it is kind of that mainstream paradigm thing of, there are just things we have to do. There are things we have to do and the kids better get used to that there are just things we have to do and you have to just push through. And for that to be like a lesson to teach a child, this lesson of push through. But right. I feel this kind of lightness in my head if I can just kind of open it to, but wait a second. Like you were saying like, wait a second. It doesn’t have to be this way. In any situation, there are so many different places that you could be looking for a different way to do things, something to switch up.

And so, I think being in that adult position of, but I should just be able to say the thing and they have to just push through and maybe it will somehow be more convenient for me as an adult if I could get the kids to just push through, but then if I actually look at reality, pushing through is so hard. It’s so hard to do with kids. It actually makes my life a lot harder if I don’t try to address the different needs that they have and the places that they’re uncomfortable. So, I just loved that. 

ANNA: Yeah. It’s so fun. Okay, so another huge shift that you shared on the Network was around how, with the best of intentions, your priorities, the direction, leading your kids towards ideas, fun ideas and what you thought would be great, was really stopping you from knowing them and how they wanted to spend their time. And so, we just thought it’d be cool to have a discussion around that, because there’s a lot there with that piece.

NORA: Yeah, no, this felt like a really huge, multi-level a-ha moment for me. Because, as I said, I started off when Ruben was a baby, getting into gentle parenting and positive parenting and conscious parenting, whatever. There’s lots of versions.

And so, I remember getting into unschooling and reading about it and feeling like respecting and honoring your kids’ interests and doing what they want and saying yes to them and all of that, it all just seemed fine. Like I was like, yes, yes, I’m on top of that. That’s easy. That’s fine. That’s done. I know them. I know everything they were going to want to do. I was at home with them the whole time, so I was like, I know these kids.

Yeah, it took me a long time to start realizing that actually, my head was so full of these ideas of what we should be doing as a family, what children should be like, what parents should be like, what childhood should be like, what activities are better than other activities. I was totally signed up to, we should be reading, we should be outside, we should be going to groups, we should be going to museums, which is all great if that’s what your kids want to do, but really, my kids didn’t want to do any of that.

So, this sort of big realization, I think of it as a two-stage process. So, the first little a-ha moment was back in Cambridge. So, Cambridge has quite a few nice museums, so every so often I would drag the kids to a museum, because this was educational and good, but still fun. But they were never very interested in them. And so, it always felt like a bit of a flop as an activity.

So, then one day, I guess I’d been kind of reading about unschooling and processing it all, and one day it just suddenly occurred to me that there is a museum in Cambridge called the Fitzwilliam Museum, which has a room full of weapons, like swords, crossbow, armor, lots of sharp, pointy metal things. And I just suddenly was like, that’s where Ruben would like to go. That’s what Ruben’s interested in, because he really loves all kinds of fighty computer games. He likes cutting out weapons of increasing complexity by eye with scissors and with paper and just playing with them. I was like, he likes weapons. Why am I not taking him to the weapons bit?

And we actually never ended up going, but he did express interest, but it just felt like this real moment where I was like, oh, I’m starting to see these, these options more from his point of view, thinking about what genuinely interests him, not what I think kids should know about.

And then, the second a-ha moment was in Costa Rica. A few months ago, I actually walked past this bowling alley. And I was like, oh, I should suggest bowling to the kids, with zero expectations, because I did not think they would be interested. And they were both like, “Yes, we really want to go!” And I was really surprised. I thought, “Okay, fine. We’ll give it a try.” Worst thing that can happen is they don’t like it. And they loved it. And this was in a place, really loud music, loads of people. You have to wear weird shoes, it’s competitive, but it’s so competitive that you can see who’s winning. There’s a big screen telling you who’s winning. And I just never in a million years would’ve thought that they would like that. And we’ve kept going. They still like going. We’ve sort of tweaked the competitive element, so we kind of mess about with who goes when and everything, but still they keep wanting to go.

And that felt like an a-ha moment, because that was not something I would’ve thought that they would want to do. That was not something I would’ve thought they would enjoy once we got there. So, it just made me realize that I was getting so much information from that about who they were, about what they wanted to do, because I had stepped out of the way. And I’m probably still working on it, but I had mostly dropped my expectations, my ideas of what should be happening, what we should be doing. So, I got this information that they wanted to do bowling.

So, it just made me realize how much all of this noise in my head had been stopping me from truly both seeing my kids based on what I know about them, but also just giving them the chance to lead and teach me about more about themselves and give me more information. I still don’t really know why they like the bowling, but also just the difference between seeing them going and doing something that they actually wanted to do, how much easier it was to get them out of the house as well. There’s so much information that I just would not have had if I had still been like, “Okay, Monday we do this, Tuesday we do that.” It just was so useful and so now, if they surprise me, I’m delighted, because it means that I have stepped out of the way. I have given them the chance to show me something that I wasn’t expecting. And then that gives me more information to then be able to say, “I think you might like this other thing.”

And so, still doing the weapons room-type stuff. So, still saying, “Okay, I think you might like this.” And still being able to look at it from their point of view based on the information I have. But it’s like a virtuous circle where, if I’m stepping out of the way, I’m way more able to offer them stuff that they’re genuinely going to want to do. So, yeah, that’s been really fun.

ANNA: Oh my gosh. Go ahead, Pam.

PAM: Yeah, there’s so much in there, Nora. So, I’m going to start with, I love the nuance that you’re talking about of dropping expectations. So often when it’s like, yeah, you know what? It’s not helpful to have expectations that we as a family or they as a child should enjoy this, or we feel like this would be good for them, all those expectations. But there’s the piece, too, where when we can drop those expectations and stand aside and have a harder time for a while not sharing other possibilities. You know what I mean? Like, I don’t want to put anything on them. I don’t want to have these expectations, so I’m just going to let them lead and I just kind of stand back.

Yet, passing the bowling alley and going, huh, that’s really off, but it’s here by us. We could go there. And mentioning it. It’s that nuance of not having any expectations when we share something. So yeah, absolutely, knowing them, we can think of the things we think they might be interested in, and then also sharing random possibilities that are actually around in our lives as well. Not as in, oh, I need to share something every day, and they need to like say yes, no, whatever, but to bubble our lives with these other possibilities that give them the opportunity to surprise us, to choose. “Right now, I do want to try something totally new.”

It’s so different when we are more with them. And we can share things without the expectation, like not letting not having expectations have us stand back a little bit. Does that make sense? But we can lean in more without those expectations and just bubble away and discover so much more about each other. 

ANNA: Right. I mean, for me what stuck out was just that attachment that we can have to, it should look this way in childhood and all of these pieces. And, like you’re saying, there’s so many nuances within this piece, but I think it does come back to the expectations and attachments.

And I love the piece about the bowling, because I think we can also fall that direction into kind of boxing our kids in a little bit. Like, oh, they’ve never liked big crowds or loud things, so I’m going to steer clear of that. And that’s, again, with love and great intention, because we’ve seen that. But I just think kids change and grow and when it’s something that sparks their interest, who knows? Maybe they saw a YouTube about bowling or one of their favorite characters was bowling. So, they’re just like, I want to see what that’s all about. And even if they hated it, they still got that information.

So, I think it is just that stepping back, but yet staying engaged, that seeing through their eyes like we talk about, because it’s just all these nuances. But I think we can easily see, for any of us, how we can kind of get on this path, and then we’ve lost sight of the children that we’re there hoping to facilitate.

ERIKA: Right. It feels like you’re just giving this space to them to be able to just be who they are and that they get to decide who they are. Because my kids surprise me all the time, exactly like how you were describing. And sometimes I’m like, what? It really can throw me.

But that’s part of the fun of our lives, being able to give enough space for them to change their mind and do something different and surprise me. And I really got so much out of when you were describing the feeling of, we all want to do this activity. That reminded me of those moments. And they can be few and far between sometimes, because the kids are so different from each other. But where we all are like, “A hundred percent we want to do this thing together,” how easy and fun those types of activities are. So, to look for those. I loved that story, too.

ANNA: And that reminds me of something, I think you said it in the Network, too, Nora, but it’s just kind of expounding on what you said, but how different it felt. You had told a story about, well, it’s hard to get them going anywhere because they like to stay in the house. So, it’s this process of getting them to go and making it fun and doing all this.

But then when you saw this delta of, when they’re leading the way, it wasn’t hard at all or it was so much easier. So, I thought that was really interesting, a thing that we can kind of watch for, you know, those energy shifts.

PAM: Yeah, I do think that is a huge shift. It was for me. The realization, when we talk about commitments and things, it’s less about figuring out a fun way to kind of cajole everybody to the place where we think they should be, for whatever reason. And then that ties in with letting them quit things when it’s not interesting to them, because what we’re really looking for is those things that they’re super excited about, where it is so much easier to do, because it’s theirs. It’s something that they want to do. It’s like night and day. Yet, we can get so attached to the things that we love or that we think that they should be doing.

NORA: Yeah, no. I was just going to say, yeah, I wrote a whole thing in the Network, a post in the Network about, “It’s so hard to get my kids out of the house. What can I do?” And I had this whole story that it was this really stressful process and I’d just spiraled into like, “This stresses me out. So, I’m stressed. So, I’m making it stressful,” on and on and on. And yeah, it turned out that mostly my kids like being at home and also, Ruben especially likes being at home, but he will dash to the car if it’s something that he genuinely wants to do. But because I’d never given them that chance to tell me what it was they would dash to the car for, then I didn’t know that it was possible. So yeah, it’s been a fun journey. 

ANNA: Yeah. That’s amazing. I love it.

PAM: Yeah. I want to say thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, Nora. We really appreciate it. It’s so fun hearing little snippets of the journey that, when people think through them and can see and can communicate what their process was, I think that’s so helpful for people to hear. So, thank you so much, Nora.

NORA: Thank you for having me. It’s been super fun.

PAM: Yay! Us too! Have a wonderful day.

NORA: Bye!

ERIKA: Thank you.

ANNA: Take care.