Exploring Unschooling

Exploring Unschooling

EU342: Helping Kids Find Their Passion

February 16, 2023

This week on the podcast, we’re sharing a talk that Pam gave at the 2022 Canadian Online Homeschool Conference, Helping Kids Find Their Passion. Following our children’s interests and passions is one of the joys of unschooling. And truly, humans are born curious. As parents, we can give our children the gift of encouraging that curiosity, which in a conventional setting can definitely be snuffed out. And there are as many interests, and as many ways of pursuing interests, as there are children! Keeping an open and curious mindset as we support them can really help us all enjoy the adventure.

We hope you find the talk helpful on your unschooling journey!

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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 the lens of unschooling. Our theme this month is Learning About Our Family, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of beginner’s mind and trust.

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. Check out The Living Joyfully Podcast here or find it in your your favorite podcast player.


Hi everyone! I’m really excited to be part of the 2022 Canadian Online Homeschool Conference. And I’m happy to welcome you to my session, Helping Kids Find Their Passion. I’m excited to dive in.


But first, a quick intro. My name is Pam Laricchia. My three kids left school back in 2002. I soon discovered unschooling and we never looked back. They are all in their twenties now.

Over the years I’ve written and published five books about unschooling—soon to be six.

In 2016, I started the Exploring Unschooling podcast. I continue to create new episodes every week, with more than 300 episodes now in the archive. It’s a treasure trove of conversations with unschooling parents from around the world about their experiences, as well as conversations with grown unschoolers.

And in early 2020 I started The Living Joyfully Network, a private, online community for parents where we have candid conversations about living and learning through the lens of unschooling.

If it isn’t yet clear, I love talking about unschooling!

Enough about me, let’s quickly go over what we’re going to talk about today.

First, we’re going to dive into the value of helping our kids follow their curiosity and dive into whatever catches their interest, to whatever depths they want to go, and how that helps them find their passion.

Then we’re going to talk about quitting and why it’s okay to let our kids quit things. In fact, it’s even better than okay.

Next, we’ll talk about scanners. Have you heard of scanners? If not, that’s going to be extra fun! This will bring a bit of a twist to our premise, but in a good way. It’s about how our kids are wired and helping them lean into that. Do we all really have one true calling?

Then we’ll dive into the importance of finding and following your interests. Unschooling isn’t just for the kids! We’ll talk about all the wonderful reasons for being open and curious, and for learning alongside your kids. It’s hard to encourage our kids to be lifelong learners if we, as adults, aren’t happily learning too.

And finally, we’ll connect the dots, weaving together a lovely picture of ways to help our kids find their passion, or passions, that hopefully makes sense and inspires you to live and learn with enthusiasm alongside your kids.

Unschooling in action!

So, let’s dive in.

Follow Their Curiosity

With unschooling, we choose not to direct our children’s learning through using curriculum. Instead, we follow their curiosity.

Not only is following their curiosity definitely more fun, it also deeply nurtures their learning. Curiosity and learning are intimately connected.

I love Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote: “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”

Following a child’s interests truly does create a uniquely-tailored web of learning connections and knowledge that fits them so beautifully.

And truly, humans are born curious. I think the real gift we can give as parents is to not continually discourage their curiosity because it can definitely be snuffed out.

How might that happen?

Young children are insatiably curious about their world yet, as they become more mobile, we begin to dissuade them because their curiosity makes our life messy: cupboards emptied, food squished, puddles splashed, toys dumped.

They are drawn to participating in whatever the adults around them are doing because they are curious about their world. But as their excitement and exploration bumps up against their parents’ exhaustion and wish for some peace, their days gradually become peppered with noes.

“No! That’s not a toy.”

“No! Don’t make a mess.”

“No! Don’t touch that.”

Children continue to be deeply curious about their world, yet now we seem determined to stop them. And when we do this, the message we’re really giving our children is to stop being curious.

And it doesn’t get any better as our children get older. The mess becomes a bit more focused—less whirling dervish—yet we continue to shut down their curiosity and exploration.

“No, you can’t watch another episode, it’s bedtime.”

“No, I’m too busy, I can’t drive you to insert fun activity.”

“No, your friends can’t hang out here, they’ll eat all our food.”

The pull of curiosity weakens each time they aren’t given the opportunity to ask a question, to follow a thought, and to end up somewhere new. Most children ultimately get the message: their questions, their interests, their explorations, aren’t important. And eventually they stop asking. Sooner or later, they even stop asking themselves.

That’s how it can happen.

Let’s take a moment to explore what following their curiosity might look like if we don’t actively discourage it. If we choose, instead, to be open to the possibilities.

Let’s follow a few of my daughter’s interests and see how things unfold. Back in 2004, she was passionate about all things Harry Potter.

She’d listen to the Harry Potter audiobooks over and over and over, doing arts and crafts while she listened. Repairing PJs. Making pillows. Knitting. Creating vignettes of scenes from the books.

Then she picked up reading and branched out to Harry Potter fan fiction. So much reading!

There was a fan fiction author she enjoyed who began each chapter with song lyrics, which sparked an interest in music. She wanted to hear these songs.

This is probably around the time she also began getting interested in photography and taking pictures.

Her interest in music continued to grow and she wanted to see her favourite alternative bands live at shows. She was around age 12. We went to lots of shows over the years.

Alongside the shows, her interest in photography, specifically fine art photography, grew. When she was 18, she got an O-1 visa and moved to New York City to work as a photographer. She continued to go to small, alternative shows and meet musicians.

Over the next few years, she discovered she really enjoyed working with musicians as clients and her photography work began to lean in that direction.

And over the last couple of years her style has developed to mix various arts and crafts mediums into her images, like watercolour painting, stickers, and cutting out image elements to recombine them.

It’s no wonder we describe unschooling learning as a web, right?

There were many points along the way I could have discouraged her interests. So much fabric and yarn supplies for her creations. Going to shows in bars at age 12? Going to lots of shows? Travelling to see bands she liked? Moving to New York City on her own at age 18?

Yet now, looking back, we can see how those threads of interests have woven together in her current passion and joy photographing musicians for publicity shots, covers for song and album releases, and more.

But I had no idea where her interests might go at the time.

That reminds me of something Steve Jobs said in his commencement address to Stanford students in 2005 about connecting the dots. He shared a few bits and pieces from his life and how they connected, then observing:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs

Part of helping our kids find their passion is developing this trust that dots will connect in the future. This trust that encourages us to be open and supportive and patient as our kids create their unique collection of dots over the years.

The dots—their interests—often aren’t their passion. Maybe they’re fleeting curiosities, or month-long deep dives, or interests with longer staying power. Maybe they’re part of a winding path to their passion. And even then, as with my daughter, none are an end point, it’s part of their ever-evolving story.

And we can’t lay it out the path for them, or even guess what it might look like. If we try, those guesses can quickly become expectations that get in the way of their exploration. Of learning about themselves.

What we can see looking back is the connections they’ve made over time. Over years. How their interests and passions have woven together to where they happen to be right now. For now.

It might be for you take a few minutes this week to think about your child’s interests over the last six to twelve months.

What threads do you see connecting them?

Is there a common denominator that sits in the foundation of their various interests over that time?

What interests have fallen by the wayside?

And this seems like a great time to talk about the idea of quitting. Remember how I mentioned that those dots may be fleeting curiosities, month-long deep dives, or interests with longer staying power? It doesn’t matter which, they’re all good. They all have value. And it’s totally okay when they realize that an interest has waned.

Choosing to quit an activity is as much a learning experience as starting it.

That may be a pretty unconventional perspective, but let’s dive in and explore it.

Conventionally, quitting is akin to failure.

I love what Anna Brown shared on my podcast in episode 262 around this idea. She explained:

“We have this idea of, “But you’re on the team! You’re gonna let your team down!”

But I just want to remind everybody that we have all been on teams and in groups where members did not want to be there. And it was kind of the worst, you know? I find it’s way more of a disservice to people who actually want to be there, who are actually passionate about that team or that activity or that idea, to hang out when we aren’t happy and don’t want to be there. Because I don’t know if it’s possible to give your all to something where you really don’t want to be.

So, this idea that you’re serving the team by toughing it out is just really not the whole story.”

Anna Brown

Another one is, if you quit something before the official “end,” you have failed to finish it. Parents have been known to explain to their kids, “I paid for ten lessons, so just finish them and then you don’t have to sign up again.” It seems like a reasonable compromise. At least on the surface.

Well, consider our human tendency to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy, which is the tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. The money is already spent, so we can take it out of the current conversation altogether. Right now, is it worth the cost of your child’s growing dislike?

It’s definitely worth taking a moment to revisit your goal. If each week the lesson is an actively unhappy time for your child, is your insistence that they attend worth it? Is your goal to turn them off ballet or swimming for the indefinite future? If you’ve paid $200 for a series of ballet lessons and they’re only half finished, might you consider that last $100 as an investment in preserving their enjoyment of dance?

One of the wonderful things about unschooling is that the children have time to explore the world, including a variety of activities. But if we continue to insist that they “finish what they start,” they will more likely learn to NOT try out an activity unless they are very sure they will enjoy it: the fear of being stuck there will outweigh their curiosity to explore something new. Less exploration.

Less dots.

Or maybe we’re worried that our children wanting to quit means they will always give up, rather than rise to a challenge. Again, that’s fear talking—the choices they make today don’t define all the choices they will make in the future. The choices they make today are helping them gain experience with making choices. Not to mention, challenges that aren’t motivating and inspiring for your child are probably not the right kinds of challenges for them. That’s a great thing to learn!

Over the years unschooling children will gain lots of experience with wanting to try something, choosing ways to try it out, and seeing how well those paths met their goals. They will discover things they enjoy, things they don’t, and get a better feel for the clues that help them decide when to step up their game and when to quit and move on.

And each time they choose to quit, they’re still learning. How does that choice feel? Do they miss the activity? How much? What do they miss about it? What are they doing with the time that quitting freed up? Are they enjoying that more than the activity? Less? So much learning! And quitting is not a forever decision. Now that they better understand the environment, they may choose to go back at some point in the future.

Children who have the freedom to explore a variety of things and discard those that don’t catch their prolonged interest do not feel like failures when they choose to drop something.

More dots.

And not only that, these experiences help them better understand what they like and what they don’t like—whether it’s the activities themselves, the environments like big groups or small, highly organized or more free-flowing, and so on. All of which helps them figure out things that will be a good fit for them.

More dots help them home in on their passion.

And speaking of environments, moving on from an organized activity needn’t mean an end to learning about it. It doesn’t have to mean no more dots.

What if they just really don’t like swimming lessons? If your wish is for them to enjoy swimming and be safe in the water, instead of lessons, find the ways they do enjoy the water and explore those for now. The adventure of water parks? Playing at the beach? Jumping off the dock into the lake? A wading pool in the backyard? Lots of baths? Open your mind to the many ways there are to enjoy water beyond swimming lessons.

Joining and quitting activities is more about helping our children explore their world—the activities and environments that spark their curiosity and bring them joy. That’s where the learning is.

If they discover a passionate interest, they will doggedly pursue it, even through many challenging moments. You don’t need to teach this kind of unwavering commitment by requiring it in everything they do. Instead, help them find things that they enjoy so much that their dedication and learning flows naturally.

See how that works? Quitting is actually another way we can help our kids find their passion.

And not only that, what a great skill to bring into adulthood! How many adults do you know who feel stuck in in situations or jobs they don’t enjoy, not willing to leave because that would feel like a failure? I’ve seen it lots of times.

It’s empowering to know they have agency over their lives, at every age.

Having More than One Passion: Multipotentialites or Scanners

Alright. Now that we’ve talked about the immense value of helping our kids follow their curiosity wherever it takes them and quit things when their interest wanes in support of helping them find their passion, let’s step back and question our premise.

I know you want to help your child find their passion, but is there just one singular passion for everyone?

Is everyone meant to be a specialist?

What if they have multiple interests? Multiple passions?

What if they don’t want to choose just one thing?

In her book, Refuse to Choose: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything that You Love, Barbara Sher identifies a person she calls The Scanner?someone who frequently has a multiplicity of interests, but finds it hard to create a life they love because their passions and abilities are taking them in so many different directions.

Contrary to popular wisdom, Sher tells Scanners that theirs is a unique ability, not a liability. And that they can do everything they love, they don’t have to zero in on one pursuit at the expense of all others.

Is your child a scanner? Are you?

That’s amazing too!

If you have a scanner in your family, I think you’ll have an a-ha moment or three listening to Emilie Wapnick’s TEDx talk, Why some of us don’t have one true calling.

She makes a great point in her talk that “the notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it.”

While Barbara uses the term “scanners” and others use “polymath” or “Renaissance person,” Emilie prefers “multipotentialite.”

She has been writing and speaking with people about this idea for a while and has landed on three multipotentialite superpowers that I want to share with you.

The first is “idea synthesis,” which she describes as combining two or more fields and creating something new at the intersection. That aligns so well with our unschooling process of connecting the dots, doesn’t it?

The second is “rapid learning.” In her experience, when multipotentialites become interested in something, they dive in fast and deep.

Interestingly, I think that’s something we see often with unschooling kids because they get to choose whatever they dive into. I think the “slow learning” that she’s seeing in comparison probably has more to do with the school environment. It’s hard and slow to learn something you’re not interested in, but kids—people—who are free to choose what and how they want to learn about something learn pretty quickly!

And the third multipotentialite superpower is “adaptability,” the ability to morph into whatever they need to be in a given situation. Having had many different interests over the years, they have lots of experience with trying new things and stepping out of their comfort zones. And they bring what they’ve learned across various topics with them every time, so they’re rarely starting from scratch.

She goes on to explain:

“It is rarely a waste of time to pursue something you’re drawn to, even if you end up quitting. You might apply that knowledge in a different field entirely, in a way that you couldn’t have anticipated.”

Emilie Wapnick

More dots!

And see, through a completely different lens, quitting is still okay. In fact, it’s more than okay! Just because they quit something doesn’t mean they forget what they’ve already learned about it. Maybe that amount was just right. Maybe it’ll connect beautifully with something else they dive into in the future.

That’s the incredible mystery of life we embrace with unschooling.

Circling back for a moment, as Steve Jobs reminds us, we can’t connect the dots looking forward.

Looking forward is about trust.

However your child is wired, help them embrace it. Whether they choose to explore their world in pursuit of a singular passion or they prefer to embrace multiple interests—all at once or in quick succession—what’s important is helping them figure out how they tick and supporting them as they explore their interests and passions.

And what’s fascinating is that no matter their wiring, how we as parents support them on their journey is the same: help them follow their curiosity and let them quit when they’re ready to move on.

It’s that simple. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

Definitely, sometimes it will be easy, like when we share our child’s interest, or when the learning that’s happening is obvious to us. But sometimes we’ll be dancing at the edge of our comfort zones, trying to move beyond feelings of judgment and exploring ways to grow.

If you find yourself stuck here, I think you may find Roya Dedeaux’s book really helpful. It’s called, Connect with Courage: Practical Ways to Release Fear and Find Joy in the Places Your Children Take You. Roya is a Marriage and Family Therapist and an unschooling mom with three kids.

I spoke with her on the podcast about the book in episode 286, if you’d like to check that out.

Find Your Interests

And last, but not least, it’s important for you to find your interests.

Often, we start down the unschooling path for our kids, but soon enough we discover that unschooling is really a lifestyle for the whole family.

How will our children absorb the value of lifelong learning if the adults around them aren’t also learning?

So, let’s be a shining example of being curious and continuing to learn whatever our age.

Are you exploring your interests? Asking questions and seeking answers?

If you find yourself mostly indifferent to the world around you, it’s time to find and fan that spark of curiosity. You needn’t start with an earth-shattering question, nor a big, passionate interest—that’s way too much pressure.

Just quiet things down for a while and listen. Underneath the noise, you’ll start to hear the whisperings of your inner voice.

As you go about your days, notice what catches your attention. And, rather than dismissing it, roll it around in your mind for a moment. Get curious. Is it connected to something you already know? Is it something new to you? Why do you think it caught your attention? Might you enjoy knowing more?

What questions come to mind?

When something catches our attention, instead of judging ourselves negatively, let’s lean in.

Here’s a story. When my kids were much younger, sometimes they’d watch Food TV with me. I still clearly remember one night when we were laying in my bed and watching a special on reverse engineering popular foods and they showed how to make Reese’s peanut butter cups at home. Joseph was the only child still awake by the end (I just looked at my printout of the recipe and it was the year 2000, so he was 8!) and I said, “What do you think, should we try that tomorrow?”

His answer was a happy “Yes!”

They were awesome and to this day I still make them—they are now a family classic.

That is what’s so exciting about being curious and following your interests—you never know what you might discover. With an open and curious mindset, you will see so many more opportunities for fun and connection bubbling up around you than you will by walking around judging and worrying, mostly closed off from exploring life.

I understand that, especially when our kids are younger, we don’t often have large swathes of time to dedicate to solitary deep dives, but we can find a few minutes here and there.

Maybe we read about our interest, sitting nearby our kids as they play.

Maybe we enjoy painting, or arts and crafts, and we keep a basket with our current project nearby to bring out to do alongside our kids. Maybe we also have some supplies at hand for them in case they want to join us.

As my kids have gotten older, it’s been so interesting to see how our interests and joy intertwine, sometimes even in the most unlikely ways.

Like rediscovering my interest in alternative music through Lissy’s music interest, or better understanding Michael’s passionate interest in karate through my own passionate experience with ballet growing up, or re-igniting my love of stories through Joseph’s passionate pursuit of them through all facets of storytelling.

If you’d like your kids to live an engaged and curious life, then live an engaged and curious life yourself alongside them.

Unschooling is a gift for us too.

Which means that, as we explore our interests, we can share our excitement and enthusiasm with them without any expectations that they’ll want to join us and learn the same things.

In fact, learning new things reminds us what real, engaged learning feels like, which can help us connect more closely with our children around the process.

Learning new things reminds us that learning can sometimes be challenging, which may give us space for more empathy for our child next time they get frustrated trying to figure something out.

Learning new things also reminds of how fun it is and we may be more apt to celebrate our accomplishments along the way, and those of our kids.

Even if we don’t love one of our child’s particular interests, we can still meet them in the feelings of wonder, frustration, and joy—the common threads that weave through pursuing our interests.

Giving ourselves the space to follow our interests can also be a great lens through which to explore cultural messages like, “you need to be productive,” “don’t waste your time,” and “it’s only valuable if you’re going to monetize it.”

Are these the only reasons to pursue something? No!

In his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, Ian Leslie describes the essence of curiosity this way:

“The most fundamental reason to choose curiosity isn’t so that we can do better at school or at work. The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been underway for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other.”

Ian Leslie

Think about that for a moment. Being curious is a deeply human thing and so many of us have lost it.

Let’s recapture that sense of wonder we see on our children’s faces.

Let’s approach our days being open and curious.

Open to new possibilities over stale patterns we follow without thinking just because that’s the way we’ve always done things.

Maybe that’s efficient, but does efficiency always need to be the goal?

What about being creative? Curiosity often leads to creativity. How else might we do this?

And it’s so fun to contemplate!

When we cultivate a welcoming, non-judgmental space that’s free from deadlines and expectations, we give possibilities time to percolate and unfold.

As Ian says, that’s the true beauty of learning stuff.

Connecting the Dots

Okay, let’s try to connect the dots we’ve scattered around today.

You’re curious about how to help your child find their passion.

One valuable aspect of that is helping them follow their curiosity.

That means rather than judging or discouraging their interest in something—in anything—try to say yes more.

We can only connect the dots of their interests looking back, so, looking forward from today, we need to trust that the dots will connect somehow.

An important aspect of following their curiosity is letting them quit when they realize an interest has waned.

Quitting isn’t failure, it’s more learning. It’s homing in on their passion.

Maybe it’s just that particular environment they’re not enjoying, don’t be too quick to toss the interest. Instead find another way to explore it.

If you make them stick it out, what they’re really learning is not to try something new they’re curious about unless they’re super sure they’ll enjoy it. Less dots.

If they discover a passionate interest, they will doggedly pursue it, even through many challenging moments. You don’t need to teach this kind of unwavering commitment by requiring it in everything they do. Instead, help them find things that they enjoy so much that their dedication and learning flows naturally.

And then we talked about whether everyone is meant to have one singular passion. To be a specialist.

Maybe your child is a scanner, or multipotentialite. That’s cool too!

The idea of one true calling is highly romanticized in our culture, but not everyone is wired this way.

In her TEDx talk, Emilie shared three multipotentialite superpowers: idea synthesis, rapid learning, and adaptability.

She shared that it’s rarely a waste of time to pursue something you’re drawn to, even if you end up quitting. More dots in your child’s web of interests and learning.

And lastly, we talked about the immense value of pursuing your own interests—of living and learning alongside your kids. Unschooling is not just for the kids, it’s a family lifestyle that celebrates lifelong learning.

Fan the spark of your own curiosity and share your enthusiasm with those around you—without expectations.

No matter how a person is wired—whether a specialist, a scanner, or some beautiful mix—how we help them find their passions is the same: help them follow their curiosity wherever it leads and let them quit when they’re ready to move on.

Look at all these dots of info for you to connect in the ways that make sense to you! All because you’re interested in unschooling and supporting your kids. It’s your web of learning in action.

And as we wrap up our time together, I want to pull up into the bigger picture.

Let’s go back to the quote from Ian’s book, Curious:

“The most fundamental reason to choose curiosity isn’t so that we can do better at school or at work. The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been underway for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other.”

Ian Leslie

This isn’t just about helping our kids find their passions. There’s no endpoint.

This is about the true beauty of learning stuff.

About being human, in a world of humans.

It’s life.

Thanks for joining me today to talk about helping kids find their passion!