Category Archives: Unschooling Life

Unschoolers and Recordkeeping

Unschoolers and Recordkeeping

Sometimes unschoolers get mixed messages about recordkeeping. States vary on their requirements for homeschoolers – including unschoolers – to maintain various records. In many states no recordkeeping is required whatsoever. And in those that do, many do not require that these records be turned in to anyone nor do the specify how the recording should be done.  Of course, check your own state/local group for your laws. But be wary of anyone who thinks doing more than the state requires, is a good idea. It’s not. And for new homeschoolers/unschoolers, recordkeeping often gives the parent a sense of progress or a feeling of protection should anyone ask. Please don’t let your fears of governmental oversight crowd out your good judgement.  It’s a rare case that anyone ever even asks to see these records. (Usually it’s custody battles or legal issues that don’t even pertain to the child.) That said, some of us do enjoy looking back and seeing progress. Some of our kids (most of them?) like to look back at their own lives and see what they were doing or remember what life was like.  Acquiring life skills, personal AND physical growth, social settings, friends and relatives – all make for interesting trips down memory lane later on.

Recordkeeping Get creative and you can find a fun way to record what’s been going on. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or keep some dry teacher’s record book. Life has so much more to offer than that!

Try some of these:

  • Journaling about their lives and their activities
    – It’s nice to have a place to privately record everything that you HOPE you will remember
    – Some kids might love to write it themselves, either by hand or on the computer (tips on writing at Pinterest)
    – Decorating the cover and/or the pages – look at others on Pinterest (especially under “Art Journals”)
  • Photo Collection – hard copy or digital
    – Get memory sticks to take photos off the phone
    – Start folders to make it easier to find what you’re looking for
    – Stay safe and upload to Flickr, PhotoBucket, SmugMug, plus more options!
    – At the end of the year, compile the favorites for an annual book or video montage set to favorite songs.
    Groovebook, Shutterfly, Snapfish are companies that can help you compile your photos quickly (before you’re overrun with boxes from years and years!)
  • Scrapbooking
    – A creative hands-on project to do together
    – More fun for the artistic types
  • Blogging about the family’s adventures
    – Lots of free blog websites are available
    – Be sure to join the Facebook group for Homeschool/Unschool Bloggers. You can see a variety of ways people use blogging to share glimpses into their world. You don’t have to be a blogger to join the group.
  • Writing activities down after the fact in a planner or on a calendar
    – Perfect for the busy mom who is trying to remember it all
  • Pinterest boards can record cool things you’ve done, read, seen, explored
    – Create boards for interesting places you visited or want to visit
    – Create boards for movies & documentaries you saw or want to see
    – Create a board with photos of new creations (foods, crafts, etc)
    – Encourage your kids to get their own Pinterest account so it’s easy to share ideas
    – Unschooling Pinterest Board

For a collection of other unschoolers’ ideas about record keeping, be sure to look at
Recordkeeping  at the Unschooling Mom2Mom website.

Lean Into the Love

Lean Into the Love

Parents with children older than mine would look at me when I expressed concerns and say, “Don’t worry,” or “They’ll figure it out.” Sometimes they’d tack on, “Just have fun with them.” They were so right. And I LOVE that they were!

Still, I worried about gaps. I worried about getting into college, or whatever higher learning they’d want to pursue. I didn’t want doors to close on them – I wanted them to have all the choices in the world. And in spite of my lapses in trust, or my occasional meltdowns about facts, they did have every opportunity they wanted. After a (mostly) radical way of unschooling our lives, they have been able to pursue whatever they want.

I applaud those moms of babies who are reading and learning about unschooling BEFORE they need to know. So many of their school-induced thoughts about learning can be dealt with before their kids are even school age. To deschool themselves before they’re in the thick of it will help so much. I didn’t know any homeschooling, let alone unschooling, families the year before we decided to take the plunge. The idea that keeping your kids home to learn and live would actually be good for them – and not just an act of self-indulgence by a mom who couldn’t let go – was not on my radar at all. I was a complete suburban soccer mom – although then it was T-ball and Tiger Cubs. I was surrounded by moms who were trying to find the right preschool or mother’s day out. I only knew people who encouraged distance from children so they could go back to work or follow their own pursuits or just get a little sleep! No one talked to me back then about leaning into all these feelings that come with having children.

This month, I’m hear to tell you to just lean into the LOVE. Look at your babies and toddlers and children and teens. See how they trust you. See how they look to you for support. See how you are their rock.

Please notice the math: You will probably live to be about 80. Your kids will need you as their sole support for maybe 20 years of that. That’s only 25% of your life. Most likely you’re over 20, so you’ve already spent the 1st 25%, kids are the next. That leaves 50% of your life to pursue whatever you want! And regardless of your first 20 years, if you REALLY focus on your children for the next 20, the second half of your life will be full of wonderful relationships with them as well as memories and plans for the future. It will be so much richer for focusing that one little 25% on them.

So here’s my list of LOVE…

Some of it I did well. Some of it, I wish I had done so much better. And if you’re still raising little ones, you have such an opportunity to learn from our choices and have an even better experience at this.

❤ LOVE who they are now.

Don’t try to shape them. Just sit with them and listen to their ideas. Share your opinions without squashing theirs. Stop yourself when you feel like you’re making judgements about them. Let them unfold naturally. If you focus on the LOVE you can let go of the FEAR.

❤ LOVE that you have the entire day to do with as you wish.

Create a home that is full of excitement and interesting things to explore – be it books or videos or pinecones or magnets. Play with them yourself. You’d be surprised how your own ability to play can come back. It’s human nature to play with things. It’s just that if you had to go to school, you were told to stop playing and settle down in your seat. In order to succeed in that setting, you had to learn to curb all your enthusiasm. It might take some time to entice those feelings back. But they’re there.

❤ LOVE that you live in a time and place where so many opportunities abound.

Use your community, and the community next to yours! Find cool places to explore. Learn with your children. Even if you think, “I’m not that interested in that,” it’s worth a try to check it out. There might be something there that you DO like. Or it might spark a new passion for your child. Show them that there are all KINDS of interesting adventures just outside your door. And now, looking them up on the internet makes it so much easier to find.

❤ LOVE that they can go see and touch and hear things in the real world.

Children who are tied to lesson plans or curriculum – whether they’re in the school or the home – can only read about these adventures. They have to wait to start their exploring later in their life, or after their “real work” is done when their brains are exhausted or worse.

❤ LOVE their interests.

Even if you’re not into video games or horses or Justin Bieber or BMXing, love it anyway. Show them you value their choices. Ask them questions about it. Nurture their passion instead of putting timers on to say how long they get to enjoy that. Take them to get that game they’re longing for. Ask them what game could you start on to learn what they love. Take them to horse stables. Take them with a friend to concert of their choice. Drop by the bike shop with them once a week to see what’s the latest. Find a magazine on BMX-ing.

Before you say, “I don’t want to put more money toward those choices,” maybe you should rethink that. It’s their passion! Even if it’s fleeting. It really will lead to something else – it always does. And they will have had the opportunity of seeing that they can look for passions without someone telling them how to find it or where to find it. Or what’s a good passion to have and what’s not.

Your LOVE will build their CONFIDENCE.

And as an unschooling parent, your job is to create an environment for them to learn and grow. They’ll need tools to do that.

AND it will improve your relationship. In the end, that’s what matters most: the LOVE between everyone in your family. When there’s a disconnect there, look to see what you’re afraid of happening. Because it all boils down to two things: Fear or LOVE. Just practice bringing it back to love. After all, learning their times tables by a certain age really doesn’t matter that much at all – their phones have calculators and for anything else, there’s GOOGLE.

“And in the end…the love you take…
Is Equal to…the Love you Make”

~Paul McCartney

Our Own Curriculum Wars

So they loaded up the truck and moved to… Alaska. ;) Ahhh… those Clampets!

So they loaded up the truck and moved to… Alaska. 😉 Ahhh… those Clampets!

Back in the ’90’s when the internet was still young…

We had loaded up our car and we were moving to Alaska. Really. We were. My husband was in the Air Force and we had decided that on this move, we’d make the break with the school system and set out on our homeschooling adventure!

An exponential shift seemed to be happening. When we first considered leaving the school system, we could find only religiously oriented catalogs to help me figure out more about homeschooling resources. I’d comb through The Elijah Company catalog – they had some awesome science kits. Or I’d scan the list of Sonlight for an enormous array of literature. And even after we had started homeschooling (because we did not start as unschoolers), I looked at Cathy Duffy and Mary Pride’s gigantic books of curriculum. It was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole! I could visualize my little guys (then 7, 5, and 2) diving into a semester’s worth of curriculum with enthusiasm and glee. The story I had created in my head of what that would look like – with the help of all those curriculum pushers – was divine.alice-rabbit-hole-fc00-deviantart-net_

The more I read, the more I felt like I needed! How would they learn to spell without that Sing, Spell, Read and Write? How would they learn about the body without access to every DK book on the planet? The more I discovered, the more inadequate I felt. My bookshelves began to bulge. I started talking to other people about all of their curriculum choices. Entire parkdays were spent comparing and contrasting everything anyone had run across. It felt so frenetic. We were so worried we’d do it wrong, choose poorly, or spend our money on something that would sit on the shelf unused. Yet we were pulled to continue our quest for curriculum that would perfectly fit our little ones.

The friends we kept didn’t help our situation. (yes, I still love them dearly). But this time period was also the early years of something called The IDEA Program. Someone had just figured out a way to get kids signed up into the school system. They’d make their daily allotment per child, and they’d let these kids – our kids – be “distance learners.” They supplied our curricula, and even gave us a new computer. These were the days of dial up, weird noises as you waited to get connected, and “You’ve Got Mail!”

As unschoolers, we were skeptical. People were warning us that we weren’t “real homeschoolers.” In fact, they were right, we were part of a school district. But it was hundreds of miles away and no one ever darkened our door. As a small group of parents, confident in our unschooling, we decided to see what would happen. The administration assured us that we could interpret learning in whatever way we chose. We swung over to the local Holiday Inn where they were handing out computers for every family enrolled. It was so disorganized, they were handing these desktop computers out hotel room windows!

We met at our monthly moms’ meeting, comparing notes. We knew that when they’d ask us to do testing, we’d pull out. But for now, that wasn’t the case at all. So we put in orders for Playmobile to study Medieval times, nature center and science museum memberships, horseback riding lessons and whale sight-seeing trips. Lest you think we were simply bilking the system, we only received a fraction of the money that the school district received for enrolling us. What we didn’t get to use, built a new school for one of the native Alaskan villages, giving them small planes to work on so they could learn mechanics. (Small planes are used all over Alaska, so this is a trade they’d be able to use.) It paid for teachers and personnel to staff these new schools. Win, win, right?

We were still new to unschooling/homeschooling and even though I was quickly embracing the idea that I didn’t need school experts to teach my children, I didn’t notice the tightening grip of curricula.  As the mellenium turned and we left the 90’s, the internet opened up. We weren’t limited by what our neighboring homeschoolers had personally found as had been the case when we started out – we could search online or ask in email groups. We even created lists and forums that reviewed products and shared obscure potential resources. We were downright giddy!

We made purchases – the packages were appealing – bright colors, engaging promises, cartoon-like characters. Each seeming to shout, “Choose me! I’m the solution you’re looking for!”
And I believed them – so many times!

curric choices

It’s as if a magnetic force field kept pulling us back! We knew we didn’t want to send our little ones off to the local school… but the stuff! It was so appealing. And our own anxiety was there too… sometimes coming in as  whispers, other times, a screaming banshee in the night!

Now in hindsight, I can see that we simply hadn’t cut the cord. Curricula had become a crutch. Sure, the toys and the memberships were used a lot, but a whole lot of other curricula that we were going to “try out,” went unused.

Life got busy with three kids going in three different directions. We moved again – with all our stuff. And as time progressed, that program tightened up, requiring tests and progress reports… so we bailed. Bureaucracies being what they are, no one ever asked for the stuff back.

So now that my kids are all grown, I sit here with shelves in every room filled with dusty books, some unopened even. My kids are grown and gone. What did I learn from all of this? What wonderful words of wisdom can I share with you?

  • I learned that acquiring all that stuff was a distraction from what was right in front of me – my kids.
  • I learned that my anticipating what they might be interested in down the road, robbed them of the experience of searching and finding it for themselves.
  • I learned that I really identified with the idea of being a house with a lot of books. I liked that image. But for what purpose? When you have so many books that your kids gloss over when they see them all… that’s not a good thing.
  • I learned that hanging on to all that stuff because someday grandbabies might use it… I’ve had to let that go. Save a few true favorites, and the rest can be discovered when the need arises. Or I’ll get’em an iPad. 😉
  • I learned that I can’t move into this new phase of post-homeschooling life without letting all the stuff go. There’s no room for a new beginning, if all the stories of the past occupy the space.

So… I wonder how many trips to Goodwill this is going to take? Time to get started.

You might also like to read:
The Curriculum Crutch

When People Quiz Your Kids


Woman with thumbs downWe don’t live in an unschooling bubble, do we? Our kiddos have to get out there in the community and brush up with people who have no idea what we’re trying to do. And while that’s a good thing, in general, it can be tough when you’re new to unschooling or feeling like you’re on some shaky ground. When kids are away from us and we can’t run interference for them, they may need a couple of quick factoids they can rattle back at their quizzer:

“Do you know the capitol of Angola, or San Salvador, or Malaysia?”
(Here’s a wikipedia cheat sheet, so he can pick which countries they’d like to know)

Or how about a math question?
What’s 2358 x 137? or the square root of 196?
(here’s a square root calculator, so she can pick her own!)

The point being that the child can give some demonstration of knowledge and then happily skip away.
Another option is to talk to those people yourself.

You could even suggest that your child say this:
“Mom said if the quizzing starts, you should probably take it up with her.”
No reason your child should have to go head-to-head with an adult with an agenda.

Do you have other helpful tips to help your child cope with naysayers?
Please leave them in the comments.
It might be exactly the right fit for someone struggling out there!

6 Steps to Parenting Teens and Young Adults

6 Steps to Parenting Teens and Young Adults

The internet is full of tips for parenting younger children. Either they expect that you’ve figured it all out by the time they’re teens, or you’ve just put up the white flag of surrender. Unschooling families tend to prioritize the relationships between parents and children, so hopefully this transition to adulthood can go more smoothly. How you deal with teens and young adults and the situations they present will make all the difference in how your relationship is going to be. Even if your child is younger, these tips will help you as your children approach adolescence and beyond.

1. Let go of the story you have in your head for how everything will be.

Some of us learned this early on with parenting teens and younger, but we may need a refresher course. As a parent, you may have created scenarios in your head of how it will be when they get jobs, find a mate, move into a place of their own. Maybe because these stories often warm our hearts, we get locked into them. We think that if we nudge a little bit, we might get it to work out the way we envision. There’s a price to pay for all that nudging though. You may just be pushing them away from you, instead of toward what you had hoped.
AND, you might not even have the best story in your head – they are, frankly, creating one for themselves. Sit back and watch it unfold.

2. Get out of the way, even if you can read the handwriting on the wall.

Mistakes happen. But usually, they present the biggest learning opportunities. I know it can be scary, because some of these mistakes can be life-altering. Try to remember back when you were in your own 20’s. If you’re like me, you made a TON of mistakes. But it helped shape me into a really interesting multi-dimensional adult. We can’t get in the way and undermine our young adult’s opportunity to make the same progress. Also, who’s to say we are right and the young adult is wrong? Many times, they’ve morphed their decision into something really wonderful that I didn’t even see coming.

3. Giving Advice or Not.

Lot’s of people say that a good way to share all that wisdom you have, is to cloak it with “Would you like my advice?” And I suppose for some kids, this works. Not for mine. That simple question – depending on the situation, mood, people involved – can be seen as wonderfully helpful or full of judgement about the direction they’re heading. Still, others say that they have young adults who are fine with simply saying, “Nope!” and walking away. Even if mine did say that (because I have tried this approach), they circle back later asking, “OK. So what was it you were dying to tell me?” And suddenly, the dynamic has shifted in a bad way. My new way – or at least what I aspire to – is to say, “You know what? I think you’ve got this. You are a good decision-maker overall. And, sure, you’ll make mistakes – I did. But unless you out-and-out ASK me for advice, I’m not going to give it unsolicited.” So, my own young adults laugh and say, “Oh REALLY? THIS is what you’ve been working on? Could use a little more focus here, Mom!”  Obviously, this is the one that trips me up the most. But when I get it right, we have a lot smoother sailing.

4. Who they choose to be with is THEIR choice. Embrace it.

Years ago, a friend of mine was struggling with her mother-in-law. The M-I-L was super critical of her and adored “her baby boy.” She simply didn’t think this woman was good enough for her son. As time passed, my friend and her growing family included the mother-in-law less and less. At best, they saw the mother-in-law, and eventually grandmother only once or twice per year.  My friend shared the lesson she learned from this: “When my sons grow up, I will befriend the daughters-in-law! I will be their BEST FRIEND – even no matter how I feel. I’ll focus on what my son loves about them. Because what I know is that I never want my boys out of my life. And if I alienate the women they choose, that is exactly the path I will be putting us all on.” Very sage advice.

5. Don’t allow your own anxiety to crowd out the love.

At the risk of turning people off with too much hippy-dippy talk, I have to include this. Sometimes I get irritated with my grown kids’ decisions and I SOOO wish they would simply do it my way. I have to admit, not only do I think I’m right, but I also know that it will remove my anxiety if they will make the decision I want. Truth is, that’s not THEIR job, it’s mine. Anxiety can be felt by other people and it really pushes them away. As parents, when we show our anxiety at their decision-making, it’s undermining their confidence and conveys that we don’t have faith in them. It’s the start of the communication line shutting down. That’s not what either of you need or want at all. Instead, when you’re really wishing they would “do it my way!” take a deep breath. Or two. Or three. And look at them. Think about how much you love them. If it’s their friend/spouse/partner, think about how much your child loves them. Think about how far they’ve come and all the wonderful things that will happen to them in the future. Remember something cute and sweet from their childhood – because that little boy or girl is still in there. And he or she really does care what you think about them.

6. This is your new Mantra: “Not my path.”

You will want to repeat this over and over to get it to sink in. You had your opportunities for mistakes and successes in your young adulthood – now it’s time for theirs! And, if you’re like me, you may have even put off some of the more difficult activities that you’d like to do for yourself – because you were focused on parenting. Now is the best time of all to dive into that hobby you neglected, or that interest you were a little nervous about pursuing. Time to focus on your own path!  You’ve got a lot to do!

What Really Matters


I don’t mind the term at all anymore. I used to avoid it, because I wasn’t completely sure we’d stick with such a different way of approaching learning.  Maybe I wanted to give myself room to back out, if we needed to. When my kids were younger and we were “in the thick of it,” I didn’t really care about whether we were considered unschoolers or not.  We were part of pretty eclectic group of homeschoolers and people referred to us as one of The Unschoolers.   At the time, only one or two books about unschooling existed and, of course, we read them. But they didn’t govern our lives.


Back then, the label didn’t have all the cool groovy connotations it has now.  Actually, people wrote about how unschoolers were going to be the unraveling of the homeschooling movement.  Terms like “educational neglect,” were tossed around. While we noticed their comments, we didn’t really react much. We just lived. We wrote about how much fun our families were having learning together.  We dove in, connected with our kids and got creative.  The kids continued to grow and blossom naturally.  And, yes, they learned – every single day.

Today, unschooling seems a little different. People want to BE unschoolers before they even understand it. They’ve read about it.  Unschooling sounds intriguing, so they latch onto it.  They want to leave the school system and quickly find a place to fit in.  We’ve been conditioned to need a group or a tribe to function.  But when people care more about the label of unschooling than actually unschooling their children, a problem exists. The cart is before the horse.  The bowl is hotter than the soup.

And lots of people want to take advantage of those fears. People declare themselves unschooling gurus and want to show you how to “do it right.”  Many of these gurus don’t even have grown children yet. They’re not even done! How could they possibly advise someone else?  All too many people are eager to sit and listen/read along.  People desperately want instructions!

The only real instructions are this:

1. Get to know your child. What makes them tick? What inspires them? Do those things.

2. Explore with them. Discover new places. Read maps. Go places.

3. Create a home environment full of interesting art and music and games and food. Let the home be the place where everyone feels nurtured.

4. Remember that your children are not extensions of you. They have a their own path and their own choices to make. Your job is just to clear away some of the undergrowth that’s trying to get in their way. Stay tuned into what THEY want to do or to be. Help them with that.

5. And know that your relationship with them is all that matters. Learning a particular thing at a particular age, but sacrificing your relationship with them? Please don’t. Realize that it’s years of programming happening in YOUR head saying things have to be a certain way. That’s not true at all.

I would caution anyone new to unschooling to worry less about if you’re unschooling the right way and pay more attention to your own kids. Notice if you have a tendency to stay on the computer to read “just a little bit more,” and if all these fabulous tools are a distraction or a way to procrastinate from plunging in.  Sometimes when we’re so focused on getting it right (which is translated into we’re afraid we’re screwing up royally!) we don’t get around to starting.  Or we don’t dive in and give it all we can. Of course, there are all kinds of psychological reasons for this, and everyone will have to identify their own obstacles.

My dad used to say,”Too much analysis leads to paralysis.”

It can. And as someone who OFTEN chooses to procrastinate, it’s a great tool for continuing to intellectualize all the nuances instead of simply starting.

So with school just beginning for many American kids, dive in with your own.  Create some new “Back to School” traditions. Remember that those blogs, email lists, websites and catalogs are just tools for YOU to use. Not vice versa. Don’t let any of it distract you from the fact that your kids are standing right there in front of you.  And you have this glorious adventure awaiting you WITH them!  Seize the day!

Your kids.  Their learning.  Your relationship with them.
Those are the only things that matter.


If I Knew Then What I Know Now…

“I’m Not Your Friend, I’m Your Mother!”


Sue and Michael PattersonWhen people are uncomfortable, they tend to rely on axioms and phrases that may or may not have any validity at all. Raising teenagers can sometimes put parents in this position. But if we really look at the advice people have shared through generations, we might discover that much of it isn’t even applicable. For instance, we’ve all heard, “I’m not your friend! I’m your mother!” But what does that really mean? Is it impossible to be both? Do we really want both?

Instead of getting caught up in some globalized phrase about parents not being friends, let’s examine both to see if we could implement the characteristics or if there’s a conflict.

Friends trust each other, share information about what they’re doing, who they’re with, what they’re trying – why would a parent not want that? If you have your child’s trust, you will be in so much better position to guide or offer advice from your experience. As parents, you will be able to react to situations with less anxiety, if you have spent time developing that relationship. Building trust takes time, and how we parented them when they were younger will have a direct effect on the relationship we have with them as teenagers.

Katie & Me at Venice Beach

When parents find themselves pulling The Mom Card, often what they are saying is that they want blind obedience. They want their teen to value what they have to say, and follow their instructions. But remember when they were three and they were making their bed on their own (or fixing a sandwich later, or building a fort), we recognized the importance of not jumping in “fix” what they had done. We realized that that was how they learned, their confidence would grow, and they would get better with time. The same applies with teens. Getting more confidant with their ability to make decisions in their world, comes from getting to make those decisions.

Operating from an authoritarian position creates obstacles in the relationship. When teens know they can bring their problems and concerns to you and not fear your judgement or punishment for choosing something different, they will be more likely to listen to what you have to say. And, as parents, you’ll get another glimpse into their world and how they’re handling it.

Alyssa & me in Austin

We can’t expect our teens to tell us everything. That’s part of their development. Nor can we, as parents, share our own problems with them – that’s something we need to do with our own peers and friends. So, while I wouldn’t call it a two-way street, I would suggest that becoming friends with your teenager is a good thing.

And, think about how you define being their mom. What characteristics are important to you? And maybe it’s time to share that with your teens. Is it something they see or want from you? Opening up this communication will be so helpful for both parents and teens to understand each other.

Take a look at some of those parental tips that get passed down through the generations and see if they really apply. Don’t buy into them, just because it’s an easy phrase to use to basically dismiss looking at a situation more closely. There is no need for either/or, us against them, friend vs. mom.

Boys and Writing


frustrationWhy are those two words never paired together? I’ve been reading about families who try to create environments that might coax their sons to write more. So I think it’s time to share how we dealt with writing, when my son was growing up.

I never really paid a lot of attention to Michael’s penmanship or his writing skills when he was in school. Maybe because he was only there for Kindergarten and First Grade!

I hadn’t read a lot about homeschooling before we started, but we dove in after Michael completed first grade. I didn’t know about unschooling yet, so we purchased what was called, “School in a Box” by Calvert from Baltimore, Maryland. Purchasing this prepackaged curriculum made me feel like I could tackle this homeschooling thing. I’d just spice it up and make it fun!


Instead of evaluating all of Calvert’s materials, I really want to talk about the writing component. It was all about handwriting. One day a week, or maybe it was every other week, they’d focus on creative writing. But handwriting – that was daily! I didn’t really understand why Michael writhed so when I asked him to pick up that Number 2 pencil. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to artistically shape the letters the way they had them in the book. I had been awarded the oh-so-prestigious Handwriting Award in the 5th grade – clearly we were not on similar paths. So I wrote to the teacher (yes, my confidence was so low that I felt we should have an expert guiding us for that first year!) I asked her if he could write his own stories and we’d turn in those paragraphs.

Quick answer: Nope! Certain letter formations were being addressed, and, why wasn’t he happy writing about the little red car all week long? We may have continued with it for a 1-2 weeks – bribing, begging, scolding, demanding.

I was not happy with the way either of us were acting. So I declared a truce.

I decided right then and there that I was going to be on Michael’s side. I knew that if we continued on this path, we would simply be duplicating the schoolish ways I was trying to help my son avoid!  If we kept it up, I could make him absolutely HATE writing. As a writer myself, this was simply unacceptable!  I told him we weren’t going to do the writing part anymore. He was relieved.  We would go ahead and turn in whatever he wanted to write about, and we’d take whatever grade she wanted to give. No biggie.

But it was a biggie. On multiple levels. The teacher was unhappy that we weren’t complying. Michael was unhappy because he still had to write. It was never about the little red car at all. He simply wasn’t developmentally ready to do the physical work of writing. He gripped tightly, when he should loosen. His fingers worked down toward the lead. His frustration with all of it increased. He started to cry.

Usually, I would get mad that he wasn’t cooperating. I had two younger kids that were quite a handful, and he was my oldest. In retrospect, I’m saddened to think of the pressure I put on him to “be a big boy,” when he was still a very little boy.  I know I was just trying to manage, but sometimes our parenting techniques aren’t that great when we’re in the thick of it. But on this day, something changed. I looked out the window of his room. The snow was falling and collecting on the tree branches. Our Alaskan home felt very far from Calvert in Baltimore.

pencil snapped

It was at that moment, I felt the shackles of school fall away.

We weren’t going to turn in writing, hoping to squeak by with her approval and a passing grade. We weren’t going to turn in any writing at all!   Michael looked at me and grinned. I picked up the pencil and snapped it in two. Done!

Instead, we picked up a book and started reading together. He reminded me of the “book reports” he did in school. The teacher mimeographed (it was the 90’s!) a piece of paper. They had to write in the title, the author, check boxes about liking or disliking it. Maybe they had to write one sentence. It was, after all, first grade.  He was playing with his Fimo clay while we were talking and reading. He asked if he could make something representational out of clay for every book he read. And that’s what he did. We had a bunch of classics that had been adult literacy books on sale at the bookstore. He loved that he could read those books – and every other page had a picture! He made a bowl of porridge for Oliver Twist, a spear for Moby Dick, a small boat for Kidnapped  – all out of clay. He set them on his shelf and could easily see how many books he was reading.

Creative Writing

Then we decided to try something new. Michael was full of imaginary stories he wanted to create!  But the mechanics of handwriting made it impossible to get any of it down on paper. So we decided to do dictation. I chose an italicized font that looked most like handwriting from the computer, in hopes that that would help him be able read the cursive writing in letters from Grandma and others. Then we began creating stories. He would start telling me about the main character and I’d begin typing. When he started to slow, I’d ask him to describe the character – what was he wearing, how did he feel, what made him do that?  I told him that sometimes when we write, we have to really describe the characters and the environment, so the reader can feel like they’re there. And that’s what he did. I tried hard to let him just enjoy the flow of creating the story, with very little interference from me. In retrospect, I think I would have interjected even less.  We did this for a while, and still have some of those early stories.

Later On…

Life got busy, with three kids, and volunteer work.  After a while, Michael preferred to play video games or hang out with friends instead of our dictation time. Truthfully, I probably wasn’t making time for it much anymore. He was off having fun.

Years passed. Michael continued to read, but I never asked him to write. Occasionally, I’d plunge my hands into dish water and ask him to start a grocery list for me.  He wrote thank you notes to Grandma for Christmas and birthday gifts. At first, we used a program called Start Write. I could write out what he dictated, and then print it with dotted lines that he could trace. If you use a felt tipped marker or a sharpie, no one would even know he had traced the letters!  It looked just like a perfect little thank-you note!  As Michael got older, his writing improved. He could clearly form the letters and didn’t have nearly the frustrating time with writing any more.  His letters didn’t look that great, but in looking at the other boys in his scout troop or in 4H, he wasn’t the only one with so-so handwriting. He could type quickly on the computer, and it became clear that his generation might never have great handwriting.  I was well aware that handwriting is just a tool to communicate. And if he could communicate his thoughts through typing, then the goal was achieved.

Time passed for me too. I read more about unschooling, and the pitfalls of coerced learning. It all resonated with me.  We went on about our lives and writing simply didn’t make the cut for how we wanted to spend our time.

I will share with you that when my friends who had girls that were creatively journaling, I was jealous. Why didn’t my kids want to do that? I’d buy notebooks and pens, but projects out in the community would win out for Michael. He simply wasn’t interested in sitting down to journal.  And, of course, comparison is never a good thing. One kid excels in one area while another is busy learning a different skill. It’s school that brainwashes us to try to compete for that top spot. Learning, has very little to do with any of that.

Going to College

At about age 17, Michael decided he wanted to go to community college.  The entrance exam was divided into reading, math and writing. We knew he’d be fine with the Reading. He did some extra work on the computer to prepare for the Math. And, to be honest, I don’t remember doing much prep work for the Writing component, other than a little grammar labeling and whatever the college gave us as the practice test. He was still pretty resistant to writing.

The time came and he went in to take the exam.  He did fine with the grammar aspect, but the essay was all about Texas’ law, “No Pass, No Play.” Strangely, all of the community college topics for the essays pertain to a particular school “issue.”  He was familiar with what “No Pass, No Play” meant, because we had a habit of discussing the local news or we’d talk about the latest Time or Newsweek magazines. The essay was to be a persuasive paper, and he could choose whichever side he wanted.

I hadn’t really prepared him for that. So he simply started writing about the topic. He wrote about seeing both sides to the argument. But in the end, he ranted somewhat about “what if the only thing that kid is good at is football – how can you take that from him?” and “why do schools want to make everyone the same?” You get the idea.

While it might have been an interesting paper to an unschooler who wouldn’t mind a little rambling, it didn’t please the community college administration, and he failed.

This time, he was more inclined to listen to my input about how to write a persuasive paper that would pass.  I showed him the 5 part paragraph – Intro, 3 supporting paragraphs, and Closing. Minimum of three sentences to a paragraph.This was what they were looking for. Stick with one side, and present that in your three arguments. And, throwing in a fancy adverb or two like “incidentally” or “additionally” would increase his points when they were grading.

We did a practice run-through on what they suggested at their website and off he went the following week. His topic was School Uniforms – Pro or Con?  He followed the formula and passed the test. Not flying colors, but good enough to be able to take any of the classes he wanted there.

Michael's Graduation

Fast forward a bit more, and Michael transferred from the community college to a four year university. He decided that he wanted to continue to travel and needed a job that could help pay for him to go off and see the world. That’s when he thought about becoming a travel journalist.  He still loved storytelling and especially loved interviewing people. He landed a job at the University Star, the campus newspaper, and enjoyed writing up articles about local events or personalities in his college town.

At 21, Michael graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Journalism, and a minor in Archaeology/Anthropology. He primarily types his stories these days. And you can read more from him in his blog In the Nica Time.

In Retrospect

I feel really good about not pushing Michael with handwriting. I wish I had carved out more down time, so we could have done more dictating. We both loved that. And, today, with blogging, how cool would it have been to start a blog of the stories they create? Their imaginations are so fabulous!

We ended up developing his fine motor skills completely separate from holding a pencil.  He was busy forming clay figures, building Playmobile structures and playing with Legos. These activities fueled his imaginative stories, and he’d play with them for hours on end.

I’m so glad we didn’t stick with the handwriting exercises. All that would have done is create an adversarial relationship between us as well as additional obstacles to the idea of any writing whatsoever.

For those of you still concerned, I can only advise you to relax. Writing will work itself out – just like other educational pursuits do. If your child is already stressed about it, do what you can to eliminate that downward spiral. Shift gears. Continue with helping them find fun ways to build their fine muscle strength, or try our story writing technique! Give them time to develop a little more and then present some other opportunity down the road.

One Little Word: WITH

One Little Word: WITH

Lots of people come to unschooling wondering what it’s all about. While some shake their head and fall back in line with more familiar ways of thinking, others are compelled to learn more about it. They read books, join email lists, engage with people at local parkdays. Unschoolers share how they’ve come to embrace the concept or how they overcame those schoolish thoughts and ways that seem to be so ingrained in our patterns of life.

New unschoolers seem to be mesmerized by examples of daily life in an unschooling home. We share what happens in a day, demonstrating flexibility and humor.  We explain that one day can be so incredibly different from another – still they want to hear more. Some veteran unschoolers go to great lengths to answer questions, guide newcomers, dispel fears.

But in spite of all these detailed discussions, advice, and guidance, I’ve come to realize the importance of one small word in the success of unschooling families.

What is the word?


A simple preposition that makes all the difference. Think of how important that word is, when you visualize these scenarios.

Camping Together

Camping Together

Playing WITH your children.

….board games
….card games
… games
….make believe
…in the treehouse
….on the tire swing
….in the fort in the living room
…. in the pail of bubbles

Working WITH your children

Playing at the Beach

Playing at the Beach

….on how to assemble a kite
….or ride a horse or a bike or a jet ski
….about how to change a flat tire
….on how to use mod podge, or make stepping stones
….on how to build a power point, or connect the modem
….or how to unstop a toilet or run the washer

Talking WITH your children
….about getting a new pet
….about which movie to go see
.about how friends treat each other
….about advertising you both see/hear on TV or billboards or radio
….about what kind of job he might like
….about why grandma has to repeat things so often

Hiking at Yellowstone

Hiking at Yellowstone

Interacting WITH your children
….about how they feel when kids are mean
….about how to stand up for what’s right
….about how to really listen and fight the urge to interrupt
….about what can be done about the homeless man on the corner
….about what you can do when you feel bored
….about what’s considered rude or inconsiderate or kind or helpful
….about grocery shopping, or laundering, or cooking

I’m sure you can come up with a bazillion more examples of things you do WITH your child. I just want you to realize that no matter what it is – the WITH aspect is the most important part!

Remember 20 years ago, the debate was “Quality” time vs. “Quantity” time? It had a lot to do with women choosing careers – but it’s really not that black and white.

You can have “quality time,” and just not enough of it.
And you can have “quantity time,” but not be engaged or really present with your children.
It’s never simple, is it? You have to walk into it all consciously – checking and rechecking to be sure you’re parenting in the way that you want. You have to put down the phone or the internet, and really focus on your child standing in front of you, playing beside you. Connect with them.

Modeling behavior, having heartfelt discussions, getting the opportunity to share life experiences can only happen when you’re WITH them. It seems obvious, but sometimes when you’re tired or the kitchen is a mess, parents can get impatient and prefer the kids to go do something in the other room. That’s when I want you to remember the little word: WITH.  Time will fly, and your relationship with your child as an adult as well as so many aspects of their own personality, will be directly related to how much WITH Time you gave them.

So if you have to, paste a little piece of scrap paper like the one above with the word “With” on your bathroom mirror…or your put it up on your fridge with a magnet… paint it, cross-stitch it, print it – whatever you have to do to keep it in the front of your mind!

All of us together before
Michael left for the Peace Corps,
Katie left for NYC,
and Alyssa got engaged


The Patterson Interview

The Patterson Interview

Debbie Harbeson, from Indiana, runs a blog that interviews homeschooling families: Homeschooling: Freedom and Fun For Your Family Catch a glimpse inside the lives of families living in educational freedom! This blog is a showcase of short, fun interviews of homeschooling families of all types from all over the United States and the world. These festive, frisky, friendly and frolicsome interviews focus on freedom, flexibility and fun for families, for I feel this is what makes homeschooling flourish. That, and I just like f-words. So I thumbed a few recent interviews, just to see who she’d already interviewed. Unbeknownst to me, Debbie’s been interviewing people for years! Her blog shows that she’s interviewed 98 people, but I think there are more than that. I was scrolling back through and I’m so excited! I’ll be reading about these for some time now! Some of the interviewees are people I know, and some are just people I WANT to know! I feel like I’m in a nice little circle of folks. Grab a cup of tea and peruse Debbie’s interviews. I’ll be over there finding out things I didn’t know about people I do know, and people I don’t…. yet! And if you want to know more about MY family…here’s a copy of Debbie’s interview.


No Boring Lecture-Style Learning: Sue Patterson’s Interview

Today’s interview from Sue is great in so many ways. For one thing, her family homeschooled in Texas, California and Alaska and as you read her answers you can see that, no matter where you are, you’ll likely find other homeschoolers to share good times. Another bonus from Sue is a little update she gave on what her kids are up to currently. I have added that at the end. Sue lives in Texas now and she has a blog A Life Full of Days where she writes about her current life as well as sharing “what we did, how we did it, what we learned, where we’re headed.” She has also been a board member for the National Home Education Network for over 11 years. I encourage you to check out their site, loads of good information! But before you do, you really must hear about this family who didn’t need boring lectures because they were too busy having fun learning in other ways – like mummifying Barbies…

1. How long have you been homeschooling?

We officially started homeschooling in 1996. Alyssa was 2, Katie 5, and Michael 7. We weren’t one of those families who always knew they’d homeschool. I was a typical stay-at-home mom from the suburbs. But after Michael went to to Kindergarten and 1st grade, we noticed such a marked change in attitude. Our happy-go-lucky kid simply wasn’t that anymore. Plus, he said things like, “You don’t know, Mom. My teacher says to bring our questions to her, not our parents.” Great. The building of the wedge starts early! Like I wouldn’t know the answer to a question by a 1st grader? Sheesh. The whole 2 years Michael was there, they kept pushing for me to take him to a doctor and be diagnosed with ADD. He was just rambunctious and didn’t get enough physical activity there! It happened that the military relocated us from San Antonio to Alaska. So I packed up Michael’s school records and simply didn’t reenroll him in school at our new home. We did send Katie to school that year, because I was so under-confident. She went to 1/2 day kindergarten, while we dangled our toes in the homeschooling waters. But that was it for her. Alyssa went to preschool 3 days a week, because she wanted to ride in the neighborhood carpool. Then years later, she wanted to be on a drill team that danced at football half time shows. So she went to high school for a year and a half and did that. She was glad for the experience but quickly learned she didn’t want to stay there. She really felt it was a waste of time and kept her from “getting on with her real life!” asked how long we homeschooled – since 1996.

2. One of the main benefits of homeschooling is the freedom and flexibility it allows.

Can you give us a few examples of how this freedom and flexibility benefited you (your family)?

Well, homeschooling certainly gave us schedule flexibility over the years. We only had to work around my husband’s work schedule if we wanted to plan road trips or vacations. And, as others have said, being able to plan these trips during the school year meant cheaper off-season rates and way shorter lines! We bought science and museum memberships and were able to go when there were no crowds, because most of them were in school at the time. We also enjoyed flexibility in our day to day activities. Katie was able to participate in community theatre projects without having to worry about staying up late on school nights. She’d simply sleep in the next day. I felt badly for her fellow actors who were cramming math homework in between scenes at 11 p.m.! Flexibility meant that Alyssa could spend hours wandering through horse stables with her dad and then later in California, hanging out there doing whatever ranch chores needed to be done. This ultimately led to riding lessons, owning a horse and taking care of it full time. Later, because of Alyssa’s flexible schedule, she was able to take on a make-up internship with a natural make-up company in Austin. She was available to work back stage at fashion shows and learn all about the industry that she loves. Michael’s flexible hours enabled him to work so he could save up enough money to go to Japan as an exchange student. For me, freedom and flexibility are the most important advantages about homeschooling. Freedom meant we were able to decide the best for our children without others (with their own agendas) making those decisions for us. The kids were free to learn about their own interests and strengthen their passions. Our lives were flexible enough that when we stumbled upon some gem we wanted to explore further, we were free to do just that. When park days lasted into the evening – we didn’t have to rush off and get some scheduled learning completed. Life in general kept bringing learning opportunities. And our flexible schedule allows us to take advantage of all of it!

3. Another benefit of homeschooling is the fun factor.
Can you give us a few examples of some especially fun times you had as a result of homeschooling?

We went to some great homeschool conferences (HSC’s Home+Education, Live and Learn, Rethinking Education) where the kids could meet kids from all over the state or the country. They were able to hang out usually for at least a whole weekend with each other. Many stayed in touch afterwards. In Alaska, we banded together with other families to create regular park days, nature center excursions, museum field trips. We had days of sledding on hills that would have normally been packed – but the other kids were in school. We went berry-picking and whale-watching; we even spent the night in a penguin room at a museum in Seward. We had friends over throughout the week for hours on end. Moms created book clubs, shared ideas, or just chatted while kids played together. In California, we joined groups that already existed. They had weekly park days at huge playscapes, and then we’d move to friends houses for potluck dinners. We had themed “Make & Takes” – families brought supplies for a small craft or food assembly and then the kids went from table to table making stuff and having fun. My husband Ron volunteered to take Katie & Michael along with 20 other kids and chaperones on the Gaslight, a 108-foot square rigger, in the San Francisco Bay. They spent the day sailing around Sausalito and Alcatraz. He also helped with an overnight Civil War reenactment at Angel Island that the kids were invited to attend.We had various “co-op” style learning activities with 20+ families usually. Some kids participated, others played along at the periphery. Each time we got together for these activities, they were completely engaging and fun. We didn’t do boring lecture-style learning! We mummified Barbies, staged a Civil War battle, hired people to teach Improv, created musicals in our backyards…just to name a few! In Texas, we did a lot with 4H. We helped grow a small homeschool 4H club. By being homeschoolers, we were able to work on most of the projects during the day – we did community service projects, theatre productions, nutrition quiz bowl, speech and vocal competitions – not what you’d think of initially when a person mentions 4H. But they had all kinds of things we could tap into if we were interested.

4. We all have funny experiences while homeschooling. Can you share one of yours with us?

One quirky thing that we do is quote movie lines. We’ve done it for years – usually throughout the entire dinnertime, but sometimes just when someone simply passes by. One person shares a somewhat obscure movie line and the others have to guess which movie it comes from. But here’s one funny story for each kid… When Alyssa was about 5, she had joined a soccer team. One night, we were reading The Indian in the Cupboard, and the kids were all piled on my bed. Alyssa had fallen asleep wedged between Michael and Katie. We came to an exciting part in the story that read, “He knocked some more!” With that, Alyssa sat straight up , threw her arms in the air and shouted, “She shoots, she SCORES!” Never opening her eyes, she smiled and nestled back down into the covers. We laughed hysterically – and repeated, “He knocked some more – she shoots, she scores!” for years. When the kids were in Alaska, they were part of a performing group called The Sunshine Generation. They sang and danced in parades, at shopping malls, in performance halls, and nursing homes. Katie, especially, loved the stage! At her first big performance, maybe there were a couple hundred people in the audience. She was up on stage getting into position. She was about 6. She scanned the audience looking for us and finally found her dad. It was as if she were playing her own private game of charades: she put her hands up to her face and motioned as if taking a snapshot with a camera, and then pointed to herself. She continued to repeat this over and over – as if we were going to forget to take her picture! Ron just grinned and lifted the camera up so she could see he had it and was ready. She planted her bejeweled tap shoes firmly on the stage and gave him a double thumbs up. The crowd chuckled and a few of the audience members close to us whispered, “Good job, Dad!” Michael played on a volleyball team in Texas. During one game, he missed the ball and the crowd fell silent. He turned to look up at his dad and me and shouted, “I lost it in the sun!” The crowd laughed, because we were playing INDOORS!. But Ron leaned over to me and whispered, you know he just gave us a movie line, right? We have so much fun with our kids – and still do! Life’s always an adventure!
Here’s a bit about what Sue’s kids are up to now:
Michael loved doing community service and learning about other cultures…now he’s in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua.
Katie loved acting and did tons of it. She ended up getting an agent, did some commercials and a movie, and is now studying in NYC at the New York Film Academy. And
Alyssa who loved fashion and make-up is now going to a Vidal Sassoon Cosmetology School and will have her license to do hair and make-up at 18. Just some of the things that happen when kids are allowed to follow their interests.