Thursday, September 24, 2015

You Don't Have To by Laurie Wolfrum

You Don’t Have To by Laurie Wolfrum
Are you coaxing your child to sit and do math or write an essay? 
Is it affecting your relationship? There are alternatives! We’ll talk about how to help your child pursue their passions, how learning happens, and the role of a parent in an unschooling home.

1.  Reviews

This is the time of year I’ve finished doing reviews for homeschooling families. Many of the parents I’ve talked to are pleased or satisfied with how homeschooling is going, but others feel it’s a struggle. 

It doesn’t have to be.

Homeschooling parents don’t need to coax their children to do lessons “for their own good.”

2.  Curriculum

-         You don’t need to try to make your kid understand what a curriculum states is important for them to know at a specific grade.

-         You don’t need to follow a curriculum.

Instead of hindering our children’s learning process by directing them to study what others think they should know by a certain age or grade, we can help them to find resources and do the things that they are interested in and trust that they will take from them what they need or want at that time.

We can also trust that they will make learning connections and that this process will continue throughout their life. (Refer to Sandra Dodd’s Just Add Light and Stir post in resources.)  Just as it does for us! In addition, we can be available for answering questions or suggesting ideas that they are free to take or not.

Allowing and supporting your children in learning this way can take a huge leap in trust, especially if we went to school and even more so for those that studied education.

People can feel fearful when they do things differently than the mainstream. Homeschooling is already outside the mainstream, and unschooling is a minority within a minority. Feeling fearful can be very uncomfortable.
What do people naturally do when they feel fear? They try to quell it or find ways to cope with it.

One of the ways parents may feel more comfortable with homeschooling is by choosing to use a curriculum. It may help alleviate their worries, may give them peace of mind knowing experts have devised the curriculum, and they may trust that by following it, all the important bases will be covered.   

Whether our children attend a public or private school or are homeschooled, we are still responsible for our children’s education.
When people enroll their kids in a school, they feel like their child’s education will be taken care of by the teachers and they can let go of some of their worry. 

Perhaps some of the reasons people decide to follow curriculum are that:

-         It helps them feel like someone else is sharing the responsibility of their child’s education

-         It is simple in the sense that there is specific information to study and the plans are already laid out.

-         Someone else already did the thinking about what to learn and when.

-         If the parent gets their kid to do the lessons, they believe that their child will know all the skills they need to know.

-         There won’t be gaps.

Sometimes parents feel comfortable with the way their children are learning, except for certain areas.

People may say they are unschooling except for math. Their reasons for doing so are along the same vein as those who use a curriculum.

Using a workbook, following a curriculum or doing structured math lessons may help them feel like they are covering what they should be covering, there won’t be gaps in their child’s knowledge, their child will have a good knowledge base and be able to sequentially build upon it, and their child will have a good understanding of the math skills they need to know to be successful and competent.
(Pam Sorooshian math audio)

Do the people who write the curriculum know your particular child? No!
The curriculum designers don’t know anything about your particular child or life. Like school, curriculum is designed to mold and shape and control the masses.

Following curriculum places the parent in the role as teacher.
The parent feels pressure to follow the syllabus and get kids to do the lessons and tests.
The child may feel pressure to prove they can do the work and get good grades.

In doing so, instead of a child seeing himself as capable of learning what he needs to when he needs to, he may become dependent on others to know what he should know. His self-confidence is affected. He may not trust himself because he isn’t being trusted.

Other children may feel resentful at being required to study and get tested on information that doesn’t seem relevant. Not only may they get turned off to learning and feel all those other things that affect their self-confidence, but the parent-child relationship may become adversarial.

Rather than spending a lot of money and time trying to get your child to follow a curriculum or use a curriculum so that you can say you did math or spelling, consider using your time and money to follow and support your child’s interests.

If you are feeling unsure about trusting your child’s learning process, invest time to find out more about unschooling and how people learn. Pam Laricchia’s book Free To Learn is an excellent resource as is John Holt’s How Children Learn.

John Holt, in a 1980 interview with Mothering Magazine said, “The human animal is a learning animal. We like to learn. We need to learn. We are good at it. We don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”

3.  Learning and connections

There is a saying that “You learn from the company you keep” And we humans do!

We have been learning from those we identify with for thousands of years.
Frank Smith’s book Learning and Forgetting explains how less experienced members learn the skills and knowledge required from more experienced members of a social group or "club."
For example –

Early craftsmen learned their trade through apprenticeship. 

Elder tribesmen pass on their knowledge to the younger members of a tribe.

Music instruction involves working with a more experienced or master musician.

Under these circumstances, learning is effortless and the learner retains the information.

Learning happens easier when the learner is interested and the reasons for wanting to know and understand are meaningful to the learner.

There is a quote that I’d like to share with you by Katrina Gutleben. She wrote, “Learning can only happen when a child is INTERESTED. It he's not interested it's like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it EATING.

Real learning occurs when something is understood and remembered, not when it is memorized and regurgitated back for a test.

Children have an innate motivation to learn what they need to and what they are interested in. Actually, people of all ages do!

Think about yourself as a parent. Before you had kids, would you have thought deeply about homeschooling or how your child would best be educated? Before you were pregnant with your first child, did you know the many birth and child care choices you would be making? We become knowledgeable when we have a need or desire to know.

People want to do many of the things others do in our culture and society and they are wired to learn. When we are motivated by something meaningful to us, we find out what we wish to know and we learn all along the way, including from our mistakes. We make connections with information we already know and this process continues throughout life. There is no information that is irrelevant or unworthy. Everything we learn has the potential to connect to something we’ve learned previously.

4. The Role of An Unschooling Parent

Unschoolers value their family’s hobbies and interests and take each other’s needs and wants seriously.

When someone in your family wants to try something, help them find a way to do it. That doesn’t mean without any thought. Be thoughtful. If you have concerns, bring them up. If it won’t work because of a conflict, see if you could brainstorm alternative ways that it might.

In my opinion, the most important role a parent can play in a child’s life is that of trusted partner, facilitator and friend. That doesn’t mean never saying no or cow-tailing to any family member. It does mean that to be trusted by your child, you must be trustworthy and that you must trust your kids, including their learning process.

How can we can trust our kids to learn? By noticing how naturally they already have and by paying attention to what they are currently learning. 
- Notice the things that they learned to do naturally - like walking and talking.
- Notice that they want to do the things that enable them to belong and fit in with a group that they identify with.
- Notice the skills that they’ve picked up because of their interests.

Communication is something people naturally want to be able to do with one another. Reading is one of the ways that people communicate. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why a person may want to read.

We are surrounded by literature. It’s on lables, signs, in books and in games.
At some point, when it is meaningful to them, kids have a desire to want to know what is written. It’s important that they want to know, not that someone else wants them to know.

Some reasons a growing person might like to read are:
-  to recognize his name (which might lead to wanting to spell and write it)
- to read a book, card, email or note by himself
-  to understand game or other instructions
- to be able to skype chat or read game chat
- to be able to read texts

Before kids know how to read, they may start to recognize popular signs like McDonalds. They may ask you to tell them what something says.
Even after they can read, they may ask you how to spell or pronounce certain words or want to understand how to use them in a sentence.

Conversations and explanations about words are a part of our regular life. Li, for example, is 14 and has an interest in understanding new words almost every day. He often asks me for the meaning of a word and how it might be used in a sentence. I define it and tell him synonyms for the word. Sometimes I provide an example of using it in a sentence. Li wants to be sure he understands and will typically say, “So could you say….” and use the word in a sentence that he constructs.

Playing with words is fun and creative to me.Years ago I heard about sentences with puns in them called Tom Swifties.  A few weeks ago, I got excited when I noticed there was a chapter about them in a book called Puns and Games. While we were riding home on a long trip, I shared some of them with Jim and the kids. Here are some examples from the book:

“I want to be a doctor,” said Tom patiently.

“I’ve struck oil,” said Tom crudely.

“I love pancakes,” said Tom flippantly

“My glasses are fogged up,” said Tom optimistically.

“Fire!” said Tom alarmingly.

We then tried making some of our own up. Ie. “I go to church every Sunday,” Tom said religiously.

On our way back from Portland’s First Friday Art Walk on September 4th, we put on an audio story called Rain Reign which was one of the titles on the Maine Student Book Award list. The story is about a girl who is very excited about prime numbers and homonyms and wants to be sure she and others follow all kinds of rules correctly. Since there are so many examples of homonyms throughout the book and because they meant so much to the main character, I think it is something that has made a big impression on those of us who listened to the story. Makana, part way through one of the chapters, asked me to pause (paws) the story so she could share some homonyms she thought of on her own. 

Other kinds of learning experiences happened naturally over the past year. 

Last fall, my daughter Makana had an interest in graphic art. For Christmas, we bought her a Wacom tablet and she purchased a program with her own money that one of her friend’s used called Paint Tool Sai. She made lots of pictures. Some of her favorites are these. (Refer to Makana’s digital art on resource sheet). 

Makana read some Smart About Art and other books that we had on our bookshelf. Because she liked them, I found other books online that I thought she might enjoy, requested them from the library and showed them to her. Many she did like to read. The rest we returned. I paid attention to the books that captured her interest so that I had a better understanding of the kind of style that she enjoyed.

We read many of the art books together. We especially loved the Talking With Artists by Pat Cummings and Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg.

Here’s a little blurb about Beautiful Oops!:
It’s OK to make a mistake. In fact, hooray for mistakes! A mistake is an adventure in creativity, a portal of discovery. A spill doesn’t ruin a drawing—not when it becomes the shape of a goofy animal. And an accidental tear in your paper? Don’t be upset about it when you can turn it into the roaring mouth of an alligator. (snip) 
Beautiful Oops! shows young readers how every mistake is an opportunity to make something beautiful. A singular work of imagination, creativity, and paper engineering, Beautiful Oops! is filled with pop-ups, lift-the-flaps, tears, holes, overlays, bends, smudges, and even an accordion “telescope”—each demonstrating the magical transformation from blunder to wonder.

Makana loved that book and after reading it, when she found a hole in her good quality drawing paper, rather than throw the paper out or feel frustrated, she included the hole as part of her drawing.
She did the same with some marks that she didn’t intend to make; she used them to create something else and was proud of it.
The idea of using unintentional holes and marks gave her a new way to think and be creative.

This past spring, Makana wanted to attend a homeschool trip to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. After visiting the Farnsworth, she talked about various paintings and mentioned one that she especially liked that she noticed on her way out. She said it was inspiring.

On the way home, she asked me to buy her some canvases so that she could paint on them. We found a pack of five large canvases at Job Lot and she was thrilled to include in her painting the apple tree she saw at the Farnsworth that had inspired her.

Over time, I’ve noticed that when Makana sees other artwork, she gets her own ideas from them. She’s also inspired by what she thinks is interesting or beautiful or by something she sees outside in nature. So that she has an image to refer to when she draws, she has photographed some of the things that have captivated her interest such as bugs, webs, and the shape of a tree trunk.
I get enjoyment when she notices paintings by famous artists and gets excited about seeing them. I love how she is excited to tell me that she noticed a Van Gogh or the Mona Lisa or an impressionist painting that she saw in a book while watching a video. (connections!)

During the winter, Makana asked me about art lessons. She thought she would like to try taking them. Art lessons? This was one of the things I breathed deeply about because long ago, a homeschooling friend who was very artistic suggested not rushing kids into art classes as she thought it could stifle their creativity.

Rather than listen to this fear, I thought about it. I knew that in the past, when I followed what my children wanted to do, good things happened. I have learned that things turn out best when I trust my children.
I considered what could happen if Makana tried art lessons and didn’t like them. She could stop.

My kids know that if they don’t feel comfortable about something, we talk about it. If they feel something isn’t a fit after all, they can find another way to get the information they desire. And they know we will support them if they realize they aren’t interested in what they thought they were.
It turned out that she enjoyed both private and group art lessons and she will be continuing to take them this year.

Makana often carries her large, pink canvas bag (a hand me down from her big sister) with her. Usually an art pad or two, many drawing pencils and an eraser are in her bag in case she sees something she’d like to sketch.
I don’t know how long she will have this interest. I do know that she has it right now and I will continue to go with her flow and offer ideas and resources that I think she will like.

4.   What is important now is exactly that…what is important to your child now.

Your homeschooled child has the privilege of learning in his own time and way.

-         He won’t necessarily know the exact same things as a public schooled child, a private schooled child, or another homeschooled child.

-         He won’t have a cookie cutter education.

-         He will have an individualized education tailored to meet his needs and interests.

Most importantly, the journey, the process, the living can be enjoyable and connective rather than coercive and distancing. It can affect your life and your relationship in positive ways.

The process to trust unschooling can be a long one. If or when you make a mistake along the way, remember Beautiful Oops! and how you can think of it as an adventure in learning.

If you have a moment where you are questioning the process or feel like you want to make your child sit and do a lesson, keep in mind what Meg Cabot wrote in The Princess Diaries, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the judgment that something else is more important.“

Let your child - and your relationship with your child - be more important than coaxing him to do lessons because of fear.

5.  Network, Ask

There is a facebook group called My Unschooler Is Interested In. People write what their child is interested in and others post related ideas. If you join the group, before you post, look up what people have written before to see if someone already posted the topic your child is interested in.

I thought we’d try something similar here. Here are some papers to list your name and one of your child’s interests and their age.

After doing so, please pass your papers around to others who can add some ideas to support the interest listed at the top.

If you think of some books, magazines, places to visit, websites, board/card/video games, toys, movies, documentaries, youtube channels, businesses, people who can be a resource, the name of someone who is into the same thing, or any other suggestion, please write it under the interest listed at the top.

We can leave the papers on one of the tables to give everyone a chance to share resources they might know of.

At the end of the day, please pick up your paper to take it home with you. You might be surprised to find some interesting resources and ideas.

Inspiring Resources

Just Add Light and Stir – If you’d like a short and encouraging daily note with a photo, subscribe to Sandra Dodd’s Just Add Light and Stir email series.
Remember that if your “unit study” is the universe, everything will tie in to everything else, so you don’t need to categorize or be methodical to increase your understanding of the world. Each bit is added wherever it sticks, and the more you’ve seen and wondered and discussed, the more places you have inside for new ideas to stick. A joyful attitude is your best tool. – Just Add Light and Stir 8/21/15

Pam Sorooshian – Free audio to do with Unschooling and Math. Pam is an economics professor from California and unschooled her three now grown daughters. 

Free To Learn by Pam Laricchia – Excellent book! I highly recommend reading it.

How Children Learn by John Holt

Subscribe to Pam Laricchia’s unschooling newsletter and email series:

Makana’s digital art using Paint Tool Sai and a Wacom graphic tablet

Beautiful Oops! By Barney Saltzberg

Talking With Artists by Pat Cummings

Some of my favorite recordings were from the 2011 Life is Good Conference. All the talks were great, but these three I especially loved.:
The Kids are Fine; You’re the Problem - Laura Flynn Endres
Too often, new unschoolers focus solely on what the kids are doing (or not doing) when really, kids are natural unschoolers.
When not micro-managed to death, kids have plenty of ideas about how they should spend every waking minute and are little learning sponges. So what’s the hang-up? Why all the worry?
Because we parents have a lot of baggage to work through, baggage acquired through our own schooling experiences and through living, most likely, in households where parents ruled and kids followed the paths laid out for them. So let’s call it like it is – the kids are fine, you’re the problem – and let’s examine the major obstacles parents must overcome in order to fully embrace the unschooling life. 55 minutes
The Dark Ages—Unschooling Tweens - Kelly Lovejoy
Tweens often seem to slink into the darkness, sleeping, eating, and grunting. Unschooling tweens maybe even more so. This cocooning stage is actually full of learning; and when they emerge on the other side, they are primed and ready for the next big stage. As unschooling parents, we can face this stage with patience, understanding, acceptance, and humor. A little faith in the process doesn’t hurt! 57 minutes
Unschooling: It’s a Mindset, Not a Skill Set - Kelly Lovejoy
Unschooling is not just how we approach education; it’s how we approach life. We aren’t arming our children with a simple set of skills, but a mindset that they are capable beings and can do whatever they desire. 35 minutes

You can purchase a CD of all the 2011 LIG conference presentations through the LIG Conference Store for $25.00

Name of Parent: ______________________________________________
Child’s Age and Interest: _______________________________________
List below any resources that may support the above interest.
Ie. books, magazines, places to visit, websites, board/card/video games, toys, movies, documentaries, youtube channels, businesses, people who can be a resource, the name of someone who is into the same thing, or any other suggestion.



Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Growth and Connection Through Technology - Sarah Thompson


I felt angry when I saw this commercial. The judgmental and manipulative nature of the whole thing really got to me. The kids are totally set-up; it's very disrespectful. Here are all these people, including the kids, sharing happy memories of ways in which they spend their time. Everyone is talking about what they enjoy, and then the parents CRY when they watch the videos of their kids! It's so sad. Imagine being so disconnected from your child that you don't even know, let alone value, their play! And yet, the most distressing part about it is that the point of the commercial is that the parents are right! We should all buy granola bars and force our kids to stop playing so many video games. That doesn't sound like a recipe for peace and well-being. And, of course, the irony and hypocrisy of the whole thing is that it was promoted through Youtube and Facebook! It is a video!

The way it made the rounds of social media, and the comments I read about it from people my age and older, were generally in agreement with the video - of course this is sad and bad and disturbing and must be changed! Of course, there is no problem with forcing kids into an classroom for seven to eight hours, five days a week, as we can safely assume all the kids in the video are made to do; the problem is what they choose to do with their limited leisure time!

I am grateful that I don't feel that way. But, I admit, there was a time when I did.


It's hard to think of a broader term than "technology." The latest, hottest, most exciting technology that many of us encounter on a regular basis is computer technology, but crockpots, shoes, cars and flashlights are all technology, too. Everyone here knows this, I suspect, but it is important to take a moment to acknowledge it. Tool use is a huge part of what makes us human. When I see a video of a crow, or an ape, or an octopus using a tool, it's exciting because I identify with it. The development and use of tools is an important form of intelligence. I could easily fill up this hour showing video clips of tool use.

Lots of tools have sticks, handles, switches; all levers. And yet it is obviously silly to segregate one set of tools as having levers and consider them as interchangeable - hand me a lever. What type of lever? A first, second or third degree lever? What should be attached to it? What is it for?

And yet, when you read that the title of this presentation was "Growth and Connection through Technology," I bet you all knew I meant computers and televisions.

I have a dictionary on a table in my grandmother's cottage in Rhode Island. It was printed in 1964. If you look up the word "computer," the first definition is "person who computes." When I was in fifth grade, I think, we got an Apple 2GS in our classroom; we played Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. My parents bought a 386 which ran PC-MOS/MS-DOS. I used it to play Marble Madness. I wasn't allowed to play Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, which of course I did at every available unsupervised opportunity.

Big gray boxes are the first image in my mind when I think of computers. That's the first indication that I need to step away from my biases about what computing means to my kids, and try to see it from their perspective.

When people use the word "screen-time," they are lumping all electronic visual media into a woefully inadequate pigeon hole. It minimizes the value of these tools, in their own minds and to their children, and limits their ability to grow and connect through and with this amazing world that is so important to the kids (and others) who love and use these wonderful machines.

So if you say "screen-time," think about not saying that anymore. You wouldn't say "paper-time" or "lever-time." What is your child doing? Don't focus on the medium, focus on the activity. Is it a show? What show? Watch it together. Ask questions, engage with the characters, and listen, the way you would do about any other activity of interest. Is it a you-tube video? That can be anything. What's the video about or of? Is there a host, a "you-tuber"? Who is that person to your child? Is it a video game? Is it on-line? Learn to play it. Sit and watch it. Engage.


When Wallace, who is now nine, was three, I showed him a video of a combine harvester on youtube. He was fascinated by youtube, and wanted to spend a lot of time watching it. Around this time he also started watching movies - prior to then he hadn't been interested in electronic media of any kind. Something clicked with the combine harvesters, though, and he wanted to watch videos for hours. My first impulse was to resist it mightily. Watching films of farm equipment, and then endless Donald Duck and Thomas the Train shows; wasn't this bad for his development? Shouldn't he be outside, or playing with his train set, or reading with me, or ANYTHING ELSE BUT WATCHING VIDEOS? My childhood television and movie viewing and video gaming had been dictatorially managed by people who knew it was bad for me in any but the smallest doses. They were right, right?

The problem was that Wallace loved watching things on the computer, and my efforts to discourage and distract him always created unhappiness in both of us and disconnection between us. I kept going back to my peaceful parenting list-serves trying to get someone to make me believe it was okay, or that I was right to protest it. I was a hopeless case. The parent I wanted to be, the parent I always want to be, fills her child's field of view with opportunity and then builds on the ones that catch his interest. So why was I so resistant to the computer?

I think there were three big reasons.

The first was the relentless propaganda about how bad it is for kids to spend hours watching tv and computers and playing video games. The world is changing, childhood is changing, as this type of technology becomes more sophisticated and pervasive. It makes possible types of connection and pursuits and passions and professions that were unheard of even fifty years ago. The old guard sees this and panics - it's addictive! Kids don't do what we want and expect them to do according to the older social models, and that's bad and scary! How are they going to grow up to be just like us, since we are so wonderful, if they do different stuff, especially if it's profoundly different? So studies are designed which show what the researchers expect them to show, that kids who use technology in the way that, say, my kids do, are developing differently and that's BAD!!!

I don't have much of a rejoinder for the research that purports to show that electronic media is bad for kids' brains. There is other research that is starting to come out, now that the first wave of people who were kids when computers and gaming started to be available are old enough to get research grants, that conflicts with some of the other gloom and doom reports. It doesn't matter to me, really, because I think this type of research sounds like an impossible prospect, generally yielding what the researcher wants it to demonstrate. How do you meaningfully control for confounding factors in human behavior and brain function and adjust for researcher bias? You could give me twenty five studies right now that "proved" conclusively that watching Chip N Dale for days on end at the age of three leads to terrible or optimal intellectual outcomes, and I wouldn't buy it. Human behavior is all anecdote, and I have my own experience, plus the experience of myriad veteran unschoolers, to demonstrate that children who use computer technology, when they are supported, turn out just fine. When dealing with human subjects, the answer, as I've seen repeated many times in unschooling discussions, is "it depends."

And are we so great that what we did as kids, or what are parents or grandparents did, is the ideal, the altar on which to sacrifice our own children's agency "for their own good"? Is it possible that they know something we don't, which is how to live in their world, with the internet and youtube and portable tablets and more gaming systems? Are we really doing them a favor by "just not having the stuff available," as many parents do, so that they "learn" to live without it? Is that really setting aside our own egos and embracing the opportunity to clear the path for them to be themselves, to find all of their possible passions?

Sometimes I fake it before I make it. Sometimes I know what I want to do but I don't feel it yet. Sometimes I need tricks and techniques for getting through the moments where parenting with connection and clearing the way for my children to be passionately, wholly themselves, without some of the baggage that I have carried around, is difficult. I taught myself to say "yes" to the computer, pushed myself to facilitate it by expanding the available options, went through the motions of accepting it without fully doing so. That was a good first step. Seeking out advice and intellectual support, the kind of support that is encouragement to do a specific type of thing rather than whatever I am doing anyway, to do better, was and is useful in these moments, even if I've been known to resist it at times.


The second issue that I had is related to the first, and is a recipe for destroying any relationship, anywhere, at any time - I had expectations about what my child was supposed to want to do, what our time was supposed to look like together, what parameters he was supposed to fit within. But those things weren't him, they were me, my filters, and they did nothing to further our relationship. They were all about my ego. How could they not be? The only way my way could be right is if I were better, and wasn't it part of the basis of my choices as a person, partner and parent that there had to be a lot of ways in which I could improve, shift, change, to love the world as it is and not as I wished it to be?

My first step, that of embracing videos or games in practice if not in spirit, was a good start. It was much better than fighting it, but it didn't fix the dynamic. I still felt resentful and scared of the  possibilities, worried that Wallace wasn't doing more different activities - more running around, or reading books, or drawing, or cooking, or anything else that I was still seeing as more valuable. That was last year, when he was eight:) The reason I'm excited to talk about this today is that I feel like my breakthrough is very fresh and recent, and has made such a wonderful change in my life and my relationship with him. I now have Lysander as well, who is five, and it has helped to see that his relationship with computers is different - it has helped because it is easier for me to recognize that Wallace's passion for gaming youtubes, and online gaming, is very much who he is as opposed to the only outcome (and a negative one) of being free to choose those activities. Lysander is free to choose them, and he does, but he chooses other things as well, and has different interests - computer usage isn't some terrible addictive monster that sucks kids in and destroys their creativity. There are specific activities that Wallace chooses to pursue, most of which are accessed through that medium, that he is passionate about. Another child with access to the same resources chooses differently.


The third issue was that I felt excluded. He didn't seem to need me anymore. My reading to him, or building a train set for him, or kicking around a soccer ball with him, wasn't as sparkly and fun as the frenetic intensity of Chip N Dale (that must be too much for his brain, right, as we're all told, since it's faster than I am?! It reminds me of a Jerry Seinfeld bit where he argues that the only good drivers on the road are going the same speed as you are - the slower ones are old biddies and the faster ones are crazy.). What did that mean for me? What was my role in this new order? I didn't want to watch Chip N Dale, Chip N Dale must not have any value, he  was welcome to go watch Chip N Dale but if he wanted to be with me he had to turn it off and come do what I wanted to do. Because being petulant and inflexible is good parenting, right?

The real shift took place when I got to the heart of those second and third issues: my expectations and my role. Okay, so what I thought our time was supposed to look like wasn't what it looked like. Easy enough. But if it just looked like me doing my own thing in another room while he played on the computer, harboring passive aggressive thoughts about it and waiting for it to turn into something recognizable to me, that wasn't a good situation. That wasn't the connected, meaningful relationship I felt sure we could have if I were doing my job right. What was missing?

I wasn't telegraphing love and support, I was telegraphing hostility and disapproval. In response, he was retreating.

Only after I figured out my role, did I recognize, in retrospect, that problem; the problem that judging his choices was creating for me, for us. My role was, is, to connect with him through what he is choosing, to see the growth and the value. I learned to sit and watch the youtubes with him. At first, I found it incredibly grating, but over time, even with all the swearing and the yelling, I started to see the charm to a lot of the youtubers he likes. I got to sit with him and hear what was making him giggle when he watched, instead of hearing the laughs through closed doors. I watched him follow the thread of suggestions and see what was interesting to him.

I helped buy the games that he thought looked cool, and upgrade our computer systems so that he could play. I bought copies of the games for myself and learned to play. I helped him start a youtube channel. I watched him navigate the games, use youtube to answer questions; I saw how quickly he developed proficiency from all the research he had done. I saw how he learned to read and write from the chats and the comment threads, and helped him with corrections and composition when he wanted me to. I saw how he used the computer to relax, or to study, or to work on a challenge. I asked questions about the gamers, and the games, and now he talks about it with me constantly when he is not playing. I felt our connection grow when I came to where he was, instead of insisting that he come to me (which, when he did not make that choice, just made me feel sad and isolated). Instead of feeling defensive when family asked me about his choices, I started to find it easy to talk about all the amazing developments I see, how much fun he has, how he grows, how cool some of the games are.

He is playing online with people all over the world, of all ages. His ability to navigate the social world of online gaming is impressive - how easily he walks away from social static, how quickly he identifies abusive or anti-social activity and condemns it without becoming emotionally distressed, how rapidly he makes friends and develops strategies, sometimes playing in teams and sometimes playing solo. So that brings us to concerns about the social realm of the internet.


When I was in college I got my first PINE email account. By the time I graduated there were browser-based email programs. Enterprising folks set up list-serves and blogs were born. When Wallace was tiny I joined the forum, which was the beginning of the on-line social venturing that has brought me here. I have only ever navigated any of it as an adult. My kids, on the other hand, never knew a world without it. They need to know how to live in this world, but how could I teach them what they need to know to be kids in a social media culture? What authority could I possibly have? No, it is the other way around, it is I who must learn from them. As parents, we encounter scary stories about social media.

Our lives now have a kind of documentation saturation that was lacking before smart phones and the world wide web. I've been to a naked party or two in my time, and I am grateful for the absence of ubiquitous selfies from the late 90s. What pictures do exist provide enough reminders, thank you very much. College students had to learn the hard way that posting drunken photos of yourself on Facebook where a prospective employer might find them can have consequences. College students don't use Facebook as much anymore:) But as my parents pointed out to me when my sister had to sit through a disciplinary committee hearing in high school, "Don't be too smug. The only difference here is that she got caught and you didn't." Teens haven't changed, what's changed is that we can see what they are up to.

For connected families, and connection is a primary objective in unschooling, this knowledge is already going to be there. Sure, our kids aren't likely to tell us everything, and would I want to hear it? But the important things, the questions about which risks are worth taking and which carry unacceptable stakes, and what the difference is, even, between something ventured on its own merits versus a rebellion against authority qua authority; all that I hope to keep open starting now, starting yesterday, starting the day my son was born, are open because we trust each other.

I don't have teens, but I hope that all the work I've done over the years to maintain a relationship that is based on honesty and communication, and on anticipating, not just reacting, will come into play when I do. At this point, Wallace is on the computer, online, in chats, meeting people I don't know.

I never liked the concept of "stranger-danger." People you don't know are just that, people. The key is to learn to read the situation, to identify what behavior is threatening and what is not, to know what is safe and what is not. So, you tell your child not to go anywhere with anyone they don't know without talking to you first. You validate them in their reactions (no forced hugs!) and encourage them to be honest about how different situations make them feel. You know you won't be there to make the decisions for them in critical moments, so you help them develop the tools they will need.

The same is true online. I pointed out that we don't know anything about anyone on the internet. I talked about keeping your last name and immediate location to yourself (Wallace from Maine, for instance, but not Wallace XYZ from such-and-such town). We got to talk about the different rings of location - neighborhood, town, state, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, etc., in the course of these conversations. When he is meeting people from all over the US and the world, he learns that the world is big, and varied, without any work on my part. I think our town has 800 permanent residents. Without the internet, how much smaller his world would be!

But what happens when other people online aren't nice? The same thing that happens when people aren't nice anywhere else - you learn how to deal with it. Do you respond or walk away, or both? Have you made an error in etiquette, have they, or both? You learn from positive examples, and from seeking advice. In a connected home where electronic media is supported, it is so easy, because it starts at the time when kids naturally come to parents for help, and when parents are welcome in kids' worlds (so that, if we are wise and lucky, perhaps it stays that way. I defer to parents of unschooled teens in that department, but what I hear is positive).

The other day I walked into the room and heard Wallace say to an older friend online, "even though I'm young, I'm polite and friendly." Wallace is nine. That's pretty young. It's especially young when he is online playing Grand Theft Auto V, a game that the majority of his age-peers probably aren't even allowed to play. Sometimes other players give him a hard time, won't play with him, will tell him he sounds like a little kid. He doesn't mind. If someone doesn't want to play with him, they can play somewhere else. If someone is being a jerk to him, he walks away. In the instance above, he was playing with someone who commented on his manners given his age. He said to me, "I wasn't sure what to say, so I just said he was right. Even though I'm young, I'm polite and friendly."

When Wallace is online I am around, not necessarily over his shoulder but in and out, asking what is going on. I ask him, when he is not online, about his games, and his friends, and his world, and he tells me. He tells me if someone was being unkind. He tells me how he chooses to act in certain situations based on the social mores of the online gaming world. If I hear something that concerns me I ask him about it, maybe make suggestions, maybe find a way to be more involved in that aspect of his gaming.


Wallace was seven, I think, when we bought Minecraft for PC.  I had heard about this wonderful game, Minecraft, that lots of kids were playing, and it sounded to me like something he might enjoy.

Kids with open, supported access to electronic media treat it just like any other toy, in my experience. The concept of "screen-time" as one thing does apply, often, for kids who are strictly limited with electronics. Any screen will do, because they are all forbidden. A gaming system, a tablet, a computer game, a video, a show, a movie; it's all equally exotic. Once kids can interact freely with these media, they become more discriminating. Sometimes I will hear a parent say, "We are going to get a movie for the kids," under the assumption that the entity "movie" is sufficient to occupy a troop of individuals who haven't reached puberty, and I think, "well, that might be fun. Or not." My kids are much better than I am at walking away from a movie they don't enjoy - if it's not fun, why do it? There is nothing inherently entertaining about watching a movie, what matters is what the movie is.

I bought him a Nintendo dsi because I thought he would like it, but he lost interest fairly quickly. I think he was most into watching Phineas and Ferb on Netflix at that time. So I started to watch Phineas and Ferb with him. Instead of being in the other room all the time, doing my own thing, stopping in occasionally to make clear that I was available for playing but not actually connecting with him at all because all my visits communicated was "this activity isn't worthwhile but if you want to do something I like, I'm around," I started to try to connect. If he wanted to watch a show, I watched a show with him. If he wanted to watch a video, I watched a video. I couldn't do it all the time, I have a child who is younger by four years and has different interests. That wasn't the issue, the issue was whether I wanted to play with him, considered what he was doing to be play, and worthwhile. The more I went through the motions of treating it that way, even as I was still learning to feel that, the easier our relationship became.

I can't quite remember the progression of the gaming youtube interest, but at some point we started watching Minecraft videos. You probably all know Stampy Longhead. "Great!" I thought, "Here's a video about something, now we go get the something." I couldn't understand, didn't want to understand, the value in the videos themselves. When I talk to other parents about the internet, this specific issue comes up regularly. Sure, we all get that the computer is a tool. I know I didn't surprise any of you with that insight. What it seems harder for some of us to get is that it is a toy, as wonderful a toy as Legos or Play-dough or Parcheesi. Just playing with it, for its own sake, is fun.

I play the banjo. I watch a lot of videos of people playing banjos. I go to concerts where people play banjos. I don't watch the videos or go to the concerts because I play the banjo; I just like banjos. I watch videos and go to concerts because it is fun. I watch Jerry Seinfeld videos because it is fun, not because I want to be a comic. Someone who doesn't like banjo, or doesn't like Jerry Seinfeld, might not see the value in those videos. I know there are plenty of things that I like to do that my kids think are boring. Does that mean those activities don't have value to me? Do they have the authority to assign value to some of my choices, but not others? Of course not, and that goes both directions - who am I to say that Garfield and Friends or VanOss Gaming doesn't have value? It has value to them.

We did buy Minecraft, though, and he did enjoy playing it, but Wallace is a pretty social guy. Although I suspect this is common knowledge at this point, the old stereotype of gamers as anti-social and painfully introverted, Comic Book Store Guys (for those Simpsons fans out there) hiding in basements turning ghostly pale does not describe today's gamers (if, indeed, it was ever an accurate description. I remember reading an interview in which David Rawlings, a virtuoso guitarist who didn't even pick up the instrument until he was fifteen, said that he couldn't think of anything to attribute his skill to except maybe playing a lot of video games when he was a kid.) As a friend who worked for Rock Star Games pointed out to me, if your game doesn't have a robust on-line presence and social component, it doesn't have a future.

There are a lot of people, certainly, who prefer to play by themselves, but Wallace learned from his youtubes that many players use servers to interact with other people, and that was more appealing to him than playing alone. There are two main ways to interact on servers - one is via the chat and the other is through a video service such as Skype. In order to have friends to Skype with, though, you usually have to meet in some other way first. Proficiency in chat seems pretty important, or at least it did to him.

He couldn't really read or write when he started playing in the Unschooling group server I found through Facebook. I sat with him and tried to help, but he was frustrated by the pace of the chat compared to what he could do. So he learned to read and type. There was never a time where he sat down at the kitchen table to accomplish this, he just immersed himself in the world of youtube and learned to read the comments and chats based on what was happening in the audio and video. While all my early efforts at forcing reading instruction were miserable failures, through his own volition he developed fast, accurate skills by using the medium he preferred.

I help him. He asks questions and I answer them, and I sit with him and make corrections if he is open to that. He reads text and graphic novels proficiently, and exchanges emails and texts with friends and family. Using language, instead of repeating it, for him, has its roots almost entirely in his online immersion. Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, has also made significant contributions. Electronic media is an incredibly effective learning tool, not because of the myriad applications that are intended for teaching, although many kids enjoy those and I know there were lots of self-styled "educational" shows that Wallace enjoyed in his viewing rotation, but because it is so easy to navigate at whatever level you are at. Lysander, who is five, can play happily with a tablet or computer, Wallace, at nine, can, too. Sarah, 38, and John, 37, also enjoy these toys and tools. The reading and writing that a person needs to use the computer effectively grows as interests grow and morph - it's seamless. Just amazing. Imagine a book that was just a little more sophisticated every time you opened it up? That you could start using in early childhood and still enjoy as an adult. They exist (Calvin and Hobbes being a wonderful example), but media with audio and visual, and now increasingly tactile, interface, is infinitely flexible.


So back to Stampy. Stampy is fun, and family-friendly, but it didn't take long for Wallace to want to find more, and that was when I had to revisit my comfort again. In my experience, almost all the popular youtubers swear and shout, and watching my kids watch them, I conclude that the swearing and the shouting and the great animation of the youtubers are most of the point. My first reaction to all of this was to condemn it and withdraw from it. How could listening to Jack Septiceye shriek obscenities (even in that charming accent...) possibly have value? Of course, it does, and the big shift came for me when I learned to love him. I sat with Wallace and watched the videos. When the language got very blue I took the opportunity to talk about polite and impolite language, and the appropriate use of both. I explained what the words meant. When Wallace repeated something out of context, I never made a big deal out of it, I just talked about other people's comfort and expectations. The videos made it easier to have these conversations because the topics came up naturally.

There is a lot of content in these videos, too. And given what youtubers rake in annually, some of whose entire catalog is just opening boxed toys and playing with them, I certainly can't make any  claims about what constitutes "wasting" time. These folks have figured out how to support themselves financially, quite young in many cases, simply immersing themselves utterly in their passions. Isn't that amazing, and wonderful, and what many of us want, in part, for ourselves and our children?

But on to the content. While I was becoming increasingly charmed by Jack Septiceye (whose real name is Sean Something and who answers any and all viewer questions, no matter how personal, with unaffected aplomb), Wallace was playing and learning. He was learning about other games, learning strategy, learning to read, learning the social mores of the online world. At nine, he smokes me in any game. He knows how they work. His guesses are educated.

I am not a gamer, but I am learning. I started a youtube channel, because he started a youtube channel. I only have a couple of videos because having a channel is a lot of work! That was the first thing I learned. Having a channel is a full-time job, if you are going to post regularly, and since I already have a full time job with my kids, I have only posted a few times.

When I started playing I was scared all the time. I played extremely cautiously, as if these were real-life challenges. I died at really frustrating times, losing all my resources and having to start again after hours of play. I got angry and quit, or started new worlds. But slowly, slowly, I started to understand that resources in Minecraft are infinite. It's not real life, and that's the point. You can die over and over again, and you just start again. These are safe risks, but you learn real lessons about gathering and using resources, protecting yourself from threats, collaborating with other people. You make mistakes and play again having learned from those mistakes. The life lessons from gaming go on and on.

You know that. It's okay with Minecraft. But what happens when your nine year old wants to play Grand Theft Auto V? That's different, right? Well, in my experience, no. Jack Septiceye loves GTAV. NerdCubed, my favorite, with his lovely accent and general mannerisms, who has gaming videos with MomCubed and DadCubed as well, plays GTAV. Everyone plays GTAV. The game is a phenomenon.

It's easy to see why. The graphics and the gameplay are amazingly realistic. It is gorgeous to watch. The mechanics and physics of the game, as I understand from gamers, are accurate enough to make it feel true while forgiving enough to make the gameplay fantastic in the true sense of the word (cars and bikes can do things they shouldn't be able to do, but you can still crash if you get it really wrong, for instance.) You can play in first or third person, using key commands or controllers. I could go on and on about what my son loves about the game.

What about the violence, though? What about the prostitutes, and the drug dealers, and the biker gangs? This is not a first person shooter game, actually, although some people think that it is. The new PC version has a first person option, but that is very recent in the game's history. It is, however, extremely violent. No doubt about it. As Wallace says, "These people have horrible lives. They are no one anyone would want to be." The characters are either genuinely amoral or highly criminal or both. Their personal lives are a misery. These are not figures to emulate. My 9yo doesn't have any desire to be like these people or do what they do in real life. That's the point. It's a fantasy. It's a place to experiment with being a bad guy, a really bad guy, in which no one gets hurt. It is fiction, and like any well-wrought fiction, when you are immersed in it you connect with it, and that connection lasts for a little while after you leave it. I remember walking out of a movie theater in Budapest in the middle of the day, having just watched The Matrix for the second or third time, and expecting to find a cell phone in the trash can.

I didn't. Laurence Fishburne is real, but Morpheus isn't. He's a character on a movie screen. Likewise, when my son goes to bed at night, when he wakes up in the morning, when he plays with friends or goes to the grocery store, no one is stealing cars and murdering prostitutes. The world that he lives in is filled with people treating each other respectfully, honestly, carefully. He has a loving home and lives with a level of security that is astounding in the context of human history. He knows the difference. I don't live with anyone else's circumstances, so I can't speak to the effect a different environment might have, but I can speak to my own, and I see a thoughtful, gentle and generous human who has no trouble distinguishing between a two-dimensional dystopia constructed of pixels and the three-dimensional surroundings of his world.

All that is not to say that there aren't real lessons that he takes away from these games. He learns to persevere, to pick himself up and try again when he fails, because he is failing in a way that is both real and safe. Failing safely is so important to growth. Aside from the game mechanics, though, there are many social themes that arise in video games.

Wallace was watching a youtube of Jack Septiceye playing GTAV, and there was a scene during which he was consorting with a prostitute. I looked over his shoulder and said, "You can have sex in this game?" He laughed and said, "yeah," although he also mentioned in another conversation that he always "declines their services," in quotation marks:) He's nine, and not particularly interested. What struck me, though, was the comfort he felt around the subject of sex in the media, around me. When I was nine I would have recoiled in horror at that interaction with my parents. In fact, it was exactly the same scenario, a video game sequence involving prostitutes, that was why I was forbidden to play Leisure Suit Larry.

The dynamic I have with my son feels so much healthier to me than one in which certain aspects of sex and culture are forbidden. The "education" that teenagers get from their peers about sex and drugs and rock and roll, where nothing is taboo, is part of the fabric of the internet and gaming world that he encounters, and that I get to participate in. These discussions are seamless, flowing easily from what he was comfortable knowing at four, to what he wants to know now, to what he may want or need to know later. Sometimes he talks about attitudes about race or gender that come up in discussions about games. There are no awkward "talks" where I force a lesson (the best way to communicate with anyone probably not being to lecture them out of the blue). Things just come up, and I listen, and respond. It's so simple.

He spends A LOT of time on the computer and on his tablet. He doesn't need my encouragement to do that, just my support. There are other things he likes to do, too, though, and the computer is so intense and sparkly that he is completely immersed in it and forget to do other things. He asks me to remind him to do different stuff, and I stay ahead of his requests as much as possible in terms of making sure that he has books he likes and social engagements with friends and trips to the swimming hole and whatever else I know he enjoys. If he doesn't want to do anything else, however, that's fine. It's not my role to tell him which activities are more or less worthy of his time, or to insist that he check off a certain number of boxes of different tasks. I am fortunate to be able to provide the resources he needs to pursue his passion. Why would I take it away from him, or limit it? When I see what he learns, how he grows, how happy he is, I know that unschooling is working. I know that he is learning to live fully in his interests, and gaining the confidence in himself and his support network to find ways to pursue his dreams at every stage of his life.