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Sandra Dodd Interview (Part II): How Do Unschoolers Cope with College and 21 Questions on Learning without School and Living Joyfully

unschooling homeschooling India Sandra Dodd Interview Mommy Labs

There’s nothing else that has been more life-changing for me and my family than embracing MANY of the unschooling principles to nurture Pari. And, there’s nothing (and no one) else that has been more helpful for me in understanding this learning philosophy and way of living than the writings of Sandra Dodd (including the thoughts of some other experienced unschoolers on her website – sandradodd.com).

Having learnt and benefitted so much from her, I wanted to share this powerful and peaceful philosophy with you – via an interview with Sandra herself.

After all, I know you all to be curious souls – open to diverse ideas and ways to live. And, even though our  paths may be varied – schooling, unschooling, homeschooling, job-ing, un-job-ing, we do care about the options out there and the choices that we can make. Don’t we?


Here’s the second part of Sandra’s interview where she talks about unschoolers in college, their career, about parenting choices, seeking happiness, rejecting negativity, and much more.

Many of you who read my blog regularly, would have read the first part of this unschooling interview, last month.

Some of you who’re new here or missed last time, I highly recommend reading it to understand natural learning, which is at the heart of unschooling.

Sharing an excerpt from Part I in this picture…

unschooling Sandra Dodd natural learning

And today, I share the second part of the interview where Sandra not only answers to your questions from last month; but also shares her thoughts on a dozen questions from me.

[I know this second part has taken long to come – may be a month or more. Sorry, friends. I’d been in and out of town the whole of September. Moreover, the time zone difference between New Delhi and New Mexico, U.S. (where Sandra lives) didn’t help expedite either.]

Now, before you dive into the interview, a little bit about Sandra – she and her husband, Keith, have unschooled their children – Kirby (26), Marty (23) and Holly (20) – for 22 years now. Sandra has been a pioneer in unschooling. She’s also the very first and best of writers on this subject. She’s written two books – The Big Book of Unschooling and Moving a Puddle. Not only a prolific writer, Sandra also speaks around the world at homeschooling conferences and seminars; and provides constant support to unschooling families through her e-groups.

Sandra Dodd

First, her answers to questions that some of you had asked in the first part of the interview.

So, fill up your cup – literally (and figuratively)!

Reader Questions (RQ):

RQ 1: My question about this approach is how children would learn when they have to be in a situation that is structured. Unfortunately, those situations do pop up in life (particularly in higher education or training for future careers). Part of the educational process, to some extent, is learning to cope with different environments in which learning must occur. I love the ideas of letting a child explore his or her passions and think this applies regardless of a child being educated in a homeschool setting or in a school system.

Sandra: It doesn’t take ten years of practice for a kid to learn how to show up on time, and if they’re interested in doing something, they’ll probably get up early! All my children and very many more I’ve known have excelled in structured situations because they were there by choice and they weren’t sick to death of structure. They thought it was fun, when it was their option to be there or not.

When Marty attended a weeklong Jr. Police Academy when he was 14, the sergeant fell over homeself at the awards dinner, telling me how disciplined Marty was and how attentive and cooperative. “You can always tell a kid who comes from a family with a lot of discipline and rules,”  he said. What he was seeing was a kid who really wanted to be there, who was interested in learning. School claims that it’s important for kids to learn to follow a schedule, but it takes no learning at all.

School defenders claim that unschooled kids won’t know how to stand in a line. Anyone who’s ever gone to a movie knows how to follow a schedule and queue up. :=)  It’s another thing that doesn’t take years of practice.

Another claim is that if kids don’t live with strictly scheduled days, with early bedtimes and early wake-up calls, they will never be able to hold a job. My kids owned their own alarm clocks early on, and it took them about fifteen seconds to learn to use them. My oldest has been working since he was 14, and the other two since mid-teens, too. The three of them have 22 years of work experience among them. Currently, Marty works at 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. (depending on the day), and Kirby works from 8:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. four nights a week.

Adding those to the collection of the shift starting-times of the jobs my kids have worked shows a range that would easily suggest that a child who grew up with an early bedtime and a wake-up call would be quite handicapped holding a job, while my kids with their flexible lives based on the requirements of the situation have done very well:

4:00 (or 4:30 some days)
6:30 (Marty, for 16 months when he was 16/17)
10:00 (Holly at a flower shop)

8:30 (to 7:30 a.m.)
11:00 (to 8:00 a.m.)

The idea that “discipline” about studying or waking and sleeping is necessary is another of many school-based myths accepted as fact.  Unschoolers have done very well in jobs, colleges and universities. Here are some accounts of teens’ jobs. Pam Sorooshian wrote this about her three daughters, each of whom received a college degree this Spring.

RQ 2: I’m curious as to what unschooling families think about college or their child’s future careers?

Sandra: Different families think different things. :-) Parents have no idea about what their child’s future career will be, nor do the children until they’re grown.  Instead of funneling children toward a single gate, unschoolers I’ve known have tended to be expansive, rather than limiting.

RQ 3: Can a child get into post-secondary school without grades or test scores to show?

Sandra: Many have done so. Some have taken the tests, or had grades from classes they had taken casually (photography, music, ceramics).

RQ 4: What if your child decides she wants to grow up to be a doctor? How will she do that if she doesn’t have any grades to show to college admissions?

Sandra: People don’t “grow up to be” a doctor, in the way a colt grows up to be a horse. “College admissions” is not a monolithic wall keeping people away from college. “College admission” happens on a case-by-case basis, and many colleges hold back 5% or so of their openings for special or unusual students—foreigners, older students and other exceptional cases. Sometimes homeschoolers get some of those spots.

RQ 5: In fact, how will she do any job at all? I’m not sure about the culture in India, but I am from North America and there are unschooling families here as well, and most workplaces require at least a high school diploma from employees who are over 18, even if it is a retail position or fast food.

Sandra: This is spurious and antagonistic. My own children are grown and have held several jobs. Each of them was offered a job, at the age of 14 (Kirby), 15 (Marty) and 16 (Holly)—jobs they didn’t even apply for.  Once a person has some job experience, the question is rarely “Did you graduate from an accredited high school?”

The world is changing, and anyone with a young child in 2012 should not expect it to be 2002 when that child is grown. Adults are often looking back ten or twenty years in their knowledge and expectations. It’s impossible to look forward with accuracy, but if you look around at some of the new jobs of the 21st century, you will see that there was no way to begin preparing for them in the 1980s or 1990s, except to let children play with computers as much as they wanted to.

RQ 6:  How do you plan to prepare her for a future career?

Sandra: Too much of school and of traditional parenting pretends (and fails) to be preparing children for future careers. Too little of school and of traditional parenting is even attempting to acknowledge that children are people already. They have been whole, thinking, seeing beings since the day they were born. Assisting them to learn and to find their strengths and to explore the world and its possibilities is preparing them for their unseen futures.

RQ 7: I would appreciate any insight that you could give in how to communicate more amicably with family and friends who are not necessarily “believers” about the choice to unschool and/or homeschool.

Sandra: Some good and useful answers are “We’re going to try this for a while,” and “If this stops working, there’s a school right down the road.” If relatives or friends warn you or remind you of things they’re worried about, it would be courteous and sensible to say “Thanks, I’ll think about that,” and smile.

If someone asks a question about socialization, you could ask “What do you mean?” They probably don’t know what they mean, and trying to articulate their real question will probaby bring them to see that they were following a script, and to consider (probably for the very first time) what “socialization” in school really is.

If someone asks about algebra, you might ask how they use algebra in their everyday life. Nod and listen. Maybe say “I”ll think about that,” if they have thought of an example of everyday use.

When the question is “what about writing?” you could say “Do you mean penmanship or composition?  Storytelling?”  If they say “book report,” you could say “Like reviews on Amazon or GoodReads?”

RQ 8: My husband asks, “Do you think Magic the Gathering (the card game) is a good learning tool for children.” Haha.

Sandra:  I don’t understand the “Haha.”  I mean I *do* understand it, but I hope you will be sorry to have made light of the best of your two questions.

Magic is a game, not “a learning tool.”  It’s a very complex game, with twenty years of history.

Do I believe people learn from playing that game (and other games with strategy, math, mythology, storyline, statistics, art, and nice use of language)?  Of course I do.

RQ 9:  He also quite seriously asks if there are statistics that show that children from an “unschooling” environment perform adequately on college-entrance exams. “Not,” he says “because I think that’s an accurate measure, it’s just how the rest of the world thinks. There’s no argument if the test scores compare.”

Sandra: “Adequately”?  The tests scores don’t compare. Kids who have been in school for 12 or 13 years who are pressured by school and parents to take tests to go straight into MORE school don’t do as well as a young adult who has chosen freely to take a test to go to school for perhaps the first time in his life.  The enthusiasm and joy with which unschoolers pursue school, when they choose to do that, cannot begin to be matched by the assembly-line drudges schools turn out.


Rashmie’s exchange with Sandra – Part II

Sandra Dodd with family

1. Rashmie: How best can homeschoolers transition into college/university if they want to do college.

Sandra: My experience with unschoolers and university classes in the U.S. is that they can take a few classes at first and move into it gradually.  I think that would be possible in India, if a few families were willing to try it out.  :-) Colleges and universities might say no, if you asked them right now, because it’s easier for them not to make exceptions, but for children who are young now, in ten years things could, and probably will, be different.

Unschooled kids have done well in formal classroom situations because they weren’t burnt out by years and years of school. They see it as interesting, and new, and fun. Their enthusiasm and their sincerity causes professors to take an interest in them, too, from what I’ve seen.

2. Rashmie: In the present scenario, for college, here in India, children need to have a 10th and then 12th degree (which I think is same for the U.S. and may be other countries too). That means – unschooling kids (who want to do college) have to study the traditional curriculum content (for some time at least) so they can take the 10th and 12th exams.

How do they go about studying subjects like Math, Algebra, Trigonometry etc – that are a crucial part of the 10th curriculum – when they haven’t done textbook-Math until this point. Unschooling Math is rooted in the ‘application’ of Math in the real life and is not focused on textbook-ish Math. How do they then take to or ‘cope with’ schoolish-Math in a short time – just for the sake of board exams?

Sandra:  “Crucial part” is school-talk. When I was in India, I saw signs everywhere for preparation courses for those tests. So people who did go to school are taking cram courses. Can’t someone who didn’t go to school take one of those? Or look online for summaries and study on their own? There are videos explaining all kinds of math and science concepts.

I was at a library in Bangalore and there was an entire room full of test-preparation materials.  

Each of my kids, when they were in their late teens, took math classes at the local community college. They were lost for a week or so, and then caught up and got As, sometimes the top score in the class. Marty has taken three math courses and four in economics. Holly plans to take business classes at some point. 

3. Rashmie: When unschoolers don’t see value in school education, what is the motivation for college? Is it for the sake of job or is there something else that college serves that appeals to unschoolers?

Sandra: Unschoolers believe different things. It’s not that they “don’t see value in school education,” but they see a different and (seemingly, to each family, I suppose) better way to help their children grow into adulthood. Sometimes it’s more about a particular child’s traits and personality. Sometimes it’s more about the parents’ need to travel for work, and their ability to take the family. Sometimes it’s all philosophical, or a child is a musician or dancer and needs that extra time. It’s difficult to make simple statements that apply to all unschoolers.

College doesn’t universally appeal to all unschoolers. Some people want jobs that require university degrees. Some might want to live far from home for the experience and the exploration. Some might want to stay home with parents, but study part time, to see if they like it, rather than rushing through a degree in the shortest amount of time.  I can’t speak for all families. I know grown unschoolers in college, some who aren’t, and some who aren’t yet but might be later.

4. Rashmie: I personally feel college was a big waste of my time – a whopping 5 years after 10th!  I could have used all those years to learn and launch myself toward something that I was passionate about. Glad my parents didn’t have to spend much money because college for girls was free in my state.

That said, there may be others who could use college to its potential. The story of Pam Sooroshian’s unschooled children doing so fabulously well in college is a shining example.

What do you think of the mindset that the ‘right’ college should be the ultimate goal and measure of success?

Sandra: There is no single “measure of success.” And I think that every college has drop-outs and failures. If the parents care more about the college itself than their young adult child who might not even want to go to that college, the relationship isn’t their first priority. In such a case, my opinion wouldn’t matter to them at all, and that’s fine. What I have done with unschooling, what others have done by unschooling, is not intended to change the school system, nor to rearrange the world.

I’ve been living a different way for the benefit of my own family. Some have judged that to be wonderful, from their own point of view, and others have thought it horrible.Anyone who wants to wait until the whole world accepts home education before they consider it would probably be better off with school, and perhaps a gentler treatment of their children who are in school. It would be a little progress without a great risk.

Sandra Dodd with Daughter Holly Dodd - Christmas time

5. Rashmie: From your experience and from the stories you know, what kind of alternative paths (without college) have unschooled kids (or even schooled kids) taken and have achieved success?

Sandra: Of unschoolers without college I’m thinking of right at the moment, there are professional musicians (not a lucrative career, but one is a songwriter), a potter, a fireman/emergency medical technician, but these are all people still in their 20s.

I don’t know that “achieved success” is objective enough to address. My oldest son has worked for twelve years already, at 25, though his first jobs were part time. He has a good job in an unstable field, but so do many people, even if it seems stable when they enter.

The world changes. Many jobs spring up in advance of training for them. Those who worked with computers in the 1950s didn’t learn it at any university. Those who repaired VCRs and televisions learned on their own from tinkering with broken electronics. Those who repair mobile phones are often tinkerers, too.  Now many who create games and apps for smartphones and tablet computers are working from their homes.

I think anyone could name friends of theirs who are working outside of their training, or who have school debts without a corresponding profession. Most people have friends or relatives with lucrative income from something they didn’t learn in school. And there are wealthy, successfully “school-trained” people whose lives are full of fear and unhappiness.

If someone’s definition of success is to have had a child grow to adulthood without sorrow or strife, that success will look different from someone who considered success to be financial independence by the age of 23, or medical school.  They can’t all be discussed in one breath. Even my own responses here are about unschoolers, and not about school-at-home families who are the vast majority of homeschoolers in north America.

So my responses aren’t representative of any large movement of people. I’m more interested in the mental health and relationships of the families who have chosen not to pressure their children into narrow channels.

Many years ago a man asked me, “Are you wiling to risk your child’s future on your ‘theories’?” I responded, “Yes. Aren’t you?” I supposed his theory was that schools were crucial, and a guarantee of success.

All parenting choices have risks. Colleges and universities are still there, if someone decides at a later age to go, and they might be better students, if they wait, than if they enter at sixteen or seventeen in a hurry to get away from their parents. My life hasn’t been lived to support the university system. Other people’s have been. Neither of us should negate the other.

I can explain how natural learning can be established and nurtured, but I don’t want to defend, nor revile, other options.

Sandra Dodd with her young sons - Kirby and Marty

Rashmie: Thank you, Sandra. :-) I love every bit of our exchange. It makes me think so much!

You talked about “gentler treatment of their children who are in school”. That stood out to me. Interestingly, I was sharing my own school story with a family member recently – how school did not drain our spirits as children – mine and my younger brother’s – because our parents set us free of any academic pressures. They never bothered much about homework, grades (called rank then) etc. They didn’t have career expectations out of us. That really opened up the time and freedom for us to pursue our own passions and interests. While our friends buckled under parental motives, we sailed through school with less stress.

6. Rashmie: How, do you think, parents may be responsible in making school the be-all and end-all in a child’s life, which may end up damaging the child in unforeseen ways?

Sandra: What your parents did sounds great. Some parents (you probably know some) live as teachers’ assistants from the day their child is born, doing everything they think schools would want done, preparing their child for graduate school from the time he can walk, and shaming him for non-cooperation. I don’t think you can call that kind of damage “unforeseen.”

7. Rashmie: In what ways do you think parents can help so schools don’t end up being as much a burden for the child – mentally, emotionally, physically; and the child can still have his childhood intact?

Sandra:  It would be nice if they would think of an intact soul and spirit, rather than an intact childhood.  A child, no matter how young, is a potential future grandfather or grandmother. Looking back on joys and sorrows in people they actually know, perhaps parents can avoid damage they have witnessed in others or felt in themselves, and emulate the empowering and joyful things they have seen or remember.

8. Rashmie: “…emulate the empowering and joyful things they have seen or remember.” Yes, absolutely. I see the deep meaning in your words. Sometimes, I see that even when parents don’t want their children to go through the grind of hard core competition and the race, still they tend to get sucked into it thinking it’s all a part of the times we are living in.

How, would you suggest, can parents assuage their fears and trust their children more so they can create a peaceful relationship – irrespective of school or no school?

Sandra: I don’t think they should even try if they don’t want to. Assuming a family (not just one parent) wants to explore homeschooling, or the further step to leaving school (even ‘school-at-home’ school) altogether, it can help to meet other families who have already done it.  Meet older children who have been out of school a while, or who never went to school, if possible. Be around those families, if possible, to see how they interact.

Look at history. Before there were schools, people learned. (And clearly, in India, before there were government-provided schools and laws, people went to school.) How much is practical and how much is tradition based on English tradition, based on Victorian ideals?  Much of school is 19th century, not just in India. Even in the U.S. there are very outdated traditions and “subjects” in school.

Parents change gradually, by giving children opportunities to try little things, in logical ways. If a child wants to climb a little, the parent might help her climb safely. Yes, the parent could say “no,” but what if it won’t hurt anything or violate any rules, and the parent says yes?

What if an older child wants to try a craft or art that might seem “too hard”? What if he just wants to try a tiny bit?  Why say no?  Help him. And by seeing that those kinds of explorations ARE learning, the parent learns, too. And by saying yes when one’s own parents would have been controlling or arbitrary, the adult can help heal childhood disappointments and sad memories. In so doing, he can become a kinder father to his own children, and  more comfortable in his own self.

9. Rashmie: “he can become a kinder father to his own children, and more comfortable in his own self.”

One of the most firm believes of  mainstream parenting culture is that by saying ‘yes’ to the child’s wants, we’d spoil the child. So, there are more ‘No-s’ than ‘Yes-es’ irrespective of the child feeling stifled and deprived. The parents think they are actually being kind and forming the child’s character and will.

You have always advocated saying YES. What’s your belief behind this?

Sandra: Saying “no” out of habit, or for meanness, or arbitrarily, is bad in any relationship. A very useful tool for parents who want to live closely and directly with a child is for them to think of how they would treat an adult friend, or their spouse.  

Does it benefit a marriage for a wife to say no more often than yes? Does it benefit a relationship if one friend says “No” without even thinking about whether “Yes” was a possibility?

I am an advocate of careful thought and of making choices that lead to better relationships with our children. Saying “yes” without thinking first is as bad as saying “no” without thinking. So first, the thought. Then, the decision.

I have an article on my site, and these next two paragraphs are a quote from that:

“Spoiled” has more to do with a bad attitude than with privilege and wealth (of stuff, or of attention, or of money). Selfishness and casual cruelty and thoughtlessness are the marks of being spoiled, whether a child has stuff or not. When a poor child is that way, people say “Well what do you really expect? Poor kid has nothing.” When a rich child is that way, they say “OH, it’s directly attributable to all that STUFF he has.”

So parents who have traditionally wanted justification for treating children “like children” (seen and not heard, told to wait until they’re older, told things are none of their business) jump on this accepted social truth and use it as an excuse when they tell their kids “NO!” They disguise “no” as a kindness. “I don’t want you to become a spoiled brat.”  Or they say “You’re only asking for this because I bought you something last year, so now I’m sorry I ever bought you anything,” and soon the insults are fast and furiously eroding trust and respect.

That page links to writings by other people on the value of generosity, of the benefit of learning to see abundance, and the serious problems that planned deprivation causes.

In your question you said:  “The parents think they are actually being kind and forming the child’s character and will.”

Parents never, ever form a child’s will. They can attempt to break it, but they can no more create a will than they can make a tree grow in any other way than planting the seed and nurturing the sprout. One’s will is inherent. You can’t plant an oak and grow an apple tree.

As to “forming the child’s character,” that’s also something that grows within the child, and which has grown within each parent.  Learning how to be a good person and deciding which other people to emulate, and which to see as bad examples, all happens within each individual. Parents do well to be the sort of people their children will want to emulate. If they want their children to be respected, the parents should be respectful toward them. If they want their children to be generous, the parents should be generous toward them.

If mainstream parenting worked well, Earth would  be a paradise.  But it tends to create antagonism and resentment and to destroy relationships.

Sandra Dodd with Daughter Holly Dodd


10. Rashmie: I’m soaking up all these thoughts and ideas. A couple of questions – not directly related to your answer above, yet – connected.

a. Ideally most parents want their children to be happy. Yet, there are many things that seem to come in the way, including their own expectations of how their child should be. How can parents ‘prioritize’ their child’s happiness?

b. What do we do when some ‘good-intentioned’ choices might ‘clash’ with the happiness of our children. 

For example, living an eco-conscious life (for the kid – no plastic toys, no packaged food etc.); or vegan lifestyle (no ‘normal’ food or stuff that a child might delight in); or deciding to move away from city (when the kids might not really want that) to a rural, farm-based life? I’ve met a few families recently going through this phase. I myself want to create as less waste as possible and lead a natural, frugal life, but it may contradict with my daughter’s wants.

Sandra:-=-a. Ideally most parents want their children to be happy. Yet, there are many things that seem to come in the way, including their own expectations of how their child should be. How can parents ‘prioritize’ their child’s happiness?-=-

Each parent has beliefs. If they see no problem with what they’re doing, they should keep doing it. If they feel discomfort or concern, they should change what they’re doing. Change can come from gradually choosing to respond differently. Without knowing how one wants to be, though, how can one “make the better choice”?

First, intentions, and then actions. Anyone who intends to try to keep a child happy can choose “more happy” instead of “less happy” when choosing to speak or act.

-=-b. What do we do when some ‘good-intentioned’ choices might ‘clash’ with the happiness of our children.

For example, living an eco-conscious life (for the kid – no plastic toys, no packaged food etc.); or vegan lifestyle (no ‘normal’ food or stuff that a child might delight in); or deciding to move away from city (when the kids might not really want that) to a rural, farm-based life? I’ve met a few families recently going through this phase. I myself want to create as less waste as possible and lead a natural, frugal life, but it may contradict with my daughter’s wants. -=-

There is no “we” to decide these things. I’m sharing what I did.  You will do what you decide to do.

One of the saddest stories I know is of a mother whose friends persuaded her that wooden toys were right and good and that plastic toys were evil and bad.  She went home and threw out all the plastic toys. Her son’s very favorite toy had been a “My Little Pony,” and she had thrown it away and couldn’t get it back. The pony existed. The trust and love didn’t. Her integrity was marred, in my opinion, because she cared more about what her friends thought than what her child thought.

Plastic isn’t the devil. Perhaps parental cruelty is. I’ve known families to move away from town because the parents had some idealized vision of living in the past, of pretending cities didn’t exist. I’ve seen divorces come of it, too. I’ve seen kids get to teen ages and NEEDING others their age, and not being able to get to town. When my kids had jobs, in town, some of their friends whose parents had moved out of town couldn’t possibly work. They were stuck in the country, and not happy to be so. I have not seen it add to long-term happiness.

I’ve seen more sorrow than joy come from dietary restrictions. Sugar is healthier than deprivation and frustration. It is well known that shame and food limitations and controls contribute to eating disorders in children, teens and young adults. And Dr. Steven Bratman has been writing lately about “orthorexia,” an unhealthy obsession with food.

There are some religions that don’t allow for parents to give chldlren options. Lately some non-religious people are creating a religion out of dietary choices. If their food beliefs keep them from being unschoolers, that will be just one of thousands of choices parents can make that come between them and their children’s ease of learning naturally in the world.

India has many vegetarians, and many who don’t eat pork, and so the idea of sticking with a family diet might be quite normal to people there. Finding even stricter interpretations of “family diet” could be a problem, though, in some instances. For our family, learning was primary, and then peace and happiness, and other considerations came after.

11. Rashmie: Going back to your answer 9, saying ‘no’ out of habit or due to the mindset ‘children know nothing’ – such examples are all around. Also, parents feel that children need to be “taught” the value of money. Or that – life is not easy. They think they need to be stern so their children don’t get away thinking they can have anything they want.What would you say about these parenting beliefs?

Sandra: I’m nearly 60 years old. I don’t think there’s any argument or justification I haven’t already heard. I could have chosen to be that kind of parent. You’re correct that examples are all around. My husband and I chose to try something different, and we have peaceful relationships with our young-adult children. They have friends whose parents are avoided and lied to. The terminology of an antagonistic relationship, in phrases such as letting kids know what they will not “get away with,” shows clearly that it’s not about compassionate love for one another.

Harsh parenting is justified with religion sometimes, and “tough love” sometimes, but what remains is that it is harsh, and tough.  I’m not interested in it. Some damning evidence against that sort of parenting is described in Alice Miller’s book For Your Own Good Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence. And some families’ cruelty isn’t even hidden.

Sandra's Family

12. Rashmie: So, what did you and your husband (Keith) do that was different in the context of your children’s wants? :-) I’m sure many parents will genuinely want to understand from you, Sandra. For this, I’ve seen, is the constant factor for tussle and power struggles between parents and kids.

Sandra: Keith and I were together for a few years before I was pregnant with Kirby, who was our first of three. My mother was an alcoholic. I had joined a recovery group called Adult Children of Alcoholics not long before the pregnancy, and I stayed in that group until the time Marty was walking, so nearly five years. Spending time hearing others’ accounts of the harm that neglectful and inattentive parenting can do to their children and grandchildren was startling, and it changed me. From the time Kirby was born, I was aware that my choices could harm him.

I joined La Leche League, a breastfeeding support group, and in the very first meeting I attended my life was changed even more when one of the leaders said “Be your child’s partner, not his adversary.”

The effect of these things was that we gave Kirby choices about whether to eat or not, whether to be carried or to walk or ride, what to wear (in keeping with the season and the purpose), whether to sleep with us or not, whether to play with other children or not.

When he was very young, he was getting good practice making choices for practical, rational reasons. If that had stopped working, we could easily have gone back to authoritarian parenting with its commands and demands. Not only did our “experiment” work, Kirby was thriving, and our lives were simpler and more peaceful than many other families we knew, with their schedules and measurements and rules and punishments.

When Kirby was two, we had Marty. When I was pregnant with Holly, and Kirby was nearly five, we decided to let Kirby wait a year to enter school. It was a small decision then, and simple, and easy. We didn’t decide to unschool him for thirteen years. We decided to see how it went with him, and the next year we could have put him in school, or not.  We thought Marty might want to go to school, and gave him the option, but he stayed home.

We thought Holly might like to go to school, but she wanted to stay home. We helped them to do what they wanted to do, and helped them learn what they wanted to learn. When they were not interested in something, we didn’t press. When they did something wonderful, we didn’t make a huge deal about it. We allowed them the leeway and freedom to make choices in their daily lives, and we coached and guided to help them consider other people’s feelings and needs, if necessary.  They didn’t always need that coaching, as they were used to thinking of what factors were involved when they planned something.

There are parents who say they don’t care if their kids like them or not, that they’re not their child’s friend, they’re their parent. Keith and I did want our children to like us, and we wanted for them to be likable children. We wanted to like them. We wanted other people to like them.

Keith said, “We wanted them to grow up undamaged.”When parents and schools justify rules and shame and bullying and lack of choices with the argument that it will make the kids stronger adults who can endure workplace nonsense, and say things like what doesn’t kill you makes you strong, it makes me feel ill. Would they break a child’s finger to prepare him for the possibility of a future broken arm or leg?

Kindness benefits the child and the parent both. Compassion in any member of a family adds compassion to their homelife. Acceptance builds trust. Trust builds honesty. There are traits and virtues which can’t develop well in an atmosphere of fear and sorrow. Children are born with the will to survive, to love and to learn. Parents cannot create that, but they can damage it.

13. Rashmie: Sandra, all this is profound. My heart is filled with even more admiration and respect for you. Thank you, for sharing so openly and honestly.

You said, “From the time Kirby was born, I was aware that my ‘choices’ could harm him.” Can you share some more on this; and your perspective on ‘choices’.

Sandra: Some people think of choices as the big things: career, marriage, buying a car. They might forget that when they sit or stand, breathe deeply, smile, speak, touch another person, they can be making a choice.

When I touched my baby, I tried to do it as sweetly as I could. If I was rough or thoughtless, I considered that a bad decision I had made. When I spoke to him or sang to him, I thought of making a sweet memory for him, a good association between my voice and his safety and comfort. Because that worked well when he was an infant, I didn’t stop doing it. Because that worked well when he was a toddler, I didn’t stop doing it when he was a boy, and I haven’t stopped doing it now that he’s a man. As often happens with mothers of multiple children, I was able to do it ever better with his younger brother and sister.

Before a person acts, she should think of two options. Maybe more, but two, for those new to this idea.  QUICKLY, sometimes—two options.  Then choose the better one. “Better” will be based on the kind of person you want to be. When one makes the better choice, that was a thoughtful decision. Every time a person acts without thinking of options and choosing the best one, she has acted thoughtlessly.

When I choose, I try to make a choice that will add to the happiness of someone or something. I don’t always succeed, but it’s my goal.

My dad said, when I was 14 or 15, that I just needed to decide to be happy. In that moment, I thought he was an idiot. I never forgot that statement, though. I had seen him smile in some difficult circumstances, and to be strong when others were befuddled. As I got older, I looked for that truth in other places, and have found it very often. My dad died when I was 24, but partly in remembrance of him, once I did learn how to decide to find happiness in life, I shared it with others.

The way we think about things matters. If a person holds his breath in indignation about the stupidity of the world around him, his experience is different from the person who might be in the same room but thinks in that moment of how much worse it might be, and what kindness can be waiting for him from an unexpected source any moment, or how he might make that same world a little brighter.

Negativity is poison. Surrounding oneself with horrible international news and politics, with statistics on how bad life is for other people far away (or even near, if one can’t fix it singlehandedly), thinking the worst of the neighbors, finding the negative in one’s family members is worse than drug or alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, some people combine the two (or three). How can their children grow up in joy?

Sandra, I’m radiating positive energy reading your thoughts. Honestly, I don’t want our conversation to come to an end! It’s been my absolute privilege and joy to interact with you, one-on-one, for more than two months now.

My heart-felt gratitude and BIG hugs to you for sharing these pearls with an open heart. Can’t thank you enough for all your time, effort and patience exchanging dozens of emails, back and forth, between us. You’re amazing, my dear. An inspiration for me. :-)

Folks, I hope you loved reading this exchange. If you have any questions for Sandra, do not hesitate to ask in the comments section below.

PS: If you liked this interview and the thoughts shared here, please share the article freely in your friend- and family-circle.

I need help sustaining this blog…

Dear blog readers – It’s been exactly eight years now that I’ve been writing on this blog! Yes, eight long years and hundreds of articles. From art, creativity and learning; to food, health, gardening, travel, sustainable and mindful living, natural birth. In our un-schooling life, as we go on introspecting, questioning and evolving, I’ve strived to share our stories and experiences with as much honesty, care and sincerity as possible.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • rashmi October 9, 2012, 4:39 pm

    I m super impressed with Sandra and you too Rashmie.. I have 3.5 yr old daughter and just couple of day back I get her admission done in one of the school for next year Nursery session. I am working and cant leave my job for unschooling. But I defintely want to provide loving atmosphere at home and never make school a burden for her…
    Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge..IT immensly helps to those parents also who are not unschooling/homeschooling but use your ideas at home with their kids..

    • Rashmie @ Mommy Labs October 25, 2012, 6:09 pm

      Thank you for the affirmation. I’m glad you like the thoughts shared here and that you don’t want to make school a burden for your child even though you may not be able to homeschool or unschool.
      This detachment from schoolish-expectations on part of the parent is quite a freedom for the child.

  • Jenn October 10, 2012, 4:49 am

    As i sit here with tears in my eyes, all i can think to say is “thank you, thank you”. This doesn’t even begin to cover what i want to say. For the last few years I have been reading and searching for information and educating myself about homeschooling, which has turned into my search for unschooling. I am a stay-at-home mom to a wonderfully curious 4 year old boy. Before i had my son, i was a preschool teacher for 10 years. Over the course of this time, what i have learned, and experienced has molded my philosophy of what i want for my son, and the experiences that i want to provide for him. Everything that i have read, makes me know in my heart, in the pit of my stomach, that unschooling is what is right for my son. This article and interview has touched me so deeply, and i feel much better equipped for “discussions” with our family. Thank you so very much

    • Rashmie @ Mommy Labs October 25, 2012, 6:22 pm

      Dear Jenn,
      Thank you for your heartfelt thoughts. It’s beautiful that you instinctively know that unschooling will work for your son. I hope you can discuss this with your family and can take a collective decision…
      Keep visiting here :-)

  • Kimira October 10, 2012, 6:56 am

    Hi Rashmie
    Have you heard about the Mirambika free progress school? It is in new Delhi and they have a very much Waldorf/ Reggio Emilia style combined with unschooling, and the kids seem to do very well. I havent been there but a friend has interned with them for a while and based on what she shared it seems a beautiful place.

    • Rashmie @ Mommy Labs October 25, 2012, 6:25 pm

      Yes, you’re right, Miambika provides that kind of space for the child to learn in a natural way. It’s being run by the Aurobindo society. I knew about it even before I got married as we lived in that area. At one point in time, I’d thought about sending Pari there but by then we’d moved to a locality quite far and I knew they wouldn’t take kids from far off locations within the city. It makes sense afterall. Why make the kid travel all that distance just for a specific school…

  • Srishti October 11, 2012, 11:33 am

    “Before a person acts, she should think of two options. Maybe more, but two, for those new to this idea. QUICKLY, sometimes—two options. Then choose the better one. “Better” will be based on the kind of person you want to be. When one makes the better choice, that was a thoughtful decision. Every time a person acts without thinking of options and choosing the best one, she has acted thoughtlessly.”

    I started following this the moment I read your article and it is miraculous Rashmie! Thanks a lot for sharing these golden thoughts. I would say that I have not understood everything out of this post and will have to read through multiple times but whatever I am able to understand, I am trying to implement in my own way.

    Whenever I am tensed, Mannu always says “Happiness is a choice”, I sometimes follow it and sometimes not able to..slowly an gradually I have started believing in it and my my life is much better by following this :). I am glad that I have opened up to new ideologies through your blog.

    • Rashmie @ Mommy Labs October 25, 2012, 6:32 pm

      Those words that you chose to dwell on are powerful, aren’t they! They hit home for me as well. I think that choosing a better option is true for me as a parent, as a wife, a friend and as a human being in general. And even for my own self.
      Mannu is right indeed – happiness is a choice. As they say – “happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.”
      Glad that the ideas and thoughts shared here struck a chord with you, Srishti. If you missed some points, may be you can read again. Or, ask questions to Sandra, if you need clarification or have another thought.

  • Rashmie @ Mommy Labs October 25, 2012, 6:05 pm

    Thank you for reading this interview and for your comments. Sorry, I haven’t been able to reply as yet but it’s been on my mind. I’ll reply to each of your comments now.
    Thank you for understanding :-)

  • Sandra Dodd March 12, 2013, 5:06 am

    Rashmie, during our exchange a few months ago, there was a photo I looked for but couldn’t find. It’s in this blog post from my trip to India:


    It was a poster outside on a street in Bangalore. I saw lots of the same poster.
    That’s a lot of tests!

    I’ve had good feedback on these exchanges you published. I’m glad you asked me those questions. They were good ones, and different from the things I’m usually asked. :-)

  • KD June 13, 2014, 6:40 am

    This was a fantastic interview and I could not agree more with the content. We do not have children yet but are trying and cannot wait to be parents. I am earning my doctorate in mere days (grew up with a “traditional” education – went to public school. I’m 27 now and have been in school for the last 21 years!) and am so excited by the plan to unschool (/part-time child-led homeschool).. not because I have not enjoyed my education, but because I love learning and I want my children to love learning. There are a hundred reasons that I love unschooling, so many of them talked about in this interview. Very nice, thank you for posting this – it is a great resource. One little pet peeve though… I can tell that this wise woman is full of care and nurturing, but you (interviewer) were so very sweet and complimentary and it seemed like she never even acknowledged your praise and support. That irked me a bit. Forgivable of course, but nonetheless was something I noticed. Thank you again!

    • Sandra Dodd January 9, 2016, 12:44 am

      KD, I’m sorry if I came across here as failing to acknowledge Rashmie’s kind words. Partly, the interview was edited from a long exchange of e-mails. Not everything was included, and the final edit might have included some things that weren’t originally there. I was answering questions at a fast and furious pace. It can be read as a leisurely, in-person conversation, it wasn’t. The courtesies of a sit-down-to-tea interview might be missing largely because of the format.

      I was happy to be interviewed, and I said in one of the comments above that the questions were unlike most I had ever been asked. I’ve linked these interviews on my site and other places.

      Sorry you were irked, and I hope you’ll forgive me. :-)

      • Rashmie Jaaju January 10, 2016, 12:28 am

        Sandra, thank you for acknowledging my reader’s (KD) note and for appreciating this interview and my words/thoughts for you.