Learning for Fun: Interview with Sandra Dodd – Unschooling Mom for 22 Years!

For the first time today on Mommy Labs, I’m sharing an interview. I’m all stimulated about this and hope you’ll love reading, too. I intend to share more such interviews in the future, bringing you face to face with people who have dared to take a path uncharted, have gone after their soul’s calling and have inspired many with their life’s journey and stories.

When you read these people’s stories, you may relate or resonate with them, or not. My intention is NOT to suggest to you – “hey let’s follow this, this is THE path”. The purpose is to share a real-life story that is courageous, creative, humane and inspires ONE of the many ways and perspectives to live life – fully, joyfully and fearlessly!

The story and perspective that I bring to you today, is one such. It’s no coincidence that my first interviewee is a person who’s been a BIG influence on me – in the homeschooling journey that I began nearly 1.5 years back with Pari.

Yes, for hundreds of unschooling families around the world, Sandra Dodd is the guiding light and pillar of support. Her thoughts and writings on parenting, natural learning and relationships inspire like no other parenting book can ever do. I am hugely influenced by Sandra’s crystal clear, practical and peaceful ideas that espouse forming loving and trusting relationships with our children, respect for children around the world and allowing children the freedom to BE children – happy, playful, curious and safe.

Sandra Dodd has unschooled her three children who are now 20, 23 and 26. She lives with her husband, Keith, and children – Kirby, Marty and Holly – in New Mexico, United States.

She has authored two books – *’The Big Book of Unschooling‘ and ‘Moving a Puddle‘; shares her thoughts on sandradodd.com and is present around the world speaking at conferences and conducting workshops. I have no clue where she gets all that energy, enthusiasm and time from – to dedicate so much invaluable social support to families.
*The ebook version is here if you want to buy.

She had visited India in 2010 and will most likely visit again in 2013. I definitely would not want to miss that opportunity to meet her in person and hear her talk!

In the meantime, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Sandra. I can’t thank her enough for answering my dozens of questions covering various aspects of unschooling, including the topics that are typically seen with doubts and fears by parents who want to consider homeschooling but have not started yet.

So, yes, this conversation is long but I’m sure you’ll be glued….  {Get a cuppa of your hot ginger tea or coffee and unwind…}

1. Rashmie: Sandra, you say Unschooling is ‘Natural Learning’. So, what is Natural Learning? And, how’s it different from learning at school and, perhaps, in Homeschool?

Sandra: My favorite definition of unschooling is providing an environment in which learning can flourish. School prescribes what should be learned, and in what order.  Then they build an assembly line, and put all the students on it.  The reward those who get through easily, and punish others. School at home is like an assembly line for one.

Unschooling is a way to homeschool, but without the schoolishness.  Things can be learned in whatever order they come along, and the learner will eventually connect all the information he has gathered, but maybe not in the same way or in the same order as the assembly line would have had him do it.

When a child’s life is full of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, people and places, he will learn.  When he feels safe and loved, he will learn.  When parents begin to recover from their own ideas of what learning should look like (what they remember from school), then they begin a new life of natural learning, too.

(Note: You can read more about unschooling here.)

2. Rashmie: Millions of parents around the world whose children go to school or even some who homeschool with curriculum etc are baffled by this philosophy. Even scandalized. They want to know – “how can you be sure or trust that the child will learn all that he should – for a well-rounded education.” “What if he doesn’t want to learn Math; or does not learn to read until he’s 10?; or won’t write by his own will?” What do you have to say about these queries and concerns?

Sandra: Isn’t it interesting?  People don’t ask parents whose children are in school “how can you be sure your child will learn all that he should – for a well-rounded education?”  And we know what happens to children in school, whether they want to do math or read or not.  Some large percentage of them fail—not because they didn’t try hard, but because school grading involves the creation of failure.  It’s a contest, and there can be no winners without losers.

Unschooling has no race, and doesn’t need to have any losers.

As for reading, children don’t read because they decide to. They don’t read because they were taught to read. They figure it out, each in his own way. Some of them figure it out during the time they’re being instructed.  And if a child lives in a home without books, magazines or computers, he will need to be around libraries. But a child in a text-rich environment can and will learn to read, in time, and gently and happily.

3: Rashmie: Going back to your first answer, “Parents recovering from their own ideas of what learning should look like” – now this is the part that can be the hardest and the trickiest. How can parents unlearn those ideas? How can they detach themselves from their own conditioning that came from their own schooling, the society and how they themselves were parented?

Sandra: I don’t think they should detach themselves from it. They should examine it, little by little, and consider what the alternatives might have been. They should look at the messages they received as children, as students, and reconsider them in light of what they know now as adults. They should come to peace with it, but through thoughtful review, not from denial or blind acceptance.

It’s called “deschooling,” and is a kind of recovery from one’s own schooling. It can only be done gradually, and is probably never finished, but unless the parents move in that direction, they will be unable to see what learning looks like in regular, non-classroom settings.

I think it’s normal, and adaptive, for people to justify their upbringing, to defend the actions and attitudes of their parents, even when there were elements that were clearly harmful.  It’s part of love, and self-esteem, in many ways.  We don’t want to look back at ourselves and think “What a waste.” We look for the beneficial parts. And while that is understandable, it can also keep us from being better parents to our own children.

Many parents justify a harsh stance by saying “I’m not your friend, I’m your father,” or “I’m your parent, not your friend.”  Pam Sorooshian wrote something powerful about friendship, and the denial of those feelings.  A quote from the middle of it is:

Instead of “You’re the parent, not their friend,” substitute, “Be the very very best friend to them you can possibly be.”

Do your kids need you to be their “40 year old friend?” YES! Children do need to feel attached to their parents “by affection or esteem.” What better connection is there than by affection and esteem?

The rest is at http://sandradodd.com/friend

Parents should not feel virtuous when they are cruel and cold to their children, but those conditions are sometimes encouraged by other parents.

One of the things that can harm a person for life is an unhappy school experience.  Untangling those ideas and emotions, gradually over years, can open the world up and lead to personal healing.

Even someone whose schooling was ideal and successful can find himself or herself feeling stunted when faced with the real world where high marks at the age of 13 are no longer impressive or rewarded.  Test taking skills aren’t of any use in a social situation.

When our schoolish expectations start to dissolve, learning floods in from all directions.

4. Rashmie: Enlightening thoughts! I totally relate to the part about “examining little by little”. In the past 1.5 years or so, as I started following your writings, reading John Holt, Gatto, this introspection has become a part of my life and seems to occupy my mind and interactions in a big way. But in a peaceful, positive way.

And yet, what if the parents take that much longer to ‘deschool’ from their school-ish ideas, which are often rooted in controlling, disciplining, training. I mean, my daughter is now 6, if I take for ever to understand the essence of natural learning and creating a control-free loving environment, I’d have lost all the precious time. She will quickly grow up to be a 10, 11 or 15 years old. Could the parents end up doing more harm than good by homeschooling/unschooling when they don’t “get it”?

Sandra: -=-what if the parents take that much longer to ‘deschool’ –=-

I don’t understand what the options could be. They either never begin, or they take as long as it takes.

At the same time the parent is reviewing her own life, her child is living and learning.  While observing and learning about the child, and while learning not to hinder or hamper natural learning, the parent changes.  It can’t all happen at once, but if it never starts, unschooling cannot happen.

-=-Could the parents end up doing more harm than good by homeschooling/unschooling when they don’t “get it”?-=-

Homeschooling doesn’t take any getting. Parents who believe school is right and good will “do school” at home. Can school at home do more harm than good? Sometimes, yes.

Unschooling, though, cannot be accomplished if the parent continues to believe that schooling is good and right.

When a question is asked about “homeschooling/unschooling”, the answer will probably be too vague to be useful.   Unschooling is homeschooling, but homeschooling isn’t unschooling. Parrots are birds, but not all birds are parrots.

5. Rashmie: You’re right, homeschooling and unschooling cannot be discussed in the same breath. Unschooling means doing away with teaching, instructing, curriculums. So, what are the ways a parent can support a child’s learning?

Sandra: One image that has been helpful, especially with parents of young children, is that of a nest. Safe, soft, nurtured. Children need a soft place to sleep, parents who feed them, smile at them and love them the way they are.

Once that stage is set, learning can be fed and loved, as it starts to happen naturally.  As children learn, parents can learn to see what natural learning looks like, and how it works.

Children will need things to touch, hear, taste, see and smell. They need to meet people, and visit different kinds of places.  They need chances to climb and explore.  Music, books, films, the internet, puzzles, toys, art supplies, building materials, costumes, stuffed animals or puppets… all those things can be the materials of learning, and as the parents gain an understanding of their child’s preferences and talents and special knowledge, unschooling will really start to work.

Any relapse of schoolishness or fear will set back the deschooling, and the family will need to start over with trust. People can start over a few times, but eventually, too much back and forth will cause the children to lose faith in their parents. The relationship between parent and child is crucial. Parents should remember how they felt when they were young, and find ways to see and treat their child as a whole person, rather than a future human.

Treating a child as one would treat a friend or honored guest will help create a relationship of mutual affection and respect.  The more respect parents show a child, the more respected that child will be. It might not show for a few years, but it will come if the parents are consistently respectful and affectionate, patient and compassionate.

6. Rashmie: “Learning can be fed and loved” – that stood out for me. Some unschoolers believe (which, I don’t understand) that unschooling means the parent stepping back altogether. The child takes the lead. Does that mean the parent is not to ask if a child would like to do something – say do some art, bake a cake, want the parent to read to him/her? What are your views on this?

Sandra: There are people out there giving very bad unschooling advice.

“The child takes the lead” is not good advice, though when someone is just for the first time hearing about unschooling sometimes the idea of following a child’s interests makes sense.  It’s not the same as sitting back for years waiting for a child to discover an interest on his own, though. It doesn’t mean the child should live in a vacuum, or in a very quiet life until she asks for input.  It means parents should pay attention to what children like and don’t like, and either proceed or back off accordingly.

If a parent is “doing art,” baking and reading, the child won’t need to be asked to observe it; the child will have the opportunity to ask questions, and to participate.  If the parent isn’t living an interesting life at all, and can’t think of interesting things to do, unschooling isn’t going to work very well.

Relationships make the difference. If a parent is a child’s partner in learning, then it works. If the parent wants to “lead” by making all the choices herself, and deciding what’s important and interesting, that will bore the child and turn him off to learning.  If the parent waits for a child to ask to do something, she’s being neglectful. If they explore the world together, with her paying attention to the child’s interests and aversions, then it will start to really flourish.

7. Rashmie: Well, like I said, that thought didn’t resonate with me at all. I asked so people don’t misinterpret unschooling as parents not playing an active role in children’s learning. So, thank you for clarifying.

Talking about relationships, I want to ask something that’s unique to India. As you know, the family system in India is very close-knit. Often married sons live with their parents and family decisions are taken jointly. Even if  they may not be living together, married children discuss situations, seek their input and like to take parents into confidence. It can never be like “these are our children and we’re not answerable to anyone”. Especially when it comes to kids, grandparents like to know – all with good intention. Do you have any advice to make unschooling work in such circumstances?

Sandra: In any situation where changes might be made to a family’s traditions or expectations, those involved will need to agree, or at least agree to see how it goes. If there are more than two adults involved, that will make it more difficult. It might make it impossible. Unschooling isn’t a magic ticket to bypass laws or traditions, and tradition is MUCH stronger than law. A law can be changed more easily than grandmothers’ opinions can be changed.

Creativity and compassion on the part of the middle generation is crucial.

One grandmother (in India) was exasperated when her granddaughter, who was two, kept playing with the *Navratri dolls. I wrote to her mom, “Can she have her own area with her own separate dolls? Like a practice place, a pretend one? Or can you play that between times, off season? (Like hiding Easter eggs when it’s not even near Easter at all.)”  I also suggested that the mom play through the whole nine nights with the little girl’s dolls, rather than wait a day for the next puja. The little girl was curious, and wanted to learn, and at her age learning involves touching things. But her grandmother had the right to have her things left alone, too. They worked it out.

Unschooling won’t work in every family. There is no culture anywhere in which any individual can decide unilaterally to do this without regard to what others around think of it.

There is new book by a Canadian unschooler named Pam Laricchia, available in eBook format.  It’s a clear and compelling summary of principles that make unschooling work, and it might help clarify the idea for grandparents.


8. Rashmie: In March this year, I went to the Learning Societies Unconference where many homeschoolers and unschoolers from India had gathered. Those that were beginning the path without school had brought their kids’ grandparents along – so they get to listen to stories of those committed to the unschooling life and their children doing well. Also, experienced unschoolers like Urmila Samson and others spent one-on-one time with the grandparents to clarify their questions, doubts and anxieties. It was heartening to see the first generation of parents leaving convinced and confident about the choices their children have made for their grandchildren.

So, slowly, people in India ARE seeing a possibility of life without school for their children.

But, one overwhelming concern most (those who are not homeschooling yet) share is socialization. They think the kind of social environment schools provide is irreplaceable. Infact, socialization is one overriding concern everywhere and not just in india – when it comes to homeschooling. This is one reason that makes homeschooling an impossible choice for many. What do you have to say about this all-pervasive socialization concern of non-homeschoolers?

Sandra: “Socialization” is a harsh word that sounds soft.

When I was in school, the only bad grades I got were in conduct. Because I talked to other kids at school, I would be given Cs in “deportment” or conduct. I was socializing. I heard several times over my public school years, “You’re not here to socialize.”

But when homeschooling’s critics ask “What about socialization?” what they’re envisioning is children playing with other children, and learning how to work together. In reality, there are schools where conversation is forbidden during lunchtime.

“Socialization,” though, is something done to people. It’s a kind of training, “to socialize” a person. And schools do that very, very badly. The things children actually learn in school include being sneaky, pretending to read, bluffing their way through classes, padding their writing with fluff, and bullying without being caught. I never wanted my children “socialized” in that environment.

What happens instead when a family creates a good homeschooling experience for their children (unschooling or structured), the children meet and interact with people of different ages, rather than just 20 or 30 others of the same age, overseen by a single adult.  They are actually having discussions and activities involving different humans in the real world, doing real things rather than practice things. They are being social, and becoming social, through real world social interactions.

9. Rashmie: Yes, it’s the playing with other children, learning ‘along-side’ and ‘with’ them that the critics are most likely talking about – in favour of school. They think that when children work together as a group, they learn to share, consider, exchange thoughts, learn leadership skills etc, which may not happen in a home school where the child is learning alone without peer interaction. What’s your thought and experience?

Sandra: Perhaps they’re not considering the bullying and shunning that goes on in groups in school, even with the sweetest and most fair-minded teachers.

Parents have an idealized memory of a twenty- or thirty-years-ago school in their minds.  Not all children in school are happy.  Not all children in school want to be there, or are learning to get along well.

The same people who talk about “socialization” often have a very difficult time talking to young children in a personal and straightforward way.  They might have a little script or quiz they give them, but it’s rarely conversational.

I have seen many unschooled children, though, who were fluent and fluid in speaking with others of all ages, younger and older, because they had not been told not to talk to older children, or to leave younger children alone.   And I know older children, and have had three of them, who impressed adults with their ability to greet and converse as people, while others their age were mumbling, using their own scripts, or avoiding adults altogether.

10. Rashmie: What have you found to be the most rewarding about unschooling your children?

Sandra: Seeing them learning and growing in peace has been wonderful. Once when my husband was asked about our parenting philosophy, he said “We wanted them to grow up undamaged.”

The relationship I have with each of them is warm and familiar.  We really, truly *know* each other, directly, rather than seeing each other through roles and filters.

We are friends.

11. Rashmie: What are those roles and filters?

I don’t know the names of forms or grades in India. Here, if a parent labels, considers or sees a child as “a pre-schooler” or “a kindergartner” or “a first-grader,” he is seeing the child as a member of a group of people in relationship to school, rather than seeing his child as a unique human in a special, one-of-a-kind life.

12. Rashmie: Those parents whose children go to school may insist that school does not come in the way of knowing your children and forming loving, trusting bonds with them. What would you say?

Sandra: I would say that very few parents have seen a relationship between a parent and a child that didn’t have the overlay of school. When school labels a child bright or average or slow, the parent holds that ruler up to the child and it affects what the parents will expect, and provide. By that measure they will reward or punish, shame or praise.

I know many parents who have had a child grow up without ever a report card, without ever a test score, school uniform or homework. I have seen those relationships thrive and develop over decades, now. My oldest son turned 26 this week.  I have been in contact with other unschooling families for over 20 years now.The damage that school and schooling can do to the way a parent sees a child is considered normal, but it is not inevitable and, as nature goes, it is unnatural. It might be the norm, but it doesn’t make it the only option.

13: Rashmie: Yes, I’ve seen the impact of schools ‘labeling’ children. I can think of dozens of examples right now and feel sad for those kids who will never get to know their true self and potential because they have already been ‘defined’ a certain way…

Sandra, unschooling it seems is so much more than just “how children learn”. From your answers and insight, I can infer that unschooling is so much more and deeper. It’s definitely a lot about relationships – with children, among spouses. Did the positive effects of unschooling spill over onto other aspects of your family life? Even social life?

Sandra: Yes, to all of our lives. I have notes from talks I’ve given on the unforeseen benefits of unschooling – here.

That page starts off talking about my fourteen year old daughter wanting hugs.  She is nearly twenty-one now, and hugged me today for a long time.  We spent nearly the whole day together.

14. Rashmie: Tell us some more about your children. Did they choose to go to university? What are they doing now?

Sandra: Kirby has worked for Blizzard Entertainment for five years. It’s the company that owns and runs World of Warcraft, and other international online games. They moved him to Austin, Texas, to work there. When he first took that job, at the age of nearly-21, he already had seven years of experience on his resume,  having been asked to work at a games store when he turned 14.  He had also taught karate as a teen.

Marty is 23. As a teen, he worked making leather boots and pouches, in a grocery store, and at a Persian restaurant, over the years.  Now he has an early-morning job in a department store, and takes math and economics classes at a local college.

Holly is 20 and has worked in retail, at a flower shop, and doing child care locally and for families out of town. She’s involved in yoga, art and music, but none of that involves money at the moment.

Rashmie: Thank you, Sandra. This conversation with you has been invaluable for me. I hope my readers will find it useful in context of their children’s learning and schooling and their own life choices.

Friends, I’ll be talking to Sandra some more about how unschooling children transition into college/university – if they want to. I’ll also ask her about unschooling Math, structured learning in higher education or other areas of life, meeting state regulation/mandate, careers and more. I’ll be publishing the second part in some time.

Got Any Questions for Sandra?

In the meantime, if  YOU have any questions for Sandra about Unschooling that I did not cover here –  please feel free to ask her. I’ll send your questions to her and include your questions and her answers in the second part of this interview.

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