|I read Jan Huntís book The
Natural Child: Parenting From the Heart when I was pregnant
with Satch and it changed my life. The child in me felt validated and
it helped me trust my gut and feel supported about the way I wanted to
mother my son. Itís one of several books that I give as baby shower
/ blessingway gifts. I believe that it has the power to change the
world, one family at a time. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak
with Jan about motherhood, unschooling and the new book The
Unschooling Unmanual. It is with great joy that I introduce
1. In what ways has becoming a mother changed you?
It changed me in every way. It helped me realize that children are
human beings and no different from adults in the ways that really
matter. They are no different emotionally and react the same way we do
to good or bad treatment; they are doing the best they can.
I learned a lot from my son - he's been my teacher. Here's an
example that I'm not proud of. One day when Jason was a baby, he threw
a spoon down on the floor and I reacted with an automatic response by
gently tapping his hand. He gave me a look that I've never forgotten,
even 27 years later. He gave me a perplexed look, as though to say,
"Why would you do such a thing... how could you hurt me?"
And right at that moment, I just grew, like the Grinch... my heart
grew 100 times bigger. Because up until that point I didn't totally
get it, and from that point on I got it. And any other time when I
strayed off the path of respectful parenting, he would give me a look
of confusion or bewilderment. He knew from the beginning - like all
babies - what he deserved and what I should be doing.
There's a book I'd like to mention, because a lot of people don't
know about it, called The
Little GooRoo. It's a delightful picture book from the
perspective of the parent learning from the baby instead of the other
way around. It's a hilarious book and so, so true. I always recommend
it whenever I think of it. That's what it's been like for me - my son
has been my guru and I've learned so much from him!
I really can't think of a way that motherhood hasn't changed me. I
think I've become more empathic. I think I've become more aware of
relationships in general of any age and I became even more of a
humanist than I was before. I don't think I'm the same person in any
way that I was before.
2. What is one tip you would like to share about mothering?
Well there's one thing that comes up in almost every session with a
parent. One of the most common frustrations that parents have and that
I've had too, of course, is that when a child starts to have a tantrum
or gets upset, then we start getting upset, and it escalates. We can
feel confused about why we're having such a hard time, considering
that we're not using punishment. We explain to the child what's going
on in a gentle way, yet that doesn't seem to work. What I've told my
clients is that there is nothing wrong with explaining, even to a
young child (in fact, children understand two years or so beyond their
own vocabulary so they understand things at a higher level than what
we may think). So, explanations are fine, but that's not the primary
need. Their primary need is to feel understood.
It's exactly the same for an adult. For example, if a couple is
having an argument, it's not always helpful to be given explanations -
we want to feel understood. It's much better to say, "Oh you're
angry because... or you're frustrated because... and I can understand
why you would feel that way", to show some understanding and
empathy. So explanations are OK, but they can only go so far and they
shouldn't be the first thing that happens. The first thing that
happens should be validation... validation of the child's feelings. In
fact I often suggest to clients that they put the word
"validation" on their fridge so they can be reminded,
because it's hard to remember anything when you're having an
altercation with a child. We can quickly regress into feeling
frustrated and angry ourselves and it's hard to remember at those
moments how to be compassionate. So the first thing to do with a child
is to validate. It's much more helpful and can much more quickly help
the child to work out their feelings. For instance, to empathize and
say, "Oh you're feeling angry because your little brother knocked
over your castle, after all your hard work," or "I remember
feeling the same way when I was your age". That kind of
understanding and validation is much more powerful then explaining,
"Your brother was just playing, he didn't mean to upset
you". Explanations are all well and good, but they don't really
meet the child's most basic need.
I would also like to include another tip called sleeptalking, which
is simply talking to the child while they sleep - it seems to reach
the child on a deep level. It can be especially helpful for subjects
that are hard to discuss during the day or if the child is just too
young to communicate well around a particular topic. You can talk
about anything... it's not just person to person, it's more like
heart-to-heart or like "ageless soul to ageless soul". They
seem to understand anything this way so it can be very helpful. For
instance, you can say, "I'm really puzzled about (some new
behavior) and I'd like to understand more about that. Could you find a
way tomorrow to let me know how I can help you with that?" You
can also use it to explain difficult situations. I've had clients
going through a divorce who have found it very helpful to explain in
sleeptalking that are trying to make the situation as easy as possible
for the child, and that they will always be there for them. That kind
of reassurance can really get through.
There's a fascinating website on the subject by pediatrician Rhodora
Diaz. She offers short scripts for her patients, which include
love statements, explanations, reassurances, and offers of help. Lots
of my clients have been amazed at how helpful it can be. I often
mention it because so few people know about it.
3. I read your first book, "The Natural Child: Parenting
from the Heart", when I was pregnant with Satch and it changed
the way I viewed the role of parenting. What was your inspiration for
My inspiration for wanting to get a book out was to help parents
understand their child better and to be a voice for children
generally, to stand up for them and help others stand up for them.
4. As a psychologist, mother, and author, how do you juggle
I have to laugh at this question because I'm not very good at that.
It's a lot easier these days because Jason is 27. For many years now,
he's been a great help. He's the webmaster for The Natural Child
Project, and the best editor I've ever had. He also has a computer
repair business. He's just phenomenal. I don't have any real tips for
anybody on how to juggle lots of roles because I don't do it very well
5. I'm finding that so many of us moms feel like we're flying by
the seat of our pants as motherhood is everything we had dreamed of
and yet nothing like we imagined. It's exhilarating yet exhausting,
fabulous yet frustrating. We have days that we feel like we're doing a
pretty good job and days that we feel like we totally stink at
motherhood. Have you ever had days like that? Would you mind sharing
one of your best days and one of your worst days. What advice would
you like to share?
Yes, I think it's all those things and I think every mom has had
days like that. I remember reading a chapter about that once... the
writer said that it's even harder for those of us who identify
ourselves as attachment parents, those of us who've read all of those
books and who've talked with our friends about wanting to be the best
parent possible. It can be even harder when we make mistakes, because
we recognize them as mistakes and we're even harder on ourselves than
parents who haven't had the opportunity to learn about these things
and don't recognize the differences as well as we do. It's really hard
to identify yourself as an attachment parent and then watch yourself
say or do something that contradicts your beliefs about parenting.
I often remind my clients that just as we try to remember that
children are doing the very best they can given their experience and
their current state emotionally and physically, we're the same. We're
all doing the very best we can, and we need to be just as
compassionate with ourselves as we're trying to be with our children.
It's unrealistic to expect that just because we understand what it's
like to be patient and compassionate, and just because we know what
kind of a mother we would like to be, that doesn't mean we can just
flick a switch and be that person. There may be things that we still
need to heal from our own childhood, or things that trigger early
memories and feelings. We may be tired or ill. There are so many
things that affect the way we treat each other. Perhaps the most
important thing to remember is that it's unrealistic to expect to be
100% perfect - we all make mistakes. I think all that we really can do
is to be more diligent, to learn from the mistakes that we make and to
try to do things differently the next time. That's really all we can
do, so we just have to be realistic about that.
Here's an example of a good day: I realized how to handle a very
common problem parents have in stores. Jason wanted a toy that I
couldn't buy for him that day, but I remembered to validate his
feelings first. I said something like, "Isn't that a wonderful
toy! I'm sorry that I can't get it for you today - let's remember
where we saw it and put it on your wish list when we get home".
We kept a wish list for many years - it was very helpful to have that
option, and it was interesting that so many times he realized later
that he didn't want the item after all. Later on, Jason said the same
thing to me when I saw a sweater I couldn't afford. It was wonderful
to see how compassion can travel down through generations.
It's all about being on the child's side. It's not whether we do
what the child wants or not, it's how we do it or not do it. So,
that's what we did... we went home and put the toy on his wish list.
The important thing is to validate the child's feelings even - or
especially - when we can't do what they're asking for. That was one of
my best days, because I came up with a pattern that I could use for
similar situations later.
I've had a number of really bad days too. I try to forget about
those, but here's one example. When Jason was between age one and two,
we were living in a place that was a half mile from town. In the
beginning I would just take him in the stroller, but toward age two he
started to want to walk himself, which was nice because then I could
just put our purchases into the stroller. But one day he didn't want
to walk nor did he want to get in the stroller. Of course, if I had it
all to do over again, I would have been using a sling! But I was
really frustrated and tried to push him into the stroller before I
came to my senses. What's interesting to me now is that this one
incident lasted only a few seconds and yet I've had so many hours of
regret over the years. I often woke at three in the morning and just
felt so awful about it. And that is something that I try to get
through to clients... to be aware that it's important, not just for
the child, but for the parent, to realize that you're creating
memories. You have an opportunity to create wonderful memories for
your child. You also have an opportunity to create wonderful memories
for yourself and to avoid the kind of memory that I had created,
because it lasts forever. One of my Parenting
Cards says "Create happy memories today."
6. You have released a new book, The
Unschooling Unmanual which is comprised of personal stories
and essays by parents, authors and thinkers like John Holt, Rue Kream
and Daniel Quinn. What was the inspiration behind this book?
I just want more children to have the opportunity to unschool. I
really believe that it's absolutely the best way to learn. It's what
every parent does naturally before their child reaches "school
age". For example, if they have a child who is interested in
trains, they may buy him a train set, read books about trains, take
him for a train ride... parents instinctively know how to unschool.
Then suddenly this child is "school age" and the assumption
becomes that this child can no longer learn that way (even though he's
learned the most difficult things in life already, like walking and
talking). All of a sudden he's "school age" and now he can
only learn by being taught by someone who is "trained",
about subjects chosen by someone else, and in a particular building.
This makes absolutely no sense when you really think about it, but
that's what our society believes.
We live in what may be one of the most difficult countries to raise
a child because there is an expectation that children, if not
disciplined will be monsters and if they're not in school, they'll be
illiterate. Those expectations just surround us and it's really hard,
even with a support group of like-minded friends, not to be affected
by all of that. I like to tell clients about a mother of an 8-year-old
boy who wrote in about being criticized for her parenting approach.
She told me her son said something so profound: "Mom, it's not
what they think, it's what we know that's important". It's not
important what anyone else thinks, it's what you know in your heart
I often recommend Rue Kream's book Parenting
a Free Child, and my two favorite John Holt books, How
Children Learn and Teach
Your Own. I also like Grace Llewellyn's book Teenage
Liberation Handbook for older children.
7. As a schooled person yourself, what influenced your decision
to unschool your child?
My education! I did very well in school academically, but not
emotionally - I wasn't part of the "in crowd". I also wasn't
able to learn the things that I wanted to learn and a lot of my
curiosity was dampened. I often look back and wonder what I would be
doing now if I had been unschooled. When I was little and was asked
what I would be when I grew up, I would always say, "an
artist" - I loved painting and drawing. Then when I was about 7,
my parents took me to an art school and I had to take an entry exam. I
was asked to draw a still life of a bowl of fruit. I enjoyed doing it,
but I didn't draw it in perspective. The school staff told my parents
(in front of me) that I wasn't ready for their school because I
couldn't do this particular thing. When I look back at that experience
I think, isn't that what they were there for? But at the time, what
came through was that I wasn't good enough. My number one interest was
crushed at that point. This is a classic school experience - a child
is criticized for something he shouldn't be criticized for and his
passion can be dampened. So that's one experience I wanted to protect
my son from. I wanted to see what his passions were and to keep them
burning - to give him a fulfilling life.
8. What would you like to say to those parents struggling with
the decision of schooling vs. unschooling or to parents who would like
use the unschool approach to enrich the lives of traditionally
I would first reassure them that homeschoolers and unschoolers test
several years ahead of schooled children, and not just academically,
but socially. I can really empathize with unschoolers who are being
criticized by relatives or friends. Most of those who criticize just
don't have the information, and others don't really want to be
convinced. But eventually people can come around, as did my own
parents, because they couldn't help but see how bright my son was and
how kind he was, how well-spoken he was. It's a matter of having faith
in your child, and also faith that others will see the "proof in
Unschooling is what every parent does naturally for their child
when they're little, the only difference is that unschoolers just keep
doing it. As the child gets older and becomes interested in more
topics and ideas, we just keep answering their questions. And I think
that's one of the main differences between unschooling and schooling -
the child asks the questions, and in school the teacher asks the
questions. In fact, there's some research that shows that before grade
3, almost all of the questions are asked by the students and in all
later grades, most of the questions are asked by the teacher. And if
you think about this it doesn't make any sense - if you're asked a
question and know the answer, you're not going to learn anything, and
if you don't know the answer you're going to be frustrated and
embarrassed. Being asked questions is the most difficult way to learn.
We all learn best by asking questions, not answering them. Another
difference is that the children are being taught things that are very
unlikely to be their primary interest on that day. It's almost
impossible to have 20 or 30 children in a classroom, all of whom are
going to be interested in what the teacher is presenting. It's very
unlikely that the teacher will be covering what each child is
interested in in that moment. We all learn best what we're most
interested in at the time. Unschooling children always learn about
their current interest. That's a huge difference.
9. One other question that has crossed my mind, because I'm new
to the philosophy of homeschooling and unschooling is, what if a child
has a passion for something that requires a traditional education and
that piece of paper is the key... what if the child dreams of being a
doctor, for instance?
That used to be an obstacle, but now it's very easy. In fact, it
can be easier now than going through traditional school. A number of
colleges are actually looking for homeschoolers because so many of
them have done so well there. They make the best students because
they're interested in learning.
The Colfax family of California was one of the first homeschooling
families. They had four sons. The oldest boy decided that he wanted to
go to college and took the entrance exam. It was the first time he had
taken any kind of a test, but he did so well that he was accepted to
Harvard. He not only went to Harvard, but graduated with honors, and
he's now an M.D. Two of his brothers also went to Harvard and did well
there. Harvard could see how well these boys did because they were
there for a specific purpose - there was something they wanted to do
in life which required a college diploma. Since Harvard had such a
wonderful experience with them, they not only started accepting more
homeschoolers, but their recruiters look for homeschoolers. So, it's
kind of ironic that if you want your child to have a good chance at
getting into Harvard, unschooling can be the very best preparation!
Back in the 60's homeschooling might have been an obstacle for
college, but now it's actually a plus. There are lots of colleges that
not only accept but welcome homeschoolers and unschoolers.
It's unfortunate that only certain types of work, like medicine and
science, have prestige value in our culture. This kind of hierarchy is
regrettable, because every child should be free to follow their
passion. There shouldn't be any difference in prestige between a good
brain surgeon and a good photographer. Everyone should do what they
love doing and do it as best as they can.
10. Lastly, what grounds you, moves you, fills your well?
When I'm talking to a client and they get it. To witness that
happening is so wonderful! When parents tell me that my words have
helped them and helped their children, that is what fills my well.
That's why I'm doing this work.
One more thing I'd like to add is that our next book, which we hope
to publish in 2009, will be about standing up for children in public
places, about being an "enlightened witness". It's so hard
when I see a child mistreated in public, because it's such a delicate
situation in our culture. We can plan how we might intervene in a
hypothetical situation, but when it actually happens it can be very
stressful and difficult. So we'll be putting together a book or
booklet of suggestions on how to intervene in a way that will be
helpful and welcomed by both the child and the parent.