The following is a lightly edited transcript from Pam Laricchia’s interview of me on her podcast, “Exploring Unschooling” in the Summer of 2017.
PAM: Hi everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and I’m here with Dan Cadzow. Hi Dan!
PAM: Hello, hello. Dan is a stay-at-home, unschooling dad of four, and it’s been a really interesting journey for him. I am looking forward to hearing a lot more about it!
So, to get us started Dan, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you came to unschooling?
DAN: Sure. My wife and I are anthropologists, I’m an archaeologist by training, and we were in graduate school—well, I was working as a field archaeologist and my wife went to graduate school—and we had our first kid and then she graduated, and I went into graduate school. I got an Eigart fellowship—it was four years of a free ride—and then we had three more kids in the ensuing time. And during the class intensive phase, the oldest was getting school ready and we were using daycare a lot, you know, while I was in school and she was working, and it was just so hard. It was so stressful leaving the crying kids in the care of the daycare workers and later teachers, and we didn’t feel good about that at all. It wasn’t healthy. Society prepares you for that, they’re like, ‘Oh, they’re going to cry,’ the daycare workers would use euphemisms like, ‘Oh he was a little sad, but he cheered up.’ You know. I saw all that, it wasn’t just sadness, it was holy terror, ‘Who are you leaving me with?’
But you have these strong pressures from society, you know, everybody does this, do this too. And we did. And over time there were just more and more of those things that we found that everybody does that we didn’t want to do. Like, there was no need to have our kids sleep in a quiet dark room away from us at an early age. That’s just not how, as an archaeologist, how society has worked for the last hundred or so thousand years—extended families were living in one room buildings or caves or huts or lean-tos or out in the open, but all together.
So, we began to question things more and more and as my class intensive part of graduate school was sort of easing up we had Asa, the oldest, in school and we were noticing it was taking a toll on him, his grammar was getting worse, there were incidences of violence reported by his teachers and I picked up some sort of sexist and racist dialogue, and I was friends with his teachers, I knew it wasn’t coming from them, it was coming from the other students. And with a classroom of one teacher and 20, 30 children you know that the children are learning more from each other.
When it came time to put the second kid in, instead we decided to pull the first kid out and take the others out of daycare and do it at home. We didn’t really know much about homeschooling and hadn’t even heard of unschooling back then, but it became instantly apparent that the whole school model doesn’t work, there’s no way to get kids to sit down and do worksheets and study discrete topics at discrete times just because you tell them to. You have to be very authoritarian and coercive to even try to pull that off.
We started slipping into the unschooling—unwittingly slipping into the unschooling paradigm right away. Over time, for me, it started out a lot just reading science magazines, science news, and seeing all these studies about kids and cognitive development and what works and what helps with learning and what doesn’t and it became increasingly apparent that what goes on in school is really—if anything—harmful to kids and not helpful. The lack of play, the lack of recess, the lack of creative free time where kids can learn how to collaborate and compromise in small groups. That’s all missing except for those diminishing periods of recess that are still there.
So, we start thinking about what we really wanted to do with our kids and what our hopes were and exploring what the kids wanted, what they naturally had predilections for and a lot of it was that unstructured free time, exploring. I’d say probably exploring is the biggest part. Wandering around, looking under rocks, trees, climbing things and doing that in novel environments became our mantra.
On our school paperwork, we’d write it as, ‘the world is our classroom and our textbooks,’ and we take the kids and we keep them in this complex and interesting world, and they ask questions and we answer them, even if we have to do research to do so, which is often the case. And we answer them in ways that cover the topics listed in the above stated state-mandated curriculum.
So far, it’s been working out great. We’re really enjoying our kids and how they’re turning out and how much they love each other and are comfortable around each other. Of course, they fight from time to time, who doesn’t, even mom and dad do, but most of the time they get along famously. And, you know, they’re learning how to deal with conflicts and that’s actually one of the biggest perks I see in our family.
I don’t spend a lot of time comparing our family to other families because that’s just not healthy, but just in society at large I see that our kids don’t have that age-ism or competitiveness. We get a lot of ‘that’s not fair’, but sometimes things could be a little more fair, you’ve got to try to figure out ways to do that.
Like, the big kids and the little kids, they play together, it’s not just the older kids and the smaller kids pairing off, sometimes the biggest and the littlest will pair off and the two middle kids will pair off, or any other permutation, or a lot of times they’re just all together. Just this morning they were all up in Asa’s bedroom just hanging out talking. Making up songs with silly words in them and singing them together. It’s like a little piece of Little House on the Prairie or something, you feel like you’re creating something.
PAM: That was a huge piece, that there wasn’t that grade/age separation, that we’re all just people. We’re all just hanging out and doing things together and who pairs up with who is just based on interest and what somebody is interested in doing at that moment. It’s such a huge difference.
I loved your point about climbing trees, because Lissy is visiting and just yesterday they were climbing the trees here still and it’s Michael’s birthday today so he’s 20 and she’s 23 (Happy birthday, Michael!) and they were out climbing trees still, together!
DAN: That’s great, you know, I always tell the kids if you give up on that, you’ll never lose it. [dog barks] That’s Leela barking at nothing apparently, sorry!
PAM: The other interesting point that I really liked is it’s really interesting isn’t it that so much of the research—you were talking about your reading in journals and what they’re finding about learning, relationships, all that kind of stuff and how it works best—is not the way this whole system is set up.
But still the system is so hard to change even though all the research is pointing in another direction. I think we’re finding more and more alternative learning environments being set up now because you can’t just change and tweak the system that we’ve got because it’s just unmanageable, it’s just so large.
DAN: There’s too many people in a bureaucratic sense advocating for their own positions, their positions would go away or be completely remade and they don’t want to do that and there’s a lot of money wrapped up in it too and that compromises people’s motivations.
PAM: That’s a nice way to put it. [laughter]
You mentioned your kids and some of their interests, I was wondering if you could share what they’re enjoying at the moment and how they’re pursuing that, I’d love to hear what the kids are up to.
DAN: Well our biggest family project is we fixed an apartment up over our garage and we run Air BnB out of it, which is kind of neat because we get people from all over the world visiting and they’re mostly really friendly and interactive and every now and then they’ll even have kids that we can play with.
But we’re taking that money in lieu of savings for our retirement, because I already feel like I’ve retired, and we’re buying a very old farm in Livingstone County, New York. We’re in the process of closing on that but we have an occupancy agreement. It’s this great old farm with all kinds of very old buildings and creeks and parts of it is forest, part of it’s brush and part of it’s agricultural and we’re going to try to—we’re sort of thinking about it as an unofficial immersion, self-directed learning centre, with a focus on horticulture, subsistence, nature, ecology.
They love it when they can get out there and play in the creeks and climb trees and just run around. We live in the geographic centre of Buffalo, New York and there’s an expressway that was supposed to be removed when we bought our house, so our movements here are really restricted.
Out there they can just explore, it’s 40 acres of beauty. They are really getting into that, they are starting all kinds of plants and little pea pots and unfortunately the closing has been delayed by two months because of requirements for planning boards and then public meetings, so we have all these kale and broccoli and cilantro and parsley growing on our front porch and they’re dwarfing their small containers.
They’re very much excited about gardening and growing things and improving the soil. They love digging, so they each have their own shovels and they want to dig a giant pit and start collecting all the firewood we can and have a giant fire and then bury it so we can possibly make bio-char and till that into the gardens along with some compost that we’re already saving. So that’s sort of like the big thing that we’re all focusing on, and acquiring the tools that you need for country living, like a trailer to get the mower down there and pick up lumber and stuff like that.
In terms of day to day stuff, the three oldest are all boys, the youngest is a girl. Iris is four now—oh no, five—and the boys are incredibly immersed in Minecraft. I know that comes up on every show and I actually don’t know what is so educational about Minecraft but I do know that it enthralls them, and when they get their turn or time on the screen, that’s what they love, building and exploring and mining. I can’t figure out what’s so educational about it, I’ve watched videos about why it’s educational that didn’t really resonate with me, but the fact that they love it, I assume that they’re getting something out of it.
The same was true years ago, they developed an obsession, the older two, with dot-to-dots. I was constantly printing dot-to-dot worksheets from the computer and I was constantly fighting this urge to say, ‘Come on, you’ve played this out, there’s no more, can we move on?’ but I didn’t. I fought that, and in the end, we bought these extreme dot-to-dot books that had these thousands of dots, and every now and then I’d slip and say, ‘come on, you did that, why don’t you colour it in, cut it out and hang it up or something?’ and they’d say ‘no, I just wanted to connect the dots.’ And it’s like, well, I don’t know what you’re getting out of it, but it’s holding your interest, so you’re getting something out of it, so we just supported it. And then they move on to other things.
But their interests change a lot. One day they want to make potions and freeze them and thaw them with a magnifying glass, or start fires with a magnifying glass, and the next day they want to do colour and cut crafts, play in the dirt, climb trees. It varies quite a bit. It’s hard to pin down one specific interest on one specific kid.
PAM: Yeah. But it’s so fun to watch where their mind goes, isn’t it? All the different things they come up with when they wake up.
DAN: It’s fun too, seeing them apply vernacular…like, when it comes to television we regulate it a little bit, our underlying thinking—I know it’s not a pure unschooling thing—our underlying thinking initially was really screen time is only as bad as the quality of what they’re watching plus what it’s displacing. So, if it’s a beautiful day and there’s a park nearby but they’re “just” watching TV all day, that seems kind of bad, but if you’re on a long interstate trip just staring at cornfields I think a screen would be much more educational than that. But they learn all kinds of cultural stuff from the TV that they wouldn’t learn in our house. Because we are who we are, and we have our subset of American culture but there’s so much more out there that they learn from, and just hearing the littlest especially, I can’t come up with one right now, apply these kind of complicated terms to novel situations is always kind of fun.
PAM: They bring such an open and interesting perspective on things, right? I’ve always been fascinated and loved the connections that they make because they’re not the connections that I would make, but they see them as fresh and have new ways of putting things together. That’s always really fascinating.
DAN: Yeah, that’s one of the problems with our educational system, K through PhD, that there’s so much of it is structured by pleasing the teachers and the people who set up the curriculum’s expectations that you’re never going to come up with novelty.
If the first order of business is to make sure you’ve regurgitated what they think is important—I even think about how medical doctors are trained with the residencies where they have to work 20 hours straight and it’s like that in a military or a monastery setting—you’d be pretty clear that’s like brainwashing. Driving the stuff into their heads. But we just sort of take it for granted, and I don’t want my kid to be the one being operated on by someone who’s been on their feet for 18 hours. It just doesn’t seem healthy. But—going back to the novelty thing—you’re just repeating what’s expected of you and not allowed to think for yourself.
And even in academia the rule is publish or perish. You might get into a small teaching college that has an emphasis on teaching, but when you’re submitting articles to these journals it’s like, heaven forbid you’ve come up with something new or novel. The old guard that are editing the journal will say, no that’s unorthodox, publish it in Mad Magazine, or something.
And here in North Eastern United States the archaeology is still operating in a 1960s paradigm, but in other parts of the world they’re really looking at how stone age people were able to have huge ecological impacts, and a lot of good, a lot of them. Sure, they were implicated in some…the pleistocene mass extinctions but it wasn’t like a simple overkill hypothesis, they were through a lot of grass roots, self-organising activities. They were having large impacts and a lot of them were very good.
That guy, William Bailey did ecological plant inventories in places that were occupied by humans even in the long past have much greater biodiversity than completely undisturbed pristine wildernesses that would be dominated by, for example, one species of tree that can reproduce and get the light and dominate the canopy. So very unproductive environments.
And the neat thing about that too is, you know, going back to unschooling, if you look at the ethno-historic literature with say the Iroquois, the kids were right in the mix with everything. They were out there with their Moms, they were maternalistic and matrilocal. So, the women were in charge of a lot of the clan leadership and they were also—when people married, the husband would move in with the wife’s family. And they were also completely in charge of the horticulture, which was vast.
Some of the early descriptions from Champlain and Cartier, these villages that would have 40 or 60 acres of food production going on around them, and it was reportedly not a lot of hard work, how they did it. And the kids were out there with them, doing it. Right there learning with their parents, not separated.
That’s throughout all of human history—I mean, our schooling system’s only about 150 years old. There are examples of schools and workshops and apprenticeships back into antiquity, but for the most part, kids learned organically just by being in society. I think of it in terms of the transmission of culture. Which, culture for non-anthropologists can be just though of as everything that helps humans adapt to the environment that isn’t biological or genetic. So, like, we wear clothes so we can live in the arctic but we’re not physically adapted to that.
Our culture allows…there’s no other example on the whole planet of another species at our height in the food ladder or food web that has covered more of the earth than humans, and it’s because of our culture.
A lot of times there’s these scientific stories about starvation and going without, but when you think about our species originated in Eastern Africa or Western Africa or the Middle East about 150 to 200 thousand years ago, based on fossil evidence and has spread out over the entire planet—even things that seem really uninhabitable we are inhabiting and thriving in. That all happened without any formal control over the transmission of culture.
And 150 years ago, somebody decided, this is really important, we need to control it. And you can hypothesize over their motivations, whether they were good or bad, but I think that it’s really hurting us as a society that we are trying to control it and limiting people’s experiences so much. I see it when you look at early frontier and post frontier architecture and landscapes and you used to have these “gentleman farmers” reading Homer’s The Iliadin their Italianate and Greek Revival farmhouses and they knew the importance of an education, and they bought into the system of schooling.
But it seems like every generation seems to get a little worse and a little worse, and now you drive around the country and those iconic farmhouses are crumbling in ruins and there’s trailers next to them and six kids lined up getting into the school bus and it just kind of breaks my heart to see what we’re losing with this over-reaching attempt to control the transmission of culture. It’s like the kids are separated from the world and taught about it through abstractions.
PAM: That’s so fascinating.
I find that really interesting to hear you talk about it, and I think that leads really nicely into the next question, because I think that’s what you’ve been talking about, the key pieces in your decision to leave your PhD program and stay home with your children instead. So, was it those kinds of things that were coming together for you and kind of informed your decision at that point?
DAN: Yeah, all of those things tied together, and that was very much like the intellectual foundation. For me I can’t just have an authoritative figure tell me ‘this is best,’ I have to know the data behind it and the way the studies were conducted. And admittedly a lot of it I can’t make sense of, it’s outside of my field or experience, but a lot of times when you know the pieces of what’s behind these decisions and they all make sense and they form a logical construct that works with everything else, and it makes a lot more sense.
And that was a huge part of it, having this view of humanity, of the evolution of our cultures, the formation of states and hierarchical societies and it’s like thinking about what worked and what didn’t work really helped. But honestly, the biggest single factor like we were talking about before, just this deep-seated love for the kids.
Work wasn’t enough, school wasn’t enough, the idea of becoming a professor at some Ivy League school, not that I ever would have if I’d stayed with it, wasn’t enough to replace the sadness I would feel when I’d leave the kids in the care of strangers. Watch them go away on the school bus. That was the big thing, you know, these kids are wonderful and they’re loving and they’re needing, especially at those early ages. It seems like we have this thing and it’s sort of like a tempo thing, and I think it’s really unhealthy.
When a kid’s first born, they’re the most needy and we have all these institutional and cultural traditions where we’re saying, “You’ve got to stop being so needy. You’ve got to cry yourself to sleep in the next room. You’ve got to sit in that bouncy chair instead of bouncing on my knee. I got to get work done. You’re going to go to daycare and then school.”
And then at the other end of that, at the juvenile adolescent period we have the opposite thing. You know, “You’re 16-years-old, sit down, raise your hand to speak, if you have to go to the bathroom you’ll need a hall pass.” And we’re trying to keep them little.
We make them grow too fast in the early stages and then we restrict them too much at the later stages.
An early piece of this for us was we fell in love with the whole attachment parenting stuff. The way I think of it, kids are little containers or vessels and—well, a human being is like a vessel or a container—and when they’re little, they’re so much easier to fill up when they’re empty, it’s so much harder when they’re big and empty to fill them up.
So, you feed into them all the love and support and nutrition when they’re so tiny and, when they grow up, they still need that stuff but they don’t need as much because they’re already pretty filled up. It kind of grows with them. And it seems like we as a society have kind of institutionalized the opposite of that practice.
When you see kids that are raised in more of a free-range manner, or often, I mean I’ve met some of our neighbours in our new country involvement and their kids are just like rolling around in the grass and taking steps and tumbling and allowed to fall. It’s so much easier to learn to fall when you’re only a foot from the ground than when you’re three feet, four feet from the ground. But, um…sorry I kind of went off on a tangent, got lost…
PAM: No, that’s okay, I think that was such a great point, it’s true at those two ends we are kind of doing the opposite of what they as human beings seem to need, right? Need and want. Want all that connection when they’re younger and we’re trying to separate them as quickly as possible and then when they’re older all of a sudden, we want to keep them close and keep control over them and they’re wanting to spread their wings. That’s such a great point.
DAN: And when they’re young, I forget the number, the rate of your brain’s growth, just like the size of your head, it is growing so fast cognitively our wiring is shooting out in all kinds of crazy directions. And that’s the importance of push and pull with other living creatures recursively reorganizing with your environment, it’s stimulating this cognitive development. We need to be fostering it, not restricting it. I think kids that are allowed to do that, I think they take on more responsibility sooner. Responsibility is kind of a coded word—they’re able to do things sooner than kids that are deprived of those things.
The other thing that I wanted to mention there when I kind of stumbled over my own thoughts, I think it was in John Taylor Gatto’s article, Against School, where he quotes a Princeton professor giving a speech, and this guy is bragging about how with their methods they’ve extended the juvenile period two or three years.
And when I read that my jaw just dropped, because I’d read a lot in the past about domestication, because when humans spread out across the planet they went to different areas and they developed different ways of adapting and Europe is really peculiar because nowhere else have humans really domesticated so many species. Domesticated is really the old term, the real term is co-evolved, they’ve interwoven their lives with these animals so much. So that’s a really interesting topic for archaeologists, for one, because a lot of diseases co-evolved with them and that was incredibly destructive when they started interacting with Native Americans—through all of North and South America, I think the only domesticated animal was the alpaca in South America.
They did more what was wild management of game so they had plentiful deer, squirrel and turkey that were there because they grew so much food around their villages and camps that there was just plenty left over for all the animals. If you wanted a deer hide you could just walk out your front door and shoot a deer and there’s your hide. But in Europe we had them living in our own houses even, or they lived in barns with them.
So anyway, domestication was a really big focus for me in archaeology, but when I read that my jaw dropped because when you domesticate a creature, the number one thing you select for is the retention of neo-natal traits. Because a baby lion is cute and cuddly and playful. A baby bear…a baby anything is sweet and easy. So, when I hear that they’re bragging about retaining or extending the juvenile stage in human beings I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it really gives you the sense of the nefarious, you want to domesticate people, keep them more docile and obedient?’
To me, that gave me the chills when I read that.
PAM: From the perspective that you had and the connections that you made there, that’s really interesting.
I was also curious, so now you’ve decided to stay home with your kids, I was wondering how now, because you said you hadn’t heard of unschooling at first, so I was wondering how you went about building, or ended up finding, trust in the process of unschooling. I was curious about the pieces that resonated with you and made you feel more confident that you saw with your kids—that helped grow your confidence in living an unschooling lifestyle.
DAN: As I said before, a lot of it seems natural. We chose to be completely honest with our kids, like one of the early rules that we came up with, or policies, or however you want to describe it, was, we’re not going to say no to the kids unless we have a very good reason. There’s a lot of like, things that you say “no” out of habit to kids, like, “Can I climb that tree?” “No, you’ll fall.” “Can I dig a hole?” “No, you’ll get muddy.”
We realised that kids can climb trees. Silas broke his arm quote unquote climbing a tree, but you know what, he didn’t actually climb the tree, he fell off of a slide, a little plastic slide, and he just landed in exactly the wrong way. The little cap of his elbow came off and they had to put a pin in it. But he wasn’t even in the tree, he fell off of the little slide, it could have happened in a chair or anywhere. Trees are even more safe because there’s a lot more to grab on to, the branches are all around you and even if you do slip you can grab onto them. And our kids are little monkeys, I’ve never even seen them slip.
We have a big elm tree I planted in the backyard and it has grown like crazy. It’s only 7 years old, but it’s 30 feet tall and the kids are all over that. I think a lot of it is whenever we fill up the kiddy pool I have them put it where the water will go to the tree when it splashes out or is emptied. I suspect living by the express way there is a lot of carbon pollution and that is like, food for the tree. But everything we’ve planted here has grown like crazy.
A lot of it was just that trust, and not having that habitual no, no, no. So, we started moving into it that way. I hadn’t heard of your podcast, I forget how I first heard of the term unschooling. What was really formative was a podcast by Amy Childs, The Unschooling Life.
And what’s good with that one is there’s just so many things it makes you question that you wouldn’t normally question, even like, you have a kitchen with all this food, why not be a short order cook? Why should your kid have to eat something they really detest? We do have them try everything, but it’s just got to be a spoonful. Because sometimes you’ve got to try something up to 20 times before you develop a taste for it. And I think just having a spoonful is not too much to ask, because in the end if they’re an adult with a really diverse palate I think they’ll be grateful for that.
But now, listening to your podcast and articles that come up, Peter Gray’s Psychology Today blog, there’s a lot of stuff about self-directed learning and letting kids assess risk for themselves, and especially if they get an early start at it they get better at it. But the more you immerse yourself in these things, and listening to you interview other people who have found their own paths to unschooling, the more you just make all these connections and it’s sort of a logical, cosmological order of where all these things are, they’re not at odds with each other, they all agree with each other and they all support each other and are also completely consistent with studies on cognitive development that are published in hard science journals that don’t even know what unschooling is.
It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just this logical reality, so how can you not do it, when you have all this evidence and all this support?
PAM: One thing I find so fascinating is I’ll be reading completely unrelated topics etc, but their research, their ideas—when somebody is truly deeply interested in their topic and they dig deep down they find the same kind of roots that we find. Like how people learn, how people develop. How capable people are. And you realize how universal or foundational to the way human beings live, you know what I mean? That unschooling hits.
If you dig deep enough from any perspective, when you get to the root of how humans are doing that thing I find so often that they get to the same roots that I have found from the unschooling perspective.
DAN: So, an unfettered kid, not tied down by a schedule or a curriculum or a class structure, they pick up a task they’re interested in, they pick up a puzzle, they colour, they read a little bit, like all kinds of things you might think are classically educational materials, but then they’re finished with it and they go run around or they take a nap, or they might watch tv or something.
There were these studies that were done that they had kids, they had test groups and control groups and they would have them study a specific task. Group A would study it and then they would keep studying until a certain time and then they would have to be tested on it. Group B, they did one where they studied the task and then the kids went and played for half an hour, the same time the others were still studying and then they were tested. And believe it or not, they did a lot better than the ones who studied the whole way through. And there was another one where instead of playing they napped. And again, they did better. We don’t realize it but we process and re-process all kinds of information when we’re sleeping or playing, just living and being free.
And our schools have found, they’re like, “Oh our standardized test scores are dropping so lets double down on what’s not working. Let’s not reintroduce recess which is just completely missing from a lot of them.” Our Buffalo public schools have been non-compliant for years with requirements for physical activity and our scores are really bad too. And the thing is it’s not because of the teachers or the schools, or the curriculum, because we have a city that’s incredibly segregated and there’s some really concentrated poverty. Attempts to fix it through bussing in the past really only made it worse. And every time the system gets ratcheted down the wrong path further it just can’t get back, there’s just too much bureaucratic machinery that won’t bend or flex. Sorry, I got off on a tangent again.
PAM: Oh, your tangents are fun! But I really appreciated the study that you shared there too, about the importance of that free time for things to just process and connect instead of trying to keep pushing things in. Because that is something with unschooling that we talk about so often on the podcast: the value of that free time and space, if it is to nap or hang out or play, whatever. That that isn’t wasted, or lost, or lazy time—that time is so valuable to a person.
I was wondering what has been the most challenging aspect of moving to unschooing for you?
DAN: Well, initially, I felt really insecure about being a man that takes on traditionally, in our society of late, female roles. And I was raised a redneck kid in Ohio—singing, dancing was not something boys did and I still can’t carry a tone if I try to sing. And I feel personally robbed from that.
But I still carry a lot of that baggage, so, initially walking into the grocery store with a kid in the grocery cart, a kid in the Snugli, people looking at you—it seemed to me that when I started doing it there weren’t a lot of other dads around doing it.
And I would see people look at me and sometimes they’d have concerned looks on their faces and you’d feel like they’re judging you, but I quickly realised that a lot of those people were just … they were actually trying to be supportive. And they would say things like “Oh, you’ve got your hands full!” or “Great job,” and it’s like when they start talking to you instead of just looking at you, you start realizing, ‘Wow, they think it’s great,’ they’re admiring you. And after a while, I find the older I get the less I care about what other people think. You get more confidence in all your actions and stuff like that. So that was an early challenge, worrying about stuff like that.
The other challenges, if anything, it’s a little bit like paranoia. Like I feel like something’s going to go wrong and this will all be taken away from me.
We had a case in the local news where a woman had her kids taken by child protective services for educational neglect. And she was like, “I’m a homeschooler, I applied with the paperwork and this is just wrong.” And CPS and the schools, they’re honour-bound not to divulge anything about their clients, so all you got was that mom’s perspective. But later, eventually it comes out through investigative reporting that there were several warnings and she only submitted homeschooling paperwork after CPS was involved and she wasn’t actually homeschooling—there was no history of her complying with any kinds of standards. And she was also somebody coming from a life with a lot of poverty and trauma and stress. And homeschooling just ended up being a tool for her, trying to get her kids back. But it gave homeschooling a bad spotlight for a little while in our local news.
But also, just, like, hearing “educational neglect” and kids being taken from you. When Asa was in school, like I said, I was friends with his teachers and they were really great people; I haven’t met many teachers I don’t like. I think, ironically, they’re the sort of compassion-based grease that keeps the awful machine running. Because they’re there making lives in these institutions more tolerable for the kids, most of the time, sometimes worse.
Asa, we played hooky kind of a lot, and Asa’s teacher, she thought it was great because she knew we were going to the science museum, we were going hiking at Hunter’s Creek or camping in Allegany, you know, all these wonderful things, or even to the beach, gosh, there’s so much to learn and absorb there, whether it’s geomorphology or biology or whatever piques your interest.
So, while she thought that was great, these administrators they just see the absences pile up, unexcused absences, and we actually got a letter saying you’ve missed, I think it was 16, days this year. If you miss any more we might start a CPS investigation.
There are a lot more variables there, like, why are they missing school? And ours were missing school for a science museum and being with their family in a supportive healthy environment, they weren’t missing it because, you know, any of the awful reasons you might think. But anyway, that letter was, I don’t know, it was like getting hit on the head with a cartoon hammer, it was when I really realized that the state has this sort of legal control over my kids. And I was just like, Oh, my gosh, that was scary, the idea that they would take him away and put him in foster care or something because of something like absences.
And to me that really was kind of a pivotal moment for wanting to reduce their control or influence on our family, on our autonomy, because it was just really, really unsettling.
PAM: I can imagine! Last question, and it’s been a fascinating conversation, thanks, Dan.
As an unschooling dad, what advice would you share with dads who are considering or who are just starting out on this journey?
DAN: That’s kind of hard because you talk with somebody and they stimulate questions and everybody’s got their own thing. One of my neighbours said he saw me crossing that awful expressway with the four kids, and he and his wife want to have kids soon and they like the idea of homeschooling but they’re scared of it. He said he saw me, like, communicating with all the kids, making eye contact with all the drivers, hand gestures, keeping them safe, on the crosswalk and waiting for the signals. He said he just couldn’t imagine ever doing that and he said seeing that, what he described as expert parenting in that setting, he just felt like he could never do that.
You know what I told him was, “Yes you can.” You don’t see me saying I think I’m going to take up painting and expect to instantly become a master—there’s so many small steps in between that and where I was. Like when you’re first learning how to change diapers and how to deal with gas, problems with the kids, there’s a million things that come before any complicated thing like camping or crossing an expressway or outings, and it all builds on itself.
PAM: And you have one kid first, right, not four.
DAN: Just one. And those I think are the hardest times when it’s up to you to stimulate them, when they start having siblings it gets a lot easier.
But our first outings, we have this great, gigantic cemetery here in Buffalo and I was really insecure about going out in public without Renee’s help when I was home with the kids. It was just a series of small moves and our first outing was to that cemetery. A lot of it was because it was a green, natural space, its quiet and not a lot of people there judging me, because when you’re first getting out, not everybody, but I always felt that people were judging me. Whether it’s because I’m a man being a caregiver and it’s like, ‘Oh, you loser, couldn’t find a job?’ Or some sort of sexist, derogatory comments, which, honestly, I’ve never come across, that was all in my head.
But those first outings at Forest Lawn Cemetery were so, I don’t know, it’s a place when I go there now, it makes me feel nostalgic. The parts of the cemetery we hung out in and the very first time they were out, they just like, Josie I think was in the Snugli, Asa hit the ground running in one direction, Silas hit the ground running in the other direction and I’m running around trying to corral them. They’re disappearing behind these massive headstones and, you know, gradually we got our groove on. And we would talk about lessons we learned and how if we were going to have these adventures we have to stay at least where we can see each other and you build on it. It slowly builds up.
I guess the other piece of advice would be you really have to just start trusting yourself and your kids. There’s this sort of underlying ethos in our culture, in all of Western culture, that we have this Freudian id that’s this horrible monster just chasing after the most primal urges and needs and it’s like that’s crazy. If you start thinking that we need to be around other people, that we need compassion, that we need to communicate, and you start thinking of those as the base needs and you start seeing them more in the kids and yourself. And you start trusting them and what you want and you don’t feel like you’re a prison guard, you feel like you’re a learning facilitator.
So, it’s great, you keep your eyes on that long-term prize. I imagine our kids when they’re in their 20s or 30s and maybe coming to a family reunion where they’re excited to show up. Or just hanging out because they want to be by each other, not just some grudging obligation. That sort of long term outcome—because they don’t just end there, and they don’t just begin there—those are the things that keep you going through the hard times when you’re tired and four kids all wanting a different sandwich and you just want a nap.
You just got to keep an upbeat perspective, a long-term perspective and a short-term perspective, and trust that your kids are curious, the world’s inherently interesting and they’re inherently curious. As long as you keep them in the world and take their questions seriously and that their interactions with each other and other people are healthy and supportive, they’re going to turn out ok.
One of the other tricks I learned a long time ago, but I only learned how to employ it more recently, I was in elementary school there was this kid, and I don’t know why, but he was just my arch enemy, he would always start fights with me, like physical fights, verbal fights. And I usually won, I was a little bit bigger than him and I had no idea why he was doing it, but I hated it, it filled me with a sense of dread just having an enemy—you want people to like you.
One day I sat down and thought, geez, what would it be like to be him, to have his family, to have his friends, to live in his house, to wear his clothes, and to have me as an enemy. And I realised, oh my gosh, it would be much worse. He was one of the kids where I was in life doing a lot better, and it took away my dread of that kid completely. And what I learned recently is you can apply that to all kinds of fears.
Like with Asa when he was learning to read we started out with a typical schooling or homeschooling approach where we would coerce him to read. So, we have this tradition, we call it “movie nap time.” It started when Josie still needed a nap but Asa and Silas were too rambunctious to let them get them, so I would quiet them down with a midday movie which also gets them out of the sun when it’s at the sunburn full peak potential.
So, with Asa, we were saying, “Okay, before movie nap time can start you have to read us one book.” It would be Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance, or The Cat in the Hat—not real challenging, we just wanted him to work on sight words and things like that. And it worked good for a while, but after that he began to become resentful and he felt he was bored with the books he had read a lot and that we didn’t have any others. Even though we have a thousand kids books, we always go to the library sales, so he fought it and he became more and more resentful, until finally he was, “Well, I don’t care, I don’t care if I never watch TV ever again, I’m not reading a book.”
And we thought, okay, we’re building a block here, we’re going to make him hate reading.And I think that was maybe before we even discovered unschooling as a thing, but we just said, we’re going to do it, we’re going to back off completely. We said to Asa, “Okay, you don’t ever have to read another book again if you don’t want to.” Things went on and a few months had passed and I said, “Hey Asa, would you mind reading me a book?” and he said, “Yeah, I guess so.” And I couldn’t get over it, his reading improved a whole lot in those two or three months when he hadn’t been reading at all due to our coercion.
The other sort of story was Silas, the next oldest, we were like, okay, whenever he wanted to read or work on numbers, we always have worksheets with numbers, you can crib them from the internet for free and I highly recommend a laser printer, so much cheaper, those ink jets will suck you dry. And he would complain he was never going to learn to read because most of our friends are schooled, we don’t not hang out with people because they’re not homeschooled, so a lot of their friends they met at soccer or are kids of our friends, and Silas was really becoming anxious because he wasn’t learning to read and kids his age were reading really well.
He’ s a passionate person, he’s very sensitive, and what’s helped me understand that is, when he’s screaming, he’s reflecting what he feels as somebody sensitive, he feels intensely so he reflects it intensely. We can handle it and be more empathetic and understanding, so, when he was yelling at me one day about how he’ll never learn how to read, I said, “Well, if you want to sit down and learn to read, we can do it. If it’s not the right time for you it’ll be hard, but you can do it. All these other kids do it.” So, we sat down with a very simple book and start pointing to the letters, sounding them out, start making the words, and he’s just like, “Oh, forget this, this is stupid, I don’t care if I never learn to read, I don’t want to do this.” And he stomped off.
And, you know, going back to that first story I said, look around you—there’s signs everywhere, books everywhere, the written word is everywhere. Imagine the opposite of your fear. Imagine if you wanted to keep these kids illiterate, imagine you didn’t want them to learn, how on earth would that ever happen? They’re natural sponges, there’s words everywhere.
So, one day we went hiking at Hunter’s Creek, a really great spot nearby and took a not usual path home because I saw on the map there was a different access point to the park and I wanted to find it so we could explore that the next time. We’re sitting at this stop sign to get on 20A, which is a busy road, and we’re stuck there waiting for traffic for a little bit. And Silas said, “Dad?” and I said, “Yes?” and he said, “What is the name of the first letter in Beaver Meadows?” and I thought, Beaver Meadows, we’ve only been there once and it was a long time ago, why would he bring that up?
And I turned around and I asked, “Silas why would you ask that right now?” and right outside the window is a sign for Beaver Meadows, saying X miles down this road. He was kind of like in a gestalt way learning to read. And now, with no formal instruction at all, he reads, he reads to his little sister and his little brother. And it’s just getting better. And they enjoy it, without all those blocks, you know, ‘I hate you more than books’ mentality.
PAM: Wow, those are great stories Dan, thanks for sharing those. Those are the interesting ways that we, as the parents, learn how our kids can be in the world. They show us how capable they are and how they pick up and learn so much just by being on their own, by being free of coercion.
That seems to be a huge piece, right? Get rid of that piece then all of a sudden, they’re free to follow their own instincts.
DAN: Yeah and they do sometimes do things that have to be, I don’t know, I don’t want to … restricted, reduced … but you don’t have to just say, “Don’t do that.” We talk about some of it, like when Silas was really little, there was a guy, he was sick, basically, his body had a lot of extra pounds going on with his metabolism, and Silas was like, two, and he said, “Dad, why is that guy’s belly so big?” and I was just, “Hush hush hush,” but he just kept repeating it. And finally—I didn’t know whether the guy had heard or not, but I didn’t want the guy’s feelings to be hurt—I just kind of picked Silas up and we went out and we talked about how that can hurt somebody’s feelings, to talk about them, especially right where they can hear you and how having a big belly is generally thought of as undesirable in our society.
And it’s like, once he knew, even at the age of two, once he knew that that would hurt that guy’s feelings to talk about that or anything, the kids really quickly picked up on well if they have honest questions about something, why do they look that way, why are they acting that way, you don’t do it in a way that will hurt their feelings. So, you don’t have to, punish them to get those points across, you give reasons behind it and when they understand the reasons, they apply them really judiciously in their real world activities.
PAM: Exactly, I mean, they want to engage with the real world and they don’t want to be mean, they don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, that’s not something that they want to do. They want to engage and connect with people nicely. They just want that information.
I don’t think of that as a restriction or anything—you were talking earlier from an archeological point of view, it’s the transmission of culture. So, you’re giving them more information about their society, about their culture. They could not take it, or whatever, but as you’ve seen and as so many of us have seen, that’s what they want. They want to connect well with their culture, they want to live with people not against. You know what I mean? Does that make sense?
DAN: Daoism gives the analogy of the way is like a river. You can swim perpendicular to the flow, you can swim upstream and get really tired, or you can swim with the water and it’s empowering and you go really fast.
Culture is just like that. If you work with the culture it’s empowering, it’s enabling. There are aspects of our culture that are really dysfunctional right now, but still, if you learn it and how to work with it you can do a lot with it. And even our public schools are starting these community schools which are actually really great. They’re becoming resources for the whole community, especially evenings and weekends and ways for grandparents to teach knitting classes. It’s just in its infancy, but it’s got a lot of potential. Understanding and learning and working within the culture can be very artful and empowering.
Even wind—a sailing analogy—you can sail into the wind, you just got to know how to tack. Then, all of a sudden, the wind that could just be blowing you away from your goals is all of a sudden pushing you towards your goals.
PAM: That’s fascinating because when we talk about culture too we talk about…at least the way I see it…at the human level, at the connection level, person to person, versus the more institutionalized, systematized…you know what I mean? I was just wanting to make that distinction.
They really seem to want to engage with the world as their parents, as their family, as a real person. I always say that kids are real people. Children are capable, they’re real people, they can engage, you don’t have to put an artificial filter on top of them.
DAN: What I tell the kids is in terms of kids being people and deserving respect is to look at that older person over there, there’s a little kid inside them. And they’re like, “What do you mean?”
“Well, that person was a little kid, right? Like a baby, a newborn and then a five-year-old. And all those experiences are part of who that person is. And inside you there’s a little old man or woman.”
And again, “What do you mean?” “Well, all these experiences are going to be part of who you are.”
If kids are taught at an early age that they don’t matter, they’re going to grow up with the sense that they, or other people or kids don’t matter. They’ll never learn how to respect other people if they’re not respected themselves.
PAM: That’s a really great point, Dan.
And I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today it was a wonderful conversation. Thank you.
DAN: Yeah, I enjoyed it too. I was a little nervous but I think it went ok.
PAM: That was awesome! And before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
DAN: My email address is teamcadzow @ gmail.com. We named our unschool, we named it the Team Cadzow Research Station kind of in honour of Team Zissou from The Life Aquatic. I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson movies.
PAM: That’s been on my list for a long time, I must get to it!
DAN: And our unschool bus is named the Bellafonte, which is his research vessel’s name. Just for fun, we don’t take it too seriously.
And we made up t-shirts: we did the one, Team Cadzow Research Station, and then the other one is Team Cadzow Initiative, which is kind of playing off the tv series Lost that we got into for a little while.
But I think that’s fun too, you can make your own school uniforms, build in a sense of esprit de corps.
PAM: That’s awesome, thanks very much Dan, have a great day.
DAN: You too, Pam.