Interviews

Interview of Robert Gottlieb by Pam Laricchia

The following is a lightly edited transcript from Pam Laricchia’s interview of me on her podcast, “Exploring Unschooling” in the Fall of 2017.

PAM:  Hi everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Robert Gottlieb. Hi, Robert!

ROBERT: Hello.

PAM:  Hi, how are you doing?

ROBERT: Good.

PAM:  Yay, yay. Robert and his wife are unschooling their two children. I first came across Robert online in unschooling circles actually, and I thought it would be really fun to chat with him about his experiences so far. And to get us started…

Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?

ROBERT: Sure. As you mentioned, it’s my wife and my two kids—my daughter’s 11, my son is 19. And they’ve had a history of living all over the United States, mostly on the coasts. So, they’ve traveled a little bit. We have four cats and a hamster. (laughter)

My daughter loves to foster kittens, which we’re doing right now. So, it’s a very cat-friendly and pet-friendly environment here. We like to joke around a lot. We have a lot of fun together, just talking. We don’t have to be doing anything. They both are very well versed in where things are in the world now, because they’ve talked online so much, but I’ll get to a little bit of that later.

But yeah, it’s a very open and fun family to be in.

PAM:  Aw, that sounds lovely.

I’d love to hear what your kids are enjoying at the moment, because it’s always fun to hear what unschooling kids are getting into. Is there anything in particular that they’re interested in?

ROBERT: Yeah, I mean, my daughter is heavily into Minecraft, which is a common theme in unschooling. Which is great, because there’s so much creativity on there. And in particular she likes role-playing on Minecraft, which I found very interesting.

I mean, she liked the building part too, and then all the different games that they have and stuff like that, but there’s a part where the kids just type to each other, and pretend to be different characters. And it allows them to play out all kinds of scenarios that you can’t do in real life. And I looked at this and I’m like, “Wow, that would be great if I had had that when I was a kid.” But it’s basically taking what’s in your mind but sharing it with other kids so you have more richness to the environment of what you’re looking at. It’s just mind-blowing. So that’s one thing.

PAM:  I was just going to say, my son Joseph has done some role-playing stuff too, and we’ve talked about it. And it is really fascinating, isn’t it? Because they take it seriously. They get into the role and they really put their head into another person, right? And to see how they think through it, how they take over that personality for a while, is really fascinating, isn’t it?

ROBERT: And then all the intricacies too, because it’s them thinking of a name of the character—they have characteristics of these characters that are like how many tails it has and what race it is. There’s a whole website where they have these descriptions. I’m like, “Wow!”

PAM:  Yeah. (laughs)

ROBERT: So, there’s that. And then she plays League of Legends, which she just got into the past couple months. So, she’s online a lot. But she also is in the Girl Scouts. She enjoys being with people. She’s very much a social butterfly. She also likes to draw and play on her computer in general, or iPad. So, she’s doing a lot.

My son, my 19-year-old, has gotten to a point in his life where he’s very introspective. He’s looking at things like meditation, philosophy, and really how societies work—or don’t work, in many cases.

He also likes to game. He plays an online game. It’s based around Armor II. He’s on a PC so he’s got different games. But watching him play those games, I noticed this early on—I can’t remember what age he started playing—but the things that happen in the games are very intricate when you look at these military style shoot ‘em up games. Everyone thinks, “Oh, they’re just blowing stuff up and it’s indiscriminate,” and all that. No, it’s not. It’s actually very split-second oriented stuff, and if you’re not fast, you will die. And it’s very quick thinking, it’s teamwork, it’s all these different skills that people don’t see when they say, “Oh they’re just playing video games.” They’re not just playing video games. They’re learning a huge amount about skills that, by the way, are very useful in the real world. So, I’m very interested to see later on in life how he uses them. Whether for a hobby or for a career or whatever. Just, I know that these things will come into play later on.

PAM:  And don’t they come into play—because you were talking about his interest in philosophy and how he’s introspective—right now? I find that too. My youngest is 20 now, and he’s very into philosophy, and he’s reading a lot and we’re having really interesting conversations. And I found the same with my eldest. And so much of our philosophical discussions—he can connect and relate them to the games and things that he’s playing. And even the people that he’s playing with. The whole world kind of meshes all together, doesn’t it?

ROBERT: Yeah, it does. All those things come into play right away, you’re absolutely right.

PAM:  Yeah, I find that it’s fascinating to have conversations with them. And the other piece that’s so interesting is that, I mean my younger son games as well, but he also listens to a lot of audiobooks and stuff. And my older son—actually he watches a lot. He takes in the same kind of information, but through videos on YouTube and everything. He’s never been a huge reader, although he reads a lot of stuff online. But, the fascinating thing is, it’s all about the ideas, right? So, no matter where they’re coming from, at the root they’re all talking and considering and contemplating those same kinds of foundational human being living in society kind of ideas.

ROBERT: Right. Exactly. And that’s the other thing I was going to say. Yeah, with my son I definitely have these fascinating conversations about current events, or things just happening in the world. The other thing is, he tends to be very worldly in general. He’s aware of more than just the United States. And it’s great to see that, because I really want my kids to always be aware of the world around them rather than focusing only on where they’re living. It’s an important aspect of being human, to me anyway.

PAM:  Yeah, it was something I hadn’t thought about before, but through just seeing my children in action, it’s become a really important and valuable piece of our lives. That is very interesting.

Next question:

How did you discover unschooling, and what did your family’s transition to unschooling look like?

ROBERT: We actually discovered it a few times. (laughter)

The first time, we were living back in San Diego, and there was this homeschooling group that we were a part of, and there was this one family—the one unschooling family—I can’t remember how many years ago this was, but, there was that one family. That odd family, right? Odd to me at the time anyway.

So, we met them. They said, “Oh yeah, you can do this!” And my wife and I are like, “No, we can’t, this is crazy. What are you, kidding?” You know, the standard response, right? So, we didn’t do anything then. We just heard about it. And saw one family, so, really didn’t have a good representative example.

Anyway, we moved to Charleston, South Carolina, some years later. Actually, before we even did that, my son had gone through public school, charter school, homeschooling, all in San Diego. Then we got here into Charleston and he did some Montessori school. And the Montessori, which we thought would be great, right, it was him basically sitting there doing nothing. And we’re paying a lot of money for this. And we’re scratching our heads like, “No, this isn’t a good idea.”

And again, we had some end game in mind of him, you know, being enticed to learn, or something forcing him to learn, which, as we learned later, not what was going to work. He went from Montessori to charter, and then back to homeschooling again.

And in all of that, we thought, “Charter, oh great!” Right? No, it wasn’t great. It was just the same bad parts of school that we don’t like, with some other things thrown in. And he did “really well.” You know, like the third best reader in the school, or this that and the other, and it’s like—as soon as he got out of the charter school and into homeschooling again, he stopped reading. He’s like, “Okay, I’m done. I’ve checked off that box.” And that kind of made me sad, because I really wanted reading to be a part of his life. Fortunately, that would come many years later.

So, we saw that. And then homeschooling—even charter schooling and homeschooling, we both were struggling with him to get him to do his homework. To get him to do work at all. And it was just really straining our relationship. And it was like, “Okay, why are we doing this?” So, I started researching alternatives. Came across somebody that was parroting everything Sandra (Dodd) was saying. And finally found my way to Sandra herself. And, you know, in terms of reading her website and really that’s where things started clicking for me. It’s like, “Ah! Now I get this. Now I understand what that person back in San Diego was doing.”

There’s unfortunately so much bad information about unschooling out there. And I had to wade through all of it. And eventually I got to the stuff that works.

What finally clicked for me was just: I want a good relationship with my kids. I don’t want to be butting heads with them all the time. And this is a way to do that. And it doesn’t mean that I have to give up every single thing I believe in. It just means I actually talk to them like a human being, like I would my wife or a friend, or whatever. When you do that, it opens up the relationship so much more. And they’re willing to talk to you and listen to you. That doesn’t mean that it turns out perfect or that they do everything you want them to do. That’s not the point. The point is, you hear them, they hear you.

So, that’s kind of where I started coming in. now my wife had to be convinced, though it didn’t take very much to convince her, at least on the academic side of things. That was pretty straightforward to her. It was more just the whole life unschooling where it’s like, “Okay, we don’t really need to restrict every single thing about their lives.” Just imagine me restricting my wife. that’s what it would be like for them. And it just didn’t make any sense. So, we let go of a bunch of things.

Now the problem with me is, I tend to firehose when I get excited about something, and I learn something until I get it, and I believe everyone should get it. So, I don’t suggest doing what I did at the very beginning, which was, “Okay kids, have at it!” That’s not probably the best way to go. Because they’ve had these rules all of a sudden lifted, and it’s like, “Okay, what do I do now?”

Instead, depending on your kid—you gotta know your kid and figure out what works best for them—but a little bit at a time is what I needed to have done. And it also would have made it easier on my wife as well. But, you know, hindsight is 20/20, right?

PAM:  Yeah. (laughs)

There’s so many great points in there, Robert. I mean, that one is wonderful—knowing your kids as you’re getting started. Because you’re right, it can be like pulling the rug out from under them if there’s such a huge shift all at once, right? Kind of like they’re left out at sea trying to figure out this whole new world rather than figuring it out piece by piece by piece.

ROBERT: Exactly.

PAM:  Yeah. That’s a great point. And I smiled when you were talking about your son coming home, and reading—as in not wanting to read.

I went through the same thing with my daughter. I mean, she was seven when she left school, but reading had been a thing at school, right? With the reading groups, and it’s pushed so hard, that when she came home, she didn’t want to go anywhere near a book. And it’s like, “Nope, I can’t read, don’t wanna read, never wanna learn to read, nothing.” And that was it. And—actually, I’ll share a link in the show notes to an article I wrote about it—it’s true. It took about a year for her to work through all that ick that was built up in her. Just around that one skill.

ROBERT: I know.

PAM:  I know! It’s amazing. It’s amazing how we can affect people so easily, with their best interests at heart, right? It’s not like we’re trying to damage them or injure them. We’re trying to help them. Yet, when we start trying to force our schedule and our expectations on them—wow, it has such a huge effect, doesn’t it?

ROBERT: Oh, yeah. I mean, I saw that all over the place. All different skill sets, everything you could imagine. My daughter, who’s never been to school, she’s 11, and you can see it in her, the opposite effect where she just out of the blue will ask me for math problems. (laughs) She doesn’t need to, it’s just fun for her. It’s just something that she likes figuring out. There’s all these different things she’ll ask me along the way. And the key is—I see a lot of parents fall into the trap of, “Oh, they’re asking questions about a specific skill, they’re going to go all the way with this!” It’s like, no, they might only go inches with this.

Which is fine. They’re going to dabble in a bunch of things, and how else do you find out what you like, until you’ve tried it? And maybe you want to try many different things. She’s 11, she doesn’t need to know what she wants to do. She’s got plenty of time. This is the perfect time for her to try little bits and pieces of everything, at a time that she wants to.

PAM:  Oh, you’re right. I think that’s a huge deschooling shift, to be okay with them trying something out and quitting, right? To be able to just taste this and taste this and taste this, and then, if you can, live with that for a while, very often—and it’s always looking back, right?

You talked earlier about how hindsight is 20/20. In that moment, when they’re choosing to try something, and part of you maybe starts getting excited for them—that’s a clue for yourself that you’re starting to make it about you and not about them. And when they quit, you can’t know looking forward, right? So that is where the trust piece comes in. But once you have a few months, and then a few years, and you look back, that’s when you can really see the connections. And what seemed like totally unrelated things that they tried out, like over six months, a year, five years, whatever—when you look back, you can see in the root of those things what it really was that they were interested in, can’t you?

ROBERT: Yeah, totally.

PAM:  Yeah, that’s so interesting.

Unschooling is definitely unconventional. I was wondering if—you talked a little bit about your transition—if there were any particular societal expectations that you found it hard to work through? And how did you go about doing that?

ROBERT: Well you see, the way that I dealt with that—I mean yes, there were definitely naysayers all the way along. Including my own parents at times, and the in-laws. The standard concerns: are we spoiling them, just letting them do anything they want? We did things early on. I think we sort of prepared our families a little bit by attachment parenting with both of our kids—they both co-slept, they both breastfed until they decided not to, and things like that. It was kind of a natural lead-in for a lot of what we were doing. So, our parents were kind of primed for expecting the unexpected in a lot of it. (laughter)

So that helped. And it’s not just our parents, of course, it’s society as well that we’re dealing with. And again, in the attachment parenting side of things, my wife was very adamant about, “Look, this is the way I’m going to do things. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”

And eventually you get there. I know at the beginning, as far as unschooling goes, it’s not like you immediately have that ability to just, “Oh, I’ll just tell them off.” And that’s probably not the best way to do it anyway.

But the way that I do it, or did it, especially early on, was I had a certain confidence at the very beginning. And I know not everybody is going to have that right away. It’s just—like I said about the firehose—I’m passionate about this. I know this is what I want to do. So, in my mind, it’s a done deal. And if someone else doesn’t agree with it, it’s like, “Well, you know, I like chocolate, you like vanilla, whatever.” That’s kind of how I handled that. I didn’t take it personally. And even though people might have wanted me to, it just never happened that way.

So, basically, what I try to do though, with my—and again, it didn’t always come out right; again, I was fire-hosing—so a lot of these people probably didn’t get it. But it was more looking in terms of educating them. If I’m them—and unfortunately, I didn’t do the standard thing of putting myself in the other person’s shoes—which looking back, I would have rather have done that, because who knows, I might have been able to affect other people’s lives doing that.

But to a new parent doing this, once you get it, see if you can educate other people. Because one of the best ways to learn anything is to teach someone else how to do it. So, you’re going to be challenged. “Well what about this, what about that?” And if you don’t know, don’t lie. Just say, “I don’t know about that yet. Maybe I’ll go look at that and I’ll get back to you.”

And there’s plenty of resources online, including your own, and Sandra’s, and places like that. Forums on Facebook, and all that. The big thing was educating other people. The key is not to get too defensive. Because then it’s like I’m second-guessing myself. Just say, “Look, this is what we’re doing. This works, and it’s worked for several families for several years, and probably decades now.” Just go with that.

And if someone’s actively challenging you, just try to see it from their point of view. There’s some fear in there, probably. Because you’re challenging a very core part of society, that children are supposed to be in school, they’re supposed to have rules governing every aspect of their lives. And that’s unfortunately where we’ve gotten to. And these people were brought up that way. They mean well. They hopefully want good things for your kids. It’s just that they themselves were brought up in a different way.

So, come from that point of view, empathize a little bit with them. At the same point, you don’t have to give any ground on what you’re doing. You just, “This is how it works. Look, my daughter is so happy. Look, she’s jumping up and down. Look, let me show you this.” You can use examples like that, if you want to. It just depends on who it is. Obviously, if it’s a relative you might choose different examples than if it’s a friend, neighbor, whatever.

PAM:  Yeah, I love that. Especially the piece about the confidence.

That’s something that I found was really helpful, especially in the first couple years when it was still something that was super new to extended family. To go into family gatherings or holiday dinners, whatever—to have the confidence as in, even if you don’t know all about unschooling. Especially, like you mentioned, at the beginning you don’t know the answers to all the questions.

For me to go in without having those questions in the air. I’m not sure if I’m saying that well. One thing I didn’t do was ask questions, when I was there. Because, like you said, they know the conventional way of parenting and education and everything. And with our children’s best interests at heart, they are coming from that perspective still.

So, if I had questions about my kids or even just if you get caught up in—it’s so typical to be complaining about kids, right? At these kinds of gatherings. A gathering of adults are always complaining about kids doing x, y, and z. And I was always very careful not to get pulled into that. Because the go-to answer for everybody is always, “Well, that’s because your kids aren’t in school. They should be in school. Et cetera.”

So yeah, to have those great stories that you talked about. “Oh, see how they like this, they do that.” I would have those in the back of my mind, to bring up in conversation that people had, but I was always very careful to not be negative at all. And to save my questions for unschooling groups, because I would be getting answers from that perspective. Those would be useful answers to me, not ones that made me feel guilty or second-guess myself, right?

ROBERT: Right.

PAM:  Yeah, that’s a huge piece for me. Because it’s very typical, conventional, to try and use guilt on us, right? To try and change our minds. And they’re trying to protect us from something they see that we’re doing that’s strange, that’s unconventional. They’re worried for us about what might happen. So, like you said, if you can put yourself in their shoes a little bit, you can see where they’re coming from.

But you also don’t want to be put in a position where you’re constantly feeling defensive and having to field negative kinds of questions. I love fielding questions when they’re curious. You can feel the difference, can’t you? When someone’s curious to know, or where someone’s trying to set a trap for you, right?

ROBERT: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

And the other thing is—some people respond well to logic. So, you can kind of set up a scenario of, “How would you feel if someone was telling you to do something, you know, like, just as an adult: You have to finish your dinner.” That’s a big one. And it’s like, “Okay, but I don’t want to. I’m done.” “No, you have to finish, you can’t get up from this table until you finish.” How would you feel as an adult? And they’re like, “Well I wouldn’t like that. I wouldn’t listen to that.” Exactly. So why do we treat our kids any differently?

PAM:  That particular example, when the kids were younger, what I would do when the kids were finished, I would specifically excuse them before that came up. You know what I mean? So, we would be at my parents’ dinner table for holidays or whatever and we’d eaten, we’d had a very nice dinner, and I could see the kids were done and they were ready to get up, and I would excuse them. Because I knew that would be an expectation that was there from the other adults or from my parents. So, I would do that for them. For my kids, and I’m doing that for my parents too, because they’re not going to second-guess me there. They may certainly think, “Why is she letting them down so early, the rest of us aren’t finished,” or “We’re supposed to sit around and have conversations for an hour after.” Like what little kid is going to sit there for that? (laughs)

ROBERT: Yeah, right.

PAM:  So, I would anticipate the expectations that they would have around things. I would talk to my kids beforehand. And we would figure out plans. What way can we maneuver through this to help everybody feel as comfortable as possible? And yeah, we would have those kind of conversations later and say, you know, when they ask me, “Oh they got up awful early.” “Well, they were done. How would you feel if you were told you had to stay there?” Etc. So yeah, it’s really interesting.

In the end I found it fun, just to try and manage and come up with creative ways that we could move through situations. (laughs)

ROBERT: The thing that struck me in what you’re saying but also in my own experience is: the reason that works with our kids is because they trust us. And they trust us because we have a relationship with them. They know that we’re going to listen to them. And that listening to them doesn’t mean that what they want is what happens. It just means that there’s a discussion, just like there would between me and my wife. Sometimes my wife gets her way, sometimes I get my way. But ultimately, they’re being heard, and they’re being listened to.

So, when you have situations where you need to say, “Hey, we’re going to grandma and grandpa’s house, you might like to keep your language a little bit public safe.” That would be like, “Oh, yeah, okay, fine, we’ll do that.” There’s no struggling there. I think a big part of the struggles I had early on were because there wasn’t a trust because I was making them do things.

PAM:  Yeah, it’s huge. And I love that little point. Like you pointing that out before they go over to grandma’s house, right? Because what you’re also doing there is protecting their relationship with their grandparent, right?

ROBERT: Yup.

PAM:  You’re helping them see the parameters and explaining. You know, if they say, “Well, why?” You’re going to explain their perspective and why that bothers them. And it’s still, like you said, it’s still a choice. But when you have that trusting and open relationship with them, they know that you didn’t say that to try and control their language. You said that because you gave them a piece of real information about the situation that they’re going into. There’s a big difference, but you need that trust and that relationship first, for them to see that, don’t you?

ROBERT: Yes.

PAM:  Yeah. And that was another point that you had mentioned earlier, was that it becomes about the relationship, right? We’re replacing school at first, but you realize it’s really foundational in the relationship itself. And when you focus on the relationship, all the learning and all the other things just fall into place behind it, don’t they?

ROBERT: Yup. Absolutely.

PAM:  Yup.

As the working parent, are there things you and your wife do to help you stay connected with the kids?

ROBERT: Well, I’ll talk about our kids, but anybody listening, every kid is different. Every kid has different needs. So, take that into account in what I’m saying. Both our kids are very independent. And both of them from early age.

Now my son very much is introspective, even though he is social at times. So, he’s got long periods where he just wants to be by himself. What I do with that is I’ll—you know, he has no problem with me walking into his room and watching him play a game. Which I love doing, because the way he plays and how good he is, is just fascinating for me. And the graphics that they have now, that I didn’t have as a kid.

PAM:  I know.

ROBERT: There’s things like that that I do to let him know that I’m still here. And we say good night to him at night, so it’s not like we just completely ignore him. We invite him to eat with us. He sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t.

Now with my daughter, it’s a little bit different. She has her friends she’s talking to online, so she doesn’t generally want to be interrupted, if she’s in the middle of a big game, although she has no problem with us watching her.

But otherwise, she loves to share everything with us. She’ll come to us a lot of the time and say, “Hey, look at this. Look what I’m doing.” And then we’ll go and look at that. Or other times we’ll just walk up to her or we’ll ask her what she’s up to. She will draw something and give it to us. It just depends on what she’s doing. But we’re always aware of what’s going on, even if we’re not with her 100 percent of the time. And she probably wouldn’t want us there 100 percent, but probably a decent amount at least. So, we try to as best we can.

And she’s understanding there’s certain circumstances, like we’re making dinner, we can’t exactly do that at the same time. Things like that.

But overall, I think the way we’re connected is we’re there. They know we’re there. And we talk to them. And it’s not like something we think about. It’s just kind of an automatic thing where we’re just, “Okay. What she’s up to?” Or let me ask her, “Hey we’re going to be doing this the next couple days, do you want to go to this?” Just general life stuff just naturally causes us to connect to them. And that’s pretty much how it works out.

PAM:  It’s just life, living together as people, right?

ROBERT: Exactly.

PAM:  Exactly. And I loved your point about how it’s very individual. It is knowing each of our children as an individual person. Not just like a group of children, that you have the same set of expectations or try to have the same kind of relationship with. Once you know them individually, and you know the ways that work between both your personalities to connect and then you just keep that connection going. I love that.

ROBERT: Yeah. And the difference between the kids, it’s kind of funny because we knew when my daughter was born, it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got this, we’ve had one kid before, right? We know exactly what to do.”

And so, we went down the same attachment parenting path, and all that stuff works, sure. But my son was a very good sleeper as a baby, and that helped my wife a lot. Now my daughter, not so much. (laughs) She was very much into, “I want to know everything that’s going on.”

So, my wife didn’t get as much rest with her. But in other things too. There’s obviously different personality types and so forth. Though some things will work the same, there were so many more things to learn.

And that’s true in unschooling as well. What might have worked with my son as far as being able to relate to each other in certain ways, might not work with my daughter. And vice versa. The key is treat each kid as an individual, and go from there.

PAM:  I love that point. Because it’s true, right? The principles of attachment parenting, and the principles of unschooling, are the same. But the way it plays out on an individual basis, not only just within different unschooling families, but with each different child, right? It can look so different, even when it’s all coming from the same foundation.

ROBERT: Right.

PAM:  I love that. Well, that’s why I enjoy interviewing so many different people about their unschooling lives. And each one looks so different. That’s why I love talking about the kids and what they’re into, too. Because it’s fascinating to see all the different ways that unschooling weaves into people’s lives. That’s my thing. (laughs)

ROBERT: Yup.

What has surprised you most so far about how unschooling has unfolded in your lives?

ROBERT: Well, looking back it’s not surprising now. But, at the time, even though I was confident starting out, I wasn’t quite sure how all this was going to work, right? (laughs) It’s like this is all uncharted territory. Not completely uncharted, but as we’ve moved along in time, there’s more and more people unschooling.

But at the beginning, and same for you as you’ve mentioned, there were very few people doing it. Or it felt like there were a lot less than maybe there were, because we weren’t communicating as well as we are now, computer, social media and so forth.

But I think the big surprise for me was watching them grow and develop and my daughter asking me out of the blue all these different things.

Like the math problems I was talking about. But also, her ability to take context in English—our language is not one of the easiest ones to learn. And she’s never been officially taught anything about English; reading, writing, nothing. Well, writing—she actually asked us to learn how to write her letters, even though we’re all typers. But she did that. But as far as reading goes, she did that because of all of her online forums that she participated in, or the role playing, or whatever. And kids would correct her grammar along the way.

So, it’s kind of neat how that all just organically worked. But I think that was one part of the surprise.

The other was just her ability to put together concepts that I thought would take more—not that she wouldn’t ever be able to learn them, but that it would be later on, or it would be with help from me or my wife. But there’s just things that she comes up with, ideas of what she wants to do, or looking at the world around her and correctly assessing it. Just stuff like that, that I didn’t know she would even be paying attention to. I think that kind of surprised me.

PAM:  That’s such a fascinating piece, isn’t it? Because we still have expectations on what we think kids can do, and we realize the value of having a human relationship with them. Not a power-based adult/child relationship.

But yeah, when you see what they’re capable of, just in thinking. Not even just capable in the things they can do but in the thinking that they can do, and the creative connections and the way they can see the world. It just kind of blows your socks off, doesn’t it? (laughs)

ROBERT: Oh, yeah. And the typical thing of most parents is to have this golden path laid out for their kids. They’re going to learn this, they’re going to learn that, they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that. And there’s all these things. And even as I talked about earlier how they’re dabbling in a bunch of different things, the big mistake that I would get into here and there—I learned not to now—is, “Oh, she’s going to be a ______.” You know, whatever. And fortunately, I never opened my mouth and said anything to her about it, but the thoughts were there, and that can cause problems if you’re not careful about it. So, the key is: she’s going to be a human being, and she’s going to be a happy human being that knows how to learn. That’s really all that matters.

PAM:  Yeah, there you go! (laughs) That’s where the value is, right?

ROBERT: Right.

PAM:  It’s amazing.

Speaking of our kids, have there been times when your kids interests or choices have challenged your thinking or stretched your comfort zones, and if so, how did you work through those moments?

ROBERT: Oh yeah. (laughter)

Everything I’ve talked to up to this point, I might have painted this perfect rosy picture of perfect balance in the household, and we have this tidy house that—no. It’s not anything like that at all. But it’s not total chaos either. I mean I don’t want to paint a horrible picture. The reality is somewhere in between. It’s life, right? It’s messy at times, and you have to kind of roll with it.

And we as parents—how we handle these things, going outside of our comfort zone, is something our kids are observing us do. They’re learning from us as we’re doing this. So, it’s important that we do handle it well. Or at least clean up after ourselves if we don’t. Which is another point, of being able to say, “I’m sorry, I screwed up, I didn’t want to behave that way towards you,” or whatever.

But definitely the triad of sex, drugs and religion, right? The big key there for us was being able to have honest conversations with them. And for them to understand that we’re not just making this stuff up, that we truly believe what we’re saying. And things like sex—that wasn’t actually that hard for us. We’ve always been about naming the body parts correctly, not giving them nicknames and all that. But the hard balance is, okay, yes there’s certain philosophies that we believe in that may not jive with the law. So, we have to be careful about that, and not break the law. So how do we do that? Well it’s a tough balance, and we discuss that with them.

Religion: we’re Jewish, but our kids decided, “Eh, religion doesn’t matter that much to us.” And that actually wasn’t a big deal for us. For someone else it could be a big deal. You could be devout Christian, devout Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever, and you got a kid that could care less and wants nothing to do with it.

The key there is, if you ever want a kid to join whatever you’re doing, the best way to do that is leave them alone. Because if you try to make them do it, they’re not going to want to. Later on, they’re going to rebel. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to join anyway. It could be that that’s just their opinion, that’s who they are, and it’s all about accepting them where they are.

So, I mention religion—it’s not really outside my comfort zone at all. I really had no problem with them saying, “Look, I’m not really into this, I don’t believe in God, or I do.” And that changes over time too. Maybe they do one time, later on they’re, “Well, I’m agnostic,” or, “I do believe in God.” None of that really matters. It’s their personal choice.

The big thing is having the relationship that we do allows for us to have these conversations when they hit boundaries for us. And we can flat out say no. It’s just as I would with my wife. “Can I come sit on your lap?” “No, I need my space right now.” That’s a reasonable thing to say. And the same with our kids.

It’s not about letting them cross all of your boundaries and go all over your comfort zones and you not saying anything. You talk about it. And there’s compromise maybe, or maybe there’s not. Maybe there’s just something you can’t compromise on, and that’s that. And they understand that. Because you have the good relationship with them, because they trust you, that’s not such a big deal. They can handle those no’s. They key is saying yes as often as you can, so that when you do say no, number one—it means something, and number two—it’s accepted pretty easily actually.

PAM:  Yeah, because from that relationship, when you’ve got that trust you can have that conversation, you can explain your thinking. And it’s a conversation that you’re having, it’s not an edict that you’re passing down.

ROBERT: Yeah.

PAM:  Yeah, so again, I love that point. It all comes back to the relationship. That is one of the big things I think, because no matter what, we can have strong beliefs in certain things. Like you were talking about, religion and sex, and for some people it’s food. Maybe you’re a staunch vegetarian for your lifestyle, right?

The challenge comes when you put that expectation on your child to follow. And what gets damaged is the relationship. So again, going back to that relationship to see, to understand, that depending on your response, that’s what’s at stake, right? And it may be worth it to you. Like you said, you may have a no, or this is my line and this is where I feel I need to draw my line for my children.

If that’s something that you need to do, you need to understand what that effect’s going to be on your relationship. So, trust is going to be diminished, certainly for a while. If that’s something that they still feel they need to explore then they’re going to need to do that behind your back, basically. Because they don’t want to get in trouble, and they know that you’re not going to be happy about it. So, they’re going to explore it on their own. That still may be something that’s acceptable to you. And it’s just knowing what your choice—you really can’t have an expectation that you can literally control another person, right?

ROBERT: Exactly. Yup.

PAM:  Certainly not as they get older, right? (laughs)

ROBERT: Oh, definitely not. Yeah. (laughs)

PAM:  So yeah, I think that’s fascinating. And I love that piece. Because it is—it’s the dance of our relationships.

One thing that really helped me when I was stretching comfort zones was talking to them, right? Because so often our comfort zones are on rather conventional lines, just because we can’t visit everything when we first come to unschooling. Our comfort zones and our paradigms and the way we see things, they just are. And it’s when they come up that we’re like, “Oh, hold it. I’m getting uncomfortable here.”

And yeah, you’re right. You don’t want to ignore that uncomfortableness, because you’re losing depth in the relationship and damaging the relationship then as well, right? I think for me the really important thing, though, was to do a lot of that work at first internally, to really understand myself and why that line was there, and to understand where they were coming from. Because so often my stereotype and where they were coming up against that, they were coming from such a different perspective. And I’d be like, “Oh. Yeah. I can see why you want to do that.” And then things were great. Half the time they addressed my concerns already that I don’t even really have to say much, right?

ROBERT: And the thing with when you’re looking at your own boundaries and you’re respecting yourself, that’s something that you’re teaching the kids at the same time. They’re watching you do that. You’re their model for what life is like as an adult. So, if you’re saying, “Oh, this doesn’t work for me,” that allows them to say the same thing as an adult.

PAM:  Mm-hmm, that’s a great point. Because they’re seeing you think it through, they’re seeing you process it, they’re seeing you sharing your insight, your understanding, et cetera, and working through it with them. And absolutely, those are skills that—every time you do that with them, they’re gaining experience with doing it. And that’s a skill that they take with them forever. That’s why focusing on the relationship just brings—it’s lifelong skills, right? Not facts that they’re learning.

ROBERT: Right, you’re not filling their heads with information. You’re showing them life as it unfolds, live.

PAM:  Exactly! Oh, I know. It’s beautiful. Okay. Oh! And I’m just going to go back and say it again, life is messy? I love that.

ROBERT: Yeah.

PAM:  Right?

ROBERT: Yup.

PAM:  Yeah, it’s true. That’s what it is, and we’re living life together, and we’re doing it as best we can, in relationship with our family. So, I love that.

Okay, last question for you, Robert.

As an unschooling dad, what piece of advice would you like to share with dads who are considering or just starting out on their unschooling journey?

ROBERT: Well, it depends on what kind of person you are as a father, you know, as far as how you learn. That’s something that’s overlooked a lot of times. If it isn’t the father, like in my case, coming to unschooling first, and it is the wife or partner, you know, explaining to them what unschooling is.

First of all, this advice is for the partner to start with: be aware of what your husband’s learning style is. Or your partner’s learning style. The key there is: some people think, “Well if you just read this, you’ll get it.” Well some fathers aren’t readers. We don’t learn that way. We learn kinesthetically, through experience, or through discussion, or other ways. So be open to that.

And on the dad’s side of it, if you’re getting stuff thrown at you, throw it back and say, “This doesn’t work for me this way. Give me a different way.” But be open. Really be open to alternative ideas. And this stuff really does work. It’s not like we all just decided to do something out of the blue that doesn’t do any good.

My overall goal is peace in the world. That’s something that I really care about. And I believe that by giving our kids this ability to live life as human beings and not being told what to do, they are more likely to be peaceful than not later on in life. They’re more likely to be more empathetic and so forth.

So as a dad, kind of look at that as a goal, you know, of, “What am I trying to affect in the world?” That’s one part. The other part is, as a dad, you have these ideas of what you want to impart in general, but instead of trying to impart directly, how about just living it, and letting them observe you.

As far as the unschooling piece goes, that’s about the relationship. That’s about saying, “Okay these are human beings that are my loved ones. And what do I want to give to them?” Well I want to give to them love, number one, that comes out in a peaceful way of just talking with them, not at them. Listening to them first. Always listen first. And really listen. Don’t just listen waiting for the pause to say something. Truly get what they’re saying. And then move on.

I don’t remember how Sandra put this, but, “Read a little, try a little, wait a while, watch.” Or something like that, I think, is how she says it. So, don’t do what I did. Don’t firehose yourself. Do a little bit at a time. If it means just letting go of their bedtime, or not worrying about subjects in school. Pick one thing to start with and do it one thing at a time, and see how it feels. You know, just try one thing. It’s not like opening the flood gates. Allow one thing at a time, see how you feel.

And also, talk to other unschooling dads as you’re moving along. Because there’s things that we’ve all been through. And I always offer myself on Facebook and all over the place. Hopefully I’ll be able to give you something to put in the show notes about how to contact me. I really encourage dads to talk to me or any other unschooling dad. I’m not the only one. And really say, “Oh I’m going through this.” And we can say, “Yeah, we’ve been through that, this is what happened.”

Or you might have a unique problem. Not every one of our problems has been covered necessarily. But just be open. Read. Learn. And move forward one step at a time. And this will come.

And keep asking questions too. Don’t just sit there and stew with it. Ask the questions. And you’re not wrong for questioning this. You really care about your children. But be open.

PAM:  I love that Robert. So many great points in there. That was beautiful.

And I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. And definitely, before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online, if they have any questions?

ROBERT: Well, I’d say Facebook, but that’s really hard to find me that way. I guess if you join Unschooling Connection, that’s a group I’m an admin of. But basically, the point of that group is to get people who are in the same geographic region to know that they’re near each other. It’s also advice and things like that. I’m on that group. If you join that, I’ll see you. Obviously if you see that I’m the admin you can directly friend me. I think my Twitter is @rcgottlieb.

PAM:  I think between Twitter and Facebook, we should be able to help people get connected with you.

ROBERT: Yeah that’s probably the best way to do it. And you know, through—I guess I’m friends with—am I friends with you on Facebook? If I’m not, I will be. And then you can see me as a friend of Pam’s, and just feel free to friend me.

And send me a message though, don’t just friend me blindly, because I don’t know who you are otherwise. So, send me a message and say, “Hey, I’m a dad,” or a mom, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’ll talk to anybody. And, “I need help with unschooling.” You can keep it that simple and I’ll let you through.

PAM:  That’s beautiful.

Thanks so much Robert. Have a great day!

ROBERT: Sure! Thank you.

Save as PDFPrint
Robert Gottlieb

About Robert Gottlieb

Robert Gottlieb is an unschooling dad with two children, ages 11 and 19. He wrote, “My overall goal is peace in the world. That’s something that I really care about. And I believe that by giving our kids this ability to live life as human beings and not being told what to do, they are more likely to be peaceful than not, later on in life. They’re more likely to be more empathetic.”

View all posts by Robert Gottlieb →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *