Helloooo and welcome to the Life Without School podcast, here to help you and your children live the life you want to, not just the one you’re told you should.
I’m Issy, a writer and unschooling dad from New Zealand.
You can find more about me at starkravingdadblog.com, as well as collections of my favourite posts bundled up into supportive, encouraging little guidebooks for anyone walking this road less travelled.
Thank you so much for tuning in to listen today. Alright, let’s get into this week’s episode.
We’re back! The introvert has managed to show up a second time! Nothing can stop us now.
Before we get into today’s chat, can I just say how thankful – and overwhelmed – I’ve felt over the past week. The response to the first episode of this podcast absolutely blew me away. Your support and encouragement has given me allll the fuel I need to keep these important conversations going, so thank you. My wife Kate and I have been reading through your reviews together over coffee each morning, and they’re just so heart warming. Please keep them coming!
To follow on from the prologue episode, I want to keep setting the scene. To tell you more about who I am, who we are as a family, how we’ve ended up where we have, and why I’m out here doing what I’m doing. Because I think the things I’ll be using this podcast platform to talk about will be so much more useful and powerful in your life if you can connect parts of your own story to mine.
So I’m going to tell you more about my family’s journey – and through it, we’ll break down some of the myths we so often hear about living a life without school, because so far we’ve broken pretty much all of them.
Like the fact we’ve never been wealthy, and we’ve had to fight and sacrifice to make this life path work financially. Or that our children have not only given school a shot, they’ve tried it out in two completely different countries. Or the fact we don’t have one or two quiet, easy children, we have four absolute hurricanes.
You know how you look at those families online and say ‘wow, life’s been pretty easy for them – no wonder they can make a lifestyle like that work’?
Yeah, that’s not us.
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In an ironic twist, our family story starts in a classroom. Kate and I met at a University here in New Zealand, way back in 2003, in a lecture theatre for the Education paper we were both taking. It was just like one of those slow motion scenes from the movies – sitting down to unpack our bags, eyes catching, hearts stopping. We kind of awkwardly chose seats closer and closer together as we arrived at the first few weeks of class until Kate finally took the initiative for both of us and just sat down right next to me. We started talking, and…18 years later, we still haven’t stopped.
Kate was a focused, diligent student majoring in music after an achievement-studded journey through high school. And if you’ve listened to the prologue episode of this podcast, you’ll know that I was none of those things – I was distracted and flakey, changing my focus every year but never fully committing to any one thing. We wrapped up our University careers at about the same time – Kate because she was graduating (from both University and Teacher’s College), me because I’d proposed, she’d accepted, and now we had a wedding to pay for. Let’s be honest, my studies were going nowhere anyway.
Kate jumped into the perfect first teaching role in a great little rural school down the road from where we lived, and I found a job selling and delivering beds for a local store. Not the lawyer I’d set out to become in my first year of University study, or the computer scientist in my second, or the psychologist in my third, or the web designer or maybe even philosopher in my fourth…but it started paying for our wedding (or should I say, it started paying off the money we’d borrowed for our wedding), and gave me the chance to build the skill of selling in a genuine, human way. I didn’t know it then, but that skill would become a huge part of my professional life. It also started building strength in a concept that I’m super passionate about now – that life is not about what you do. It’s about who you are.
It was around this time that I had a little health scare. Something I worried might be quite serious but, after a couple of visits to my doctor, told wasn’t. I would find out a few years later that his diagnosis was actually very wrong.
It was also around this time that Kate was becoming disillusioned with the structure and rigidity of the education system she was trying to inspire our future generations from within. I remember her coming home each day, frustrated by the narrowness of the lines she had to walk between. Like, taking her class outside to sit under a tree while they do their math lesson because the change of scene and fresh air helped them relax about it…only to be told she couldn’t do that, because what if EVERYONE decided they wanted to work outside. It would be chaos. Lessons happened in the classroom. Lessons happened at desks.
The rules were the rules. And through Kate’s experiences, we started learning first-hand how difficult it is to be a creative, effective teacher in such a tight system.
In 2007 Kate closed the door of her classroom for the last time. Our first son, Joseph, was due in August and her blood pressure was getting high. We were told she’d be induced which meant everything was happening a few weeks earlier than expected, but that didn’t matter – we’d read all the parenting books and we were totally ready.
We were also completely deluded.
New parenthood is one of the most intense, overwhelming, terrifying, exhausting, rewarding, work-it-out-as-you-go things a human being can go through. So through time in the hospital stabilising Kate’s blood pressure, finally getting to go home, then going back to the hospital for another stint of blood pressure management, we set about working it all out.
Very early on we made a decision together – that having at least one of us at home with our children for as long as we could possibly make it work was going to be a priority.
With Kate’s teaching salary gone slightly earlier than we expected, I hunted out roles that would give me more earning potential, and moved from selling beds for a retail store to selling websites for a web development company. It was an amazing business with an amazing team, but it was sold not long after I started and the new owners stripped out the great management team, put in their own, and in a pretty short time asked those of us left to relocate to another city to keep our jobs. I realised that this was a life crossroad – I could try and keep that job or find a new one, or…I could create one. I tapped a couple of other guys who were in the same boat on the shoulder, and we launched our own web design company.
With next to no money in our pockets and one single web development contract lined up, we got to work in a spare bedroom of our home. And, just to make sure Kate and I felt like our plates were niiiiice and full, we had our second child William – born at home in a beautiful, empowering experience that couldn’t have been more different to his older brother’s birth and early months. No blood pressure issues this time around.
In retrospect, starting and running a small business when you’re relying on it to provide a weekly pay check from day one to feed your growing family was probably completely crazy, but we grafted hard and made it work for close to three years. We lived on rice and bean meals, we cut our own hair, we never went on holiday, we spent hardly anything on birthdays and Christmases, and lived in second hand clothing. But Kate was able to be a full-time mum to our children, and I was working on something I enjoyed with people I respected.
We had hardly any money, but we were fulfilled.
And we were learning that life is actually just a series of these crossroads – some trivial some significant, some obvious some subtle – that, if you have your eyes and mind open to them, offer these chances to take less travelled paths. We were also finding that those paths are never as easy to navigate, but that they usually take you somewhere pretty interesting.
We arrived at one of those interesting places in early 2012 when the path we’d been slashing and hacking our way along with our business opened out into a beautiful clearing. There, two life-changing things happened almost at once.
The first, an acquisition of my team and I by a Silicon Valley company run by two of the original founders of Youtube. The second, a recurrence of that earlier health bump that flared aggressively and rapidly into something a specialist would soon diagnose as severe ulcerative colitis (a bit like Crohn’s, if you’ve heard of that).
A financially life-changing moment had arrived hand in hand with a debilitating, incurable disease. But after years of giving up almost everything material, right down to the quality and volume of food in our cupboards, I tried to ignore the health issue and focus on making money. Maybe I should have stopped and respected my health first, but I decided to chase that career dream…and with treatment some heavy medication on board, I chased it hard.
The three weeks that followed are an absolute blur – I flew to San Francisco and dined in a Youtube founder’s penthouse apartment high above the city, before promptly threw it up again through a haze of immunosuppressants and steroids back at my hotel. I spent hours and hours in meeting rooms talking, planning, scheming and presenting with nausea and crippling abdominal pain as constant companions. I was losing kilograms of weight a week in a country 12,000km from home. Looking back, I probably should have hospitalised myself.
While I was away, Kate was finding us a home. We weren’t going to waste this opportunity – the money from the acquisition had helped us line up a mortgage with our bank, and with the final weeks in our rental ticking down she found us a tidy little brick home in a nice suburb. We owned our own little slice of the world, a massive life goal in the bag.
But life very rarely trundles along in the way you expect it to. That’s true for most, but especially so when you’ve chosen to head down a series of untrodden paths. Less than 6 months into owning that piece of New Zealand I was made redundant from the company that had acquired us.
Two young kids. Six weeks until Christmas. Two weeks until the next mortgage payment. Meagre savings. Disease ravaged body. No job between us. We were in trouble.
We weren’t at rock bottom just yet, though. That would come when my specialist hauled me in for a talk with a surgeon. I sat holding Kate’s hand, everything a blur while they talked about the situation. The treatment drugs were damaging my organs, stripping my bone density…they didn’t want to put me back on them.
“You’re young, you need to think long term.”
The surgeon told me the plan would be to fully remove my large intestine and reroute my small intestine through a hole in the side of my stomach. Multiple major operations extending over a few months. Completely and utterly life changing.
But…we had bills to pay. Children to feed. A dream of having one of us home with them as much as possible. Kate had picked up some casual work to contribute to the bank balance, but we’d need much, much more to cover the costs of a family of four with a mortgage. I gritted my teeth and managed another few months in a marketing job before I finally, finally threw in the towel. The one I should have thrown in some time ago. I was a physical wreck. Kate was insistent she pick up the earning mantle. I didn’t argue. I said we needed to sell our home before we were forced to. She didn’t argue.
We cleared out our house, moved back with my parents, and at the age of 30 accepted we were pretty much professionally and financially back at square one.
At that stage our two boys had been in a Montessori kindergarten for a few hours on a few days each week (which is pretty much fully funded for kids aged between 3 and 5 in New Zealand). It was a lovely environment where they played, read, created, and gardened. We’d been talking of the idea of homeschooling by school age since Kate’s eventually-suffocating experiences in her teaching days, and probably even earlier than that, but she was now working again to support the family and I was just too sick to take it on.
We enrolled Joseph in the first of three schools he would eventually attend, and I became a stay at home dad while I tried to work out how to live with this disease. The Montessori drop-offs for William were easy, the school drop-offs for Joseph a nightmare. Tears in the car. Tears when we arrived. Tears when I left. Tears again when I returned. He’s an academically minded kid so had no problems at all adhering to the ways of a classroom and the type of work that was expected, but he was emotionally drained every day. He hated the long separation from us, the big scary fields, playgrounds and corridors, the older kids teasing him about his height…he was just miserable.
I was managing to build back my strength through rest, gentle exercise, some diet fine tuning, rest, and more rest. Being back at square one sucked, but it was also a bit liberating – there was no work stress, overflowing inboxes, people dynamics, deadlines…
The stripped back life version we suddenly found ourselves living – along with, presumably, a bit of luck – was helping me push my disease into remission. I had dodged the surgery bullet (for now).
With my health returning through the middle of 2013 I started opening my eyes again to work opportunities. I got talking to a guy I’d met in the local tech scene who was building something cool with a couple of other people, and I was excited about their vision. They planned to grow as a remote company rather than an office-centric one, and clearly respected and valued family life and balance. I wanted to be involved, they wanted me to be involved, and so I was back at work – but this time it was from my kitchen table.
We settled into a gentle routine over the next 6 months or so – Kate working at a medical clinic, me from home with the flexibility to run the kindy/school drop-off and pick-up rounds – and so we decided to get back to growing our family. Kate worked well into 2014 before winding down and preparing for our second home birth – one that was as uncomplicated as William’s but significantly longer and more difficult. Florence would begin life as she intended to live it – in her own time, on her own terms.
2014 was coming to a close, and after a year and a half in the school system Joseph was still miserable. With my health and work role stable (plus the fact it was remote, so I was in and around the home most of the week) it was finally time to kick off the education approach we’d always planned. Out went a New Zealand homeschooling application to exempt him from attending school in 2015, and in came an approval call shortly after.
The relief Joseph expressed that day, the weight he clearly felt had been shifted from his 7 year old shoulders, spoke volumes.
Queue the happily-ever-after music? Not quite. The year that followed was one of the hardest of our lives, and we’d had some challenging phases by then. Florence was an intense baby, William was morphing from the most snuggly, gentle toddler into a rambunctious ball of energy, and we spent much of the year carrying guilt around not ‘teaching’ Joseph. We’d committed to homeschooling him through a curriculum we’d designed and had signed off by the education authorities here and we just weren’t executing on it. By the end of the year we were exhausted and felt we’d let him down. With William also now coming up to school age we reluctantly enrolled them both in school (a much smaller one than last time, though) for the 2016 year. We just didn’t believe we could deliver the education they needed.
It’s ironic, really – we made that decision for them thinking we were doing them a disservice, but we’d later realise our less instructional approach from the year before was exactly what they needed. Continued to need. We just didn’t understand the concept of unschooling enough at the time to realise we’d actually started doing it, and that it was just our measure of success that was wrong.
The 2016 school year for the two boys was…ok. The smaller school size helped Joseph’s anxiety settle, and William is super social so had no problems making a bunch of friends and having some fun. But the tone of our parent-teacher catchups became more and more tense and urgent as the year went on, and by Term 4 we were being told William had serious focus issues and had a long way to go to catch up on his math ability, writing neatness and reading comprehension.
Meanwhile, the business I had joined from the kitchen table back in 2013 was going so well that we’d gone from a team of 5 to 35 and had started turning our growth eyes toward our big brother across the Tasman: Australia. Another cross-road, another well trodden path to the left and rambling overgrowth to the right.
Naturally, we turned right.
In early 2017 Kate and I packed up three suitcases, two backpacks and a baby stroller, hugged our family, said our teary goodbyes, and boarded a plane to move our life to Melbourne – a city we’d never even visited, a country we’d spent a grand total of 9 days in on our honeymoon 12 years earlier. Our job: set up the Australian office for the company, and build an amazing local team.
Our first step after arriving was obviously finding somewhere to live. But with the guilt we built up through our first homeschooling experience still feeling fresh, we also needed to find a good school. We moved into a lovely suburb close to the city (nothing like sacrificing space for location – hello tiny, basic rental apartment) with a well-regarded and well-funded public school close by.
On that first day of school Joseph and William put on their matching blue and gold uniforms (second hand), matching blue and gold backpacks (I would say they were…fourth hand), and ate their breakfast on the lounge floor. We’d underestimated the cost of securing a rental in Australia, and the small budget we’d set aside for IKEA furniture had been mostly drained before we even turned the key to our new place. We bought some mattresses (for the floor – bed frames were pushed to the nice-to-have list), some bed covers, a small table, and some kitchen basics.
I walked the boys to school, hugged them at the gate, and with tears in my eyes headed toward the co-working space I was basing myself in. Both Kate and I felt a gut-wrenching sadness about our failure to homeschool successfully despite believing so strongly that it was best for our kids, but it hadn’t worked. And that exhaustion of it not working still felt so big. And besides, we were going without – materially – in a pretty extreme sense. A family of five is hard to fund on one income, especially after ending up back at square one so recently in life. Not only did we not even have a sofa to sit on in our apartment, we didn’t have a financial safety net of any kind. Kate had to add an income to the mix.
Then, when she was on the cusp of accepting a great part-time role in a medical centre near our apartment, life did it again – it gave us our next crossroad.
“Your son is immature”, William’s teacher said to us across the classroom desk. “He doesn’t listen, he can’t keep up, he can’t focus, and he needs the toilet far too often.”
We were at our mid-year parent-teacher interview at our new Australian school, perched on those tiny little classroom chairs designed for kids. There are many, many wonderful teachers out there doing amazing things despite the constraints of the system, but William’s teacher that year was not one of them (for him, at least). She was a nice enough person, but her approach toward children couldn’t have been more jarring for someone like him. She used tactics like restricting his monkey bar time in the playground – the thing he loved most, and that helped him get all his physicality out after long periods of being still – when she decided he wasn’t listening enough in class. She delayed his playtime if he needed the toilet to often – trips he tells us now were used to just get some space, to breathe.
Carrots and sticks. Rewards and punishments. Continual, relentless consequences for being who you are (if who you are doesn’t fit the required mould), or for finding ways to manage your mental health in an environment you’re uncomfortable in (if such ways disrupt the continual pursuit of progress).
We left that talk feeling scolded and with what felt like an order to pull our son in line. Our gut was telling us we were on a slippery slope, and we started talking about the option of homeschooling again late into the night every day, but our confidence had been knocked so badly the first time around we just couldn’t take the leap. Besides, money…
We tried to fix William’s school issues. To fix him. We reluctantly took his teacher’s feedback on board. We clamped down on anything too physical inside our home. We relentlessly shushed his noise. We pushed him to practice his writing, his school reading books, to complete his homework each night. We tried to create an environment of quiet obedience.
Our home adopted the paradigm of a classroom, us the teachers. No learning was happening, though – just a whole lot of attempted behaviour shaping, arguments, frustration, timeouts, tears (from us as much as him)…it was exhausting.
And through it, we watched him disintegrate.
He came home one day, burst into tears on his bedroom floor, and shouted over and over that he “hated himself at school”.
After the shock of hearing those words from our 7-year-old child had subsided, they started to sink in.
Hated himself…at school. He knew what was required of him in that environment, knew he was failing to live up to the standards, knew he couldn’t be himself. And because we were trying to set those same standards at home as well, with more and more desperation, he had no release. Our precious 7-year-old boy had that tension between who he was and who others were asking him to be sitting squarely on his shoulders, and it was crushing him.
He clearly saw and understood what his teachers, principal and – for shame – his parents hadn’t:
To make it through school successfully he’d have to become someone he wasn’t. He’d need to chop off some edges so he’d fit in the mould.
He would never be comfortable in a quiet, obedience-oriented, mostly sedentary environment for six and a half hours a day, five days a week, for 13 years. He was screaming inside and had no idea how to express it all.
We took the foot off the pedal at home. We made noise with him. We hung out at the park where he’d run, cartwheel, forward roll, play fight with sticks and dance. We let him dismantle stuff (turns out, he can put things back together again). We dropped homework, and ignored the teacher’s notes about it. If he was fully engaged in something and we noticed he’d left his towel lying on the floor, we – gasp – just let him carry on.
We reflected more. Our first attempt at homeschooling had been a failure, but only when measured against the academic progress benchmarks we were holding ourselves and our children to. When measured against what we truly feel are important – things like happiness, meaning, purpose, connection, and exploring our passions – we were actually heading down the right path all along.
We discussed the option of homeschooling again with William and Joseph. There was a chorus of excitement and relief, but it was William’s face that really told the story when the spark we knew so well but hadn’t seen for so long flashed in his eyes.
After having delayed her job decision for a couple of weeks Kate officially pulled her hat from the ring. Our children’s lives were more important than material things, and we’d continue backing my role – one that had been ramping up in responsibility over time – to support our choice. We would rather go without material things than have our children go without the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.
Besides, it was kinda fun using an apartment like a tent.
A few weeks later, in late 2017, I wrote down William’s story. I felt it was important – with his permission – to share his experience. To make it…ok…to not fit the system. That post resonated with so many people that a fire of purpose was lit inside me. And since then, I haven’t stopped writing.
We have four children now. 14, 11, 6 and 2. Two boys, two girls. We’ve unschooling, and sharing thoughts from that journey, for almost four years. We still live on one income, as materially leanly as we can to make this work. We still don’t own our own home, and maybe we never will. That’s ok.
Kate and I have come to crossroad after crossroad in the past 18 years, but I can’t help feeling we’ve ended up exactly where we were always meant to. It was that jagged journey we needed to go through to learn from, because it’s the feelings and emotions from those experiences that we’ve been able to start putting into words for others. To inspire and motivate, encourage and support…we both feel a deep sense of that being our life mission now.
In the year 2040 our kids will be hitting their 30s. What will the world look like then? What challenges will we be facing as humans? What will we need people to stand up and fight for?
Big questions to answer, but I’m confident saying one thing – free thinking, expressive, passionate, energetic boundary-pushers will have a huge role to play in tackling those future challenges, and I intend to foster those qualities for as many days and years as my children will let me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the tale of how we became a home educating family. For me, it’s just a reminder that everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s background is different. Everyone’s journey is theirs.
And that, ultimately, it’s up to us as parents to be the change our children need.
Thank you for being here again with me, and please keep leaving those overwhelming reviews if this podcast is touching your life.
Ok, I’ll see you back here in a week.
Bye for now.