This La Union Couple Is Raising Smarter Kids Through "Unschooling"
As soon as this family of five scuttled through the automatic glass doors of the specialty supermarket, Cady, 6, who brought her longboard, started cruising through checkout counters and dodging barrier belts. Dylan, 4, was treating the ironwork of the membership counter like monkey bars. And the youngest, Adam, 2, stripped off his shoes, pants, and his soiled diaper, and stomped around proudly.
Staff and security guards were confused. I was amused. But their parents, Kiddo and Amy, were generally at ease. In fact, as pandemonium let loose, dad applied for a membership at the superstore, and mom scoured for a flat white to start her day. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Cosios.
Catching sight of them for the first time will overcome you with some quiet apprehension: The kids cluck around like free-range chickens, while father rooster and mother hen go about the day’s duties. Though both Kiddo and Amy grew up in the city, it was their love for the surf that beckoned them to pack up their entire life in a van one day in 2012, with their then-newborn Dylan and Cady (short for Cadence) already a toddler, and make the permanent move to the coastal town. “We actually really like Manila to be honest,” says Kiddo. “But I think Manila just didn’t really like us back. The traffic just wore on us…and for a family, that becomes difficult.”
What wasn’t difficult was making that decision—it was always on their mind. Even if there was no major upgrade or permanent career opportunity waiting for them in La Union, they were going to make the move. And so on the expressway, driving away from Manila, they recall laughing and thinking, “We finally did it.”
Now they operate El Union Coffee, found in the center of the gentrified surftown, where they manage the two-storey café famous for their indoor s’mores and killer dirty white coffees. Kiddo’s favorite Facebook review of El Union was from a lady who commented that while she loved their s’mores, there were “two weird kids” in the coffee shop…“especially the boy…” she continued, “very annoying. At first I thought they were beggars or street children, but apparently when I asked the kid who was his mom, he answered and pointed at the woman in the bar saying ‘That crazy woman is my mom.’ So odd for a kid to say that.”
It’s funny because her report sounded absolutely true, and funnier still because she was so put off by it. In reality, these kids have always been a part of the coffee shop—they grew up there (because Kiddo and Amy are 100 percent hands-on, with no house help). The children are actually part and parcel of the El Union brand, which was passionately built from ground up by Kiddo and some friends, who all, in one way or another, aimed to escape the very contentions relayed in the tone of the reviewer.
So most of the days, the kids will be found here in El Union, topless (or fully nude), covered in tattoos made with non-toxic markers. Other times, they help out: Cady, the eldest and only girl, just recently learned how to do a pour-over coffee, and Dylan, the wildly energetic boy, helped serve the shop’s specialty grilled cheese and bacon jam sandwich (but took a bite for himself before serving). And then, when the day is about to end, the brood will excuse themselves for beach time—their sort of religion, Kiddo says. Every day, despite their schedules, they make time for the sea, where they swim and enjoy each other’s unadulterated company. It is where they learn too, Kiddo says—their classroom, where they “understand the dynamics of the ocean and weather, and ask probing questions about anything in the world: birds, crabs, music, cartoons, ninjas, airplanes, anything.” They bring along their eight-month old dog, Rufio, too—and here, they watch the sunset together, in the shore near the place where once upon a time, about seven years ago, as young twenty-year-olds, Kiddo asked Amy to be his wife.
Every day, despite their schedules, they make time for the sea. It is where the kids learn—their classroom, where they “understand the dynamics of the ocean and weather, and ask probing questions about anything in the world.
The kids are homeschooled—or unschooled, to be exact: they don’t go to prison...I mean school. At home, they don’t follow a set curriculum or schedule.
Unschooling spread in America during the ’70s—a counterculture movement developed by educator John Holt, a Yale graduate and teacher at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. He asserted that children, through their natural curiosity to learn, can do so through life experiences—whether it be through play, household responsibilities, personal interests, travel, books, etc. The idea encourages exploration brought upon by the children themselves—not entrenched by an institution. Unschooling goes against the “one size fits all” or “factory model” of school, claiming to be beneficial because, well, each child learns according to their own pace, interests, and goals—unlike in a normal school, where everyone is expected to learn and excel at the same time. Unschooling also points out that kids become more trained for the real world, and not in a coop with a rewarding system. Free from school, each child learns at an early age what they are good or passionate about—and can already focus on achieving these goals.
Kiddo, who went to different international schools abroad before being homeschooled by his mom for high school in Manila (“I know, weird, right,” he says), attests to this belief. “The human appetite for learning is relentless. I haven’t been in school for a long time, and yet I keep learning. The children go to school differently, but they learn. And when people ask us, ‘Will their social ability be impaired; will they not be good at this or that subject?’ I just say, meet them, and you tell us. And if we feel like these deficiencies that people caution us about—if they’re real—we have no problem exploring other avenues.”
When you do meet the kids, you will be surprised: They are so cool—with swag and an unusual sweetness, a genuine, innate glowing happiness, and a sterling sensitivity that I find unique to them.
Before our shoot, for example, Cady gasps. “This is a plastic bottle. Plastic bottles aren’t allowed where we live because they harm the animals in the sea.” She also holds up a bag of grapes that the family had taken with them as a snack. “Want some?” she asks chirpily. “No, thank you,” I begin to say. But she has already pulled one grape out and popped it in my mouth.
Dylan, who took his knitted plush doll, a turtle he calls Leo (after the Ninja Turtle) screams at us, “Don’t touch him by the head because you’ll hurt him! Hold him only by the shell.” He will form Leo’s inexistent mouth into an upward curve, “This is how Leo smiles,” he says, and then he inches Leo toward my face, making licking sounds. “He likes you!”
Unschooling goes against the “one size fits all” or “factory model” of school, claiming to be beneficial because, well, each child learns according to their own pace, interests, and goals.
“Can I have your cookie?” I ask, pointing to his oatmeal cookie that he almost went berserk over because dad almost accidentally threw it out. (I didn’t really want the cookie.) “Uhm…” he says, mulling it over. “Let’s half.” He splits his cookie in two, right smack in the middle, then hands the other one to me. Later on, he will do the same thing with his hotdog, offering the mangled sausage to me with his full mouth.
It is this kind of warmth and thoughtfulness that will take you aback—this sense of character, the incredible kindness, their concept of sharing—it jars you. Their social skills are intelligible, and they aren’t being graded for it. They don’t get a star for sharing a cookie, or a stamp for holding conversation with an adult. They just really warm up to you as a person, are curious about who you are and what you know. There is no judgment in their eyes—they approach every person with the same reverence. They will hold your hand, pull you with them, and open up their world to you.
“I’m sure kids in traditional schools have lots of one-ups over our kids,” says Kiddo. “But I noticed that mine are very comfortable with people of all ages. They respect adults, but they also seem to treat them as equals. They are confident but earnest, and not fresh. I know this can be controversial, in a culture where children defer to elders. But we are equals, and they are just younger and less mature, with a different role at the present moment. ”
They’re the type of kids who were raised to belt out a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit” during a family reunion; they make snowballs in a skating rink by shaving the ice with the blades on their skates; and on the weekends, when La Union fills up with tourists and booze, they meander around the same environment with the warmth of a host, and the sophistication of a local. You will see them in the same parties, swimming at the same beach, attending the same gigs, and hanging out in the same coffee shops.
“I’m sure kids in traditional schools have lots of one-ups over our kids,” says Kiddo. “But I noticed that mine are very comfortable with people of all ages. They respect adults, but they also seem to treat them as equals.
While unschooling stresses that kids learn through their personal interests, Kiddo says, it’s too early to tell what path each will take. “We definitely have an idea about our kids’ personalities and inclinations. That said, they are also changing as they grow older, so that also makes raising them a learning experience. It’s easy to see the human journey as a tunnel, as though you pop in on one side, and exit the other at a predetermined location. But it is a path, and you can hop off at any time: go for a drink at a pub, walk some more, swim in a lake, jump on the back of a truck, and then even walk the other direction... you get the analogy? For the kids, we have a direction, but we are as fl exible as a path is.” And so as far as interests go, for now, they know that Cady loves fashion, Dylan seems to be musical and intuitive, and Adam is an entertainer. “But those paths could change. The important thing is to keep learning, and stay passionate about something.”
“I’ve just learned to roll with it,” says Amy of their changing interests. “I’d say the most important thing is to always nurture their love for learning. Some days Cadence wants to start reading, other days she just wants to bake cakes. Either way, we try to encourage them, to make resources available for them, and to give them feedback. We do take note of how the kids learn. Adam mimics a lot, because he’s two. Cadence is stubborn but resourceful. Dylan is pure instinct. They’re all pretty amazing little humans, and it’s fun to see how they take in the world.”
The kids strengths also lie in their incredible physicality: riding longboards at age 6, being able to jump off shopping carts five feet high and landing with a kind of grace at 4 years old; they have a core strength that would meet #fitspiration goals. Oh, and they can surf! Chalk this up to the fact that their parents put them in the water to learn to swim at one month, and then let them fall down and pick themselves up alone, repeatedly. They have a self-assurance that is straight out enviable.
But what about the basics: reading, math, and writing—where do they fit in their daily lives? To which Kiddo responds, it’s part of it, “but they are also very young, and we feel they need to play a lot. The lessons are pretty basic. We might see a fish and talk about it. And then we will use sticks to write numbers in the sand. We are progressing into more structure, as they get older.” Amy adds, “I’m definitely aware of certain areas that our kids might fall behind on. But having subjects like math, science, and reading are only essential in the context of traditional schooling. The more important life skills are being able to express oneself, appreciating nature, developing critical thinking and logic. I don’t really try to sit the kids down to check if they understand concepts. We just live life with them. Sometimes we play hide and seek, and I count to ten before searching for them. So now, even Adam understands what time is.”
"The lessons are pretty basic. We might see a fish and talk about it. And then we will use sticks to write numbers in the sand. We are progressing into more structure, as they get older."
“People are always asking, ‘How do you send them to school?’” says Kiddo. “And we say, well it’s still working that we don’t send them to school. We school them ourselves. And they say, ‘well what happens if that doesn’t work?’ And we’re like, ‘Then we send them to a school.’ It’s not that complicated. A lot of people are so afraid to make these big choices, because they’re afraid they have to stick to those choices, but that’s really just pride: that you’re afraid to be wrong to yourself.”
“I think we’re just not very greedy over money,” says Kiddo.
Amy agrees, “We don’t panic too early. Like zero in a bank account, is not so—I mean, as long as there’s a little bit of money for food. We’re not re-thinking our whole lives.”
“We just don’t have a lot of fear about that,” Kiddo says. “I guess it’s because we’re sensible about the important things. We’re very intentional about our philosophy and what we believe in, and why we do what we do. Not that money isn’t an important thing, but we just feel like we do the fundamentals, and the trend has been that we’re able to take care of ourselves.”
The fundamentals for the Cosios are kindness, love, simplicity, and a progressive questioning of long-held ideals. Are the kids missing out on the benefits of an institutional school? Perhaps—but doesn’t the sentiment go both ways? Every choice that a parent makes for their children automatically eliminates them from the choices they didn’t make. “Money doesn’t dictate where we go—at the same time money is also important. We’re pragmatic,” says Kiddo. “We’re just being critical and thinking, do we agree with that? We’re constantly packing and re-packing what we believe and don’t believe. And that’s okay. People sometimes misunderstand that we’re trying to be extremists and radicals, and we’re not—we just take these very valid questions and run with them. We’re not too proud to say that we could be wrong. We don’t feel like were making a mistake at this point—it’s been quite enriching so far—but I think that our message is just to try to be as authentic and genuine as you can be.”
The fundamentals for the Cosios are kindness, love, simplicity, and a progressive questioning of long-held ideals.
And the benefits are precious. Kiddo recalls that one time, while at the beach, Cady had asked, “why do we have belly buttons?”
“I told her in very basic terms about moms, babies, nutrition, and umbilical cords. Then she asked more and more questions. It led to a discussion about how babies are made, and the beauty of human life and love. The sun was setting in classic La Union form, and it was such a beautiful moment, I cried. I wish I could describe how much we learn through the simplest of rituals, whether we are children or adults.”
Amy is proud of the family’s sense of camaraderie, strengthened day by day. “What I like about unschooling the kids is that we get to navigate each day together. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s also so rewarding. We know each other inside out. Cadence, Dylan, and Adam know all my flaws and I know theirs. I don’t have to wait for report cards. Even Kiddo and I are learning every day. We are all growing together, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Seven years married with three kids, one dog, and one van—the Cosio family presents their strongest suit—It seems they have completely understood what being a family is all about. Free from the social proprieties and false appearances of what a “family” should be, they have come to terms with a definition that is their own, and they’re riding with it. With a sort of raised-middle-finger attitude, and an honest love and passion for life, the Cosios continue to carouse the world, to push the system, to hack the code. In the future, they seek grander experiences, to be able to expose the kids to the bigger, wider, world, which is their classroom. Amy jokes, “I might just lose my mind. Or the kids might try to kill each other. Anything could happen. But we are committed to doing things together. That’s how we learn.”
At the end of the day, Kiddo reiterates, “It’s not really that complicated. And I remember distinctively thinking that if it all goes to hell and we crash and burn—there’s enough time to rebuild. You have to feel the weight of your decisions sometimes—that’s the only way you know when it will be a good one.”
Styling by Samantha Tidalgo; hair and makeup by Muriel Vega Perez
This article was originally published in Esquire's June 2017 issue. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.