‘[Kids] are so innately in tune with who they are. If we give them the great growing spaces to be everything that they’re created to be, they can do anything.’
An “unschooling” mom of three from Hawaii who places faith, nature, and the community at the helm is sharing her family’s journey from an abusive past into freedom, and how her kids are thriving by building their character and relationship with God.
Maui, Hawaii, natives Haley Celeste Miller, 31, and her husband Travis Okano, 32, met at the movie theater at the age of 12 and have been together ever since. Haley is a stay-at-home mom and professional network marketer for Young Living Essential Oils, while Travis is a part-time farmer, part-time landscaper, and works part-time as a hotel valet. Their children are Caleb, 11, Nash, 8, and Mila, 4.
“Caleb is such a serious kid and he’s actually the reason why we unschool. He’s very brilliant,” Haley, who shares their family life on Instagram, told The Epoch Times, describing Nash as “the life of the party” and claiming Mila “runs the show most days.”
“There’s a saying, ‘the ego is abbreviated as edging God out,’” she said. “When we are in our mother’s womb, our mother doesn’t worry about what’s happening, right? Because it’s so in tune with God, and all the magic of creating a life. We don’t think about if their nose is there yet, or their eyes or their ears … we just trust that everything is developing the way it should be. But as soon as we enter the world, all of a sudden we edge God out, and we implant our own beliefs and our own ideas and our own ways of thinking.”
Hayley stresses that most of these beliefs are not even our own but are instead tied through school systems, through parents, through friendships, and their control on us progresses to a point where “we don’t even recognize who God is anymore.”
‘Our Journey Began’
While pregnant with her second child at 23, Haley decided she wanted her kids to have everything she never had. Growing up as the child of drug-addicted parents, Haley had taken on responsibility for her sisters, and her own education suffered until a teacher became her champion in eighth grade.
Haley and Travis were both working two jobs at the time and were on food stamps and low-income housing, struggling to make ends meet. But when Haley found a work-from-home opportunity as a network marketer, she took matters into her own hands.
“I had a huge goal to travel with my family,” she said. “When Caleb turned 5, I was able to make that goal happen. I was getting enough income to retire my husband and myself, and we traveled for eight months. The world was literally at [my kids’] feet, and the profession that I’m in gives us the opportunity to be able to learn anywhere we are.”
Returning home to Hawaii, Haley and Travis put Caleb in school.
“We’re driving one day and he’s looking out at the ocean, and he’s like, ‘Mom, when I die, I’m gonna become the whole ocean,’” Haley said. “I don’t know why, but at that moment I knew that this was our path. I don’t have anything bad to say about school … but the way I see it, I get to embrace everything he is and build him up. That’s kind of where our journey began.”
While traveling, Haley had collected books to read to Caleb and had been blown away by how much he learned. They drew and wrote together every day, went fishing in rivers and lakes, and learned from nature. Haley couldn’t fathom taking that away. Today, all three of her children are taught from home.
“I don’t know if there’s a word for what I do; a mix of homeschooling and unschooling—it’s very much child-led,” Haley said. “I’m just really putting things in front of them that they’re already passionate about.
“I would say our life is in seasons. Some seasons are … very scheduled and intentional, and some seasons are very free-flowing. It’s very much like the water. In this season right now, we have baseball.”
A typical day for Haley and her kids starts early. Haley rises at 4 a.m. for her own self-care before preparing breakfast with her kids, who sometimes cook for themselves. After breakfast, the foursome goes outside to play ball, jump in the ocean, or go diving or fishing for a couple of hours. Next comes lunch.
“If they feel like it we’ll do bookwork like math, reading, and writing,” Haley said. “We’ll talk about history or we’ll play games; games are a huge part of our lives.”
Caleb, Nash, and Mila read a book of their choice for 20 minutes every day and in the evenings they accompany their parents to the family farm and attend sports practice. Dinners are always a family affair and a time to “digest and connect” about the day. Lastly come showers, more reading, and bed.
‘God Has Got Them’
Hayley believes the children learn a lot from nature and their elders. However, the most fundamental connection for Haley is with God, and she believes that all parents should nurture this bond.
She said: “The Holy Spirit is something ‘so much bigger’ than myself. I’m able to look past my own eyes, and really see a child who was gifted to me by God. … They have to walk in the light and in the dark, they have to learn and navigate the world, so I think that faith plays such a big role because it’s this undeniable trust that God has got them.”
Much of what Haley teaches her kids also stems from honoring their indigenous heritage, making sure that Hawaiian culture, language, and reverence for the ocean are not lost. Caleb, Nash, and Mila have many friends in public schools, and Haley draws support from friends who homeschool their own children. She also leans on the wisdom of the older women around her.
The mom of three has been criticized for unschooling by skeptics who believe her kids will be academically inferior to their peers. In response, Haley talks about one of her favorite books, “8 Great Smarts for Homeschoolers” by Kathy Koch, and a broader way of looking at intelligence.
“I can look at my kid and say, ‘You’re so nature-smart, look at what you just created,’ or ‘body-smart,’ like the way they are able to move, wrestle, and throw balls,” she said. “[It boosts] their confidence because they’re not like, ‘Oh I don’t know how to spell that word and that means I’m dumb.’ It’s like, ‘No, I’m body-smart, I’m nature-smart, I’m word-smart!’”
‘Humbled Every Day’
The biggest compliments Haley receives are about how well her children communicate and how capable they are.
“They can tie different fishing lines, cast it out, catch these massive fish, crack open their own coconuts,” said Haley, who is equally proud of her children’s emotional intelligence and claims neither she nor Travis ever shut their kids down when they are talking about their feelings.
“I really listen, and my husband does as well,” she said. “I think just being their mother and watching them shine in their own innate gifts and talents is the best thing in the world—I’m just so humbled every day.”
Haley was born to a teen mom and a 20-year-old “punk rocker” dad, both of whom were addicted to methamphetamine. Haley claims it’s a miracle that she was unharmed as an unborn baby.
Her parents separated when she was 12, and a sequence of abusive men came through the family home. Haley became both mom and dad to her two younger sisters as her family went through homeless shelters and various drug addicts’ homes, stealing food from the store when the cupboard was bare, and hitch-hiking to school after putting her sisters on the bus.
To numb the pain, Haley began smoking marijuana. Her crisis came to a head when her mom returned from a days-long absence and was caught by Haley smoking meth in the bathroom.
Haley said: “My whole entire being just shut down, and all I knew to do was run. I sprinted until I couldn’t breathe. … I’m sobbing, I’m crying, I’m laying in the middle of the street, and I’m just praying with my heart ripped wide open. It was just a strong message, like just ‘take care of your sisters.’ Like, I didn’t have to worry about anything else, but my sisters.”
Fearing foster care, Haley closed herself off to the world for the sake of her two younger siblings. She told no one what was happening until an eighth-grade teacher noticed she was failing and stepped in.
“I just broke down and told him what was happening,” Haley said. “He started to pick me up for school, and he would make me stay after class and do my work. By the fourth quarter of my eighth-grade year, I had got into honors. I had a 4.1 GPA.”
When Haley was 18, her parents went into rehab at the same time. Her mother has now been sober for almost 14 years and while her father is still addicted to meth, Haley has “full acceptance and love for him for where he’s at.”
Haley earned a full-ride soccer scholarship to Chaminade University of Honolulu to study early childhood education and psychology and finished 18 months of study before falling pregnant with Caleb.
Haley says she does not judge education by normative standards.
“I believe that when you want to learn something, you will learn it,” she said. “I knew nothing of sales and when I wanted to build this life for my family and be a stay-at-home mom, I deep-dove into selling and the psychology of sales and network marketing—I wanted to learn it, and I did.
“I feel the same with a child—they are so innately in tune with who they are. If we give them the great growing spaces to be everything that they’re created to be, they can do anything.”
Haley encourages other parents interested in unschooling their own children to persevere past self-doubt.
“You are going to doubt yourself every single day; if you’re doing the right thing, if you’re doing enough, if you should be doing more, if you should just put them in school. You’re gonna constantly be judging yourself,” she said, insisting, “Educate yourself. There’s so many different ideas around homeschooling and unschooling, so you really have to find what’s best for your family.
“I always tell moms, the first year is the parent unschooling themselves to have no ideas and no expectations around what school looks like, but to really get to know their child. Really know what excites them, what makes them ignited to want to learn.”
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