Living With Kids: Emma Freedman

By Gabrielle.

Confession: I kind of harassed Emma to participate in my Living With Kids series. Truer confession: I kind of harassed and begged. And then emailed her over and over to ask if she had finished her questions yet, and could she please send more photos. Because even though I had more than enough, I simply wanted to see more of her life. It’s pretty remarkable.

The problem is that Emma was kind of busy. You see, she’s 15. I should’ve known that she was probably super occupied with all that average ordinary teen stuff, right? Not right. Not even close.

Emma is a change-maker. She has a blog, a nonprofit, and travels a lot with her family. And the reason she was a little late in sending her finished interview was, well, she had just won her county science fair, competed in the state science fair, unexpectedly getting in to the international science fair, which resulted in a crazy flurry of getting everything together for that. It ended up being an incredible experience, and she won a big special award grant from China and placed second in her category of the top 90 high school studies in the field of Environmental Management. Oh, and she is fearless, especially when it comes to ziplines.

Friends, I am so proud to present my first teen house tour, starring the very awesome Emma.

Q: Please introduce us to you and your family!

A: I’m Emma and I’m 15 years old. I’m a passionate young change-maker, conservationist, blogger, photographer, writer, leader, and adventurer. I love bright colors, wilderness, funky design, hard work, good writing, close friendships, and engaging learning. My blog has been a journey, as many are. I (usually) like blogging every Sunday with my favorite photography moments from the week. I also enjoy backpacking, ballet, science, swimming, planning parties, and cleaning the fridge.

My brother Max is 13. He’s an apprentice beekeeper and a pretty good shot at archery. He’s on a fencing team and plays way too much Minecraft. He loves being outside more than anything.

My mom is a multi-tasker. Mostly she drives us around, but she’s also an event coordinator, baker, infographic designer, and teacher. My dad has a nonprofit to help people and organizations with “emotional intelligence,” or EQ. Basically he helps people become better leaders to make positive change. He’s always talking about things like “noble goals” and saying stuff like “when people feel pushed, they resist.” Sometimes it’s annoying but I’m beginning to realize how great it is to be in a family that talks about emotions and emotional intelligence a lot.

Because my dad travels for his work, we go along too and have been to some amazing places. My family and I have been traveling internationally for the last five years on adventures. When we are home, we live in Corralitos CA (near Santa Cruz).

Q: Tell us about your home, and the part you played in making it your own.

A: We moved to this house five years ago when we had grown out of our last house and were pretty rough on it! My brother and I used to share a room; we ripped the wallpaper in the bathroom and scratched the hardwood floors (we were little kids!). My mom laughs about it now and said it was our practice house.

Now we live on the top of a hill looking out over fields of apple orchards. We have a big boxy house that we totally remodeled when we moved here. My parents thought it would be a good idea for us to do the work, so Max and I (we were eight and 10 then) learned how to install wood floors, do electrical outlets, sheetrock, and paint. Learning how much work it is to build a house has made me appreciate it even more. Max and I have our own rooms now, and I love knowing that had a big part in making this special space for myself.

We also love our house because both Max and I love being outdoors, and here we have 12 acres to explore. I like climbing to the top of my 50 foot tall redwood tree in the front yard and watching the birds. Recently as a family project we built a 170 foot zipline! We have 10 chickens and a couple hives of bees.

Q: You mention that your parents encouraged you to help with the remodel, which is the coolest. What is the one piece of advice you’d give parents when they’re teaching their kids? (There’s always the eye-rolling and the “I KNOW how to do it!” What made your experience remarkable?)

A: My brother is the really impulsive one who usually cuts first and measures later. I am the opposite. I think and think and plan things out. I visualize how something will look. I mull over things. In our remodel, because it was my first time working on painting and building, sometimes things didn’t turn out perfectly and it was very frustrating.

Perfectionism is a real burden. It can keep you from trying to new things or expanding yourself. I’ve had to wrestle with my own perfectionism. I like things to have the right answer and have beautiful results. But learning is really about making mistakes and getting better. If you don’t ever make mistakes, are you giving yourself enough challenge to grow?

So my advice to parents, if you have an impulsive kid, help them slow down to plan and think ahead. And if you have a cautious kid, encourage them to practice opening up to new experiences.

Q: I usually ask moms how they hope their kids will remember them, but now I get to ask you! What will you remember most about your mom and dad from your childhood?

A: I think what I’m going to remember most is going for family walks on the beach and planning birthday parties together, my parent’s involvement in any projects I asked for help on (and sometimes those I didn’t). I already know that they are great parents, but if I have my own kids I’m sure I’ll remember times when they had to deal with my brother and I being annoying or troublesome, and realize how awesome they are for putting up with us.

Some of my best memories are not about the perfect birthday parties or the fun days at the beach though. Some of the experiences I remember the most are when things didn’t turn out. For example, once we were out on a bike ride and a huge rainstorm came up. It was kind of scary, we were slipping on the road, getting drenched in seconds but still had to ride home, splashing and laughing and breathless.  Another time we were stuck in a huge traffic jam for hours. When it finally cleared up and we pulled off the road at a vista, we did crazy dancing to celebrate. I think my parents really help me reframe adversity. Life can be hard, but you have to keep going. And those hard times make me savor the great moments even more.

Q: What is your favorite space in your home? What makes it special?

A: My favorite place in my home is my bedroom, with its two big windows looking to the southwest out over the hills. Every morning I can watch the sun rise. All the furniture in my room is very old (over 100 years!) and passed down from family. I love it, and when I was younger it made me feel like a princess. When I was 10 years old and designing my room, I wanted to build in lots of special details like a chandelier and a hidden compartment in the wall. I did put up a chandelier but luckily I didn’t follow through with the secret-compartment construction.

I have special things all around my room. The big wall spaces are filled with galleries of my photography, including a big print by my bed that I took in Vermont, one of my favorite places. I feel like I’m seeing through a window to there when I look at it.

I have other things on my walls like a little antique kimono from a thrift store in Japan, and my first pair of pointe shoes. My clothes drawers are organized in rainbow order (I swear I’m not a neat freak) and my closet is also pretty unique. There’s a shelf devoted to science fair awards and a drawer just for teapots and cups. There’s also a fake cake and a typewriter. Among the tidy shelves and bright colors, there’s also my axe leaning against the wall, showing the more outdoor loving, badass part of my personality.

I love being in my room with the windows open, listening to the wind chimes and smelling the wisteria coming in on the breeze. I feel like my room really represents me because it has things that represent so many different passions of mine. I feel so comfortable there and I always love coming back to it from any travels or adventures.

Q: How do you feel about chores? What is your family’s system? And how can we, as parents, approach tasks like this better?

A: My parents don’t have assigned chores for us, and we don’t have an allowance either. My parents think we shouldn’t get paid for doing our share of the family work. They say we all have community responsibilities and individual responsibilities. So my brother and I both do our part.

We each have jobs we prefer: Max does laundry and I clean the refrigerator. He takes care of the bees and I manage the compost. I can’t stand wasting food so I take it upon myself to make sure the refrigerator stays tidy to prevent anyone from buying extra produce in the confusion, and manage food scraps so they all end up in the compost or the chicken coop.

Typically we all clean up the house on Sunday and get set for the week. We also almost always have family dinners on Sunday, and my grandma often comes for dinner. When I was younger (and not as busy with homework) I often planned, shopped, cooked, photographed, and blogged about our Sunday suppers.

Q: You mentioned you travel quite a bit. Very cool! What has been your favorite destination? Most surprising? Most moving?

A: It’s hard to pick a favorite place, as I’ve been to over 30 countries now, but I really love Japan. Recently we’ve been going there once a year. I am such a fan of Japan, sushi, tiny food, washi tape, temples, mochi sweets, sakura blossoms, the subway, everything!  I’m studying Japanese language and have friends in Tokyo. When the time comes I’m going to look into going to university there.

One of our most emotionally challenging trips was to Cambodia. We traveled out to a floating village where families lived in houses on stilts above the water. The hardest part was meeting land mine victims, many of them children, from the war. It was the first time I’d seen the damage of conflict like that.

The most moving adventure was the first time I went to Borneo, when I was 10 years old. There, I witnessed the destruction of the rainforest firsthand and drove through kilometers and kilometers of palm oil plantations in place of forest. I visited an orangutan rehabilitation center where I saw baby orphan orangutans who wake up at night crying from nightmares because they remember losing their mothers.

I learned there that as a consumer of products that contain palm oil (50% of products in a grocery store) I am part of the problem. I realized for the first time the role I play in our planet’s destruction, and this led me to start my nonprofit to raise awareness about these issues. It has become a very significant theme in my life. Now instead of being part of the problem, I am part of the solution.

Q: How does your family handle travel? (Emma’s mom has a great post about traveling with teens!)

A: Our family travel has changed as my brother and I have gotten older, but the two best things we do – eat really good food and take turns leading – have been a common thread.

Eating is really one of the most important parts of our trips. My mom does tons of research about local foods, or special things we can hunt for. We always go to markets because that’s where local people live and work. I love markets because they are fantastic places for photography. When we travel I love to go on food quests, hunting through cities, countries, or even continents for the best of the best. Some of my food quests have included ones for chocolate, cheese, pastry, butter, and bread.

Food unites us, and simultaneously differentiates us. For example, I had no idea how many different kinds of bread existed! I’ve tasted a lot – from the thinnest dosa in Malaysia to dense black rye in the forest of Lithuania.  I love our chewy sourdough from San Francisco best, because it’s the bread of my home. Food is a reflection of your culture and where you come from, and eating around the world has helped me see the world in a new way and realize how we have much in common.

We take turns leading our adventures, deciding where to go and what to do.  By letting my brother and I lead, we get to do things we want and get our parents to go to new places. I’ve also learned a lot about how many details are involved in getting places, reading reviews, budgeting our resources and keeping in mind everyone’s interests.

It’s not easy to plan a day for the whole family! To prepare for a new destination, I love to look at photographs from travel books. My brother prefers to listen to stories, movies, or histories about the place. Getting ready for a trip involves making lists of things we want to see and learn about. Then my mom takes our ideas and finds great places and experiences for all of us.

Q: Homeschooling our kids probably crosses every parent’s mind at some point! What do you love about it? What is difficult about it?

A: Homeschooling has been great for me. I was in a private school until fourth grade. Then we designed our own homeschool program, traveling and learning with online school and tutors at home. One of the best things about this kind of learning is that I am able to devote a lot of time on things I really love, like my project

I’ve been able to travel internationally, speaking to and holding in-person workshops with over 10,000 students in countries around the world including the USA, Japan, India, and Singapore. I’ve also been able to pursue my passion for science in the field of orangutan and rainforest conservation to high levels. I just got back from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, winning a top award for my project. Homeschooling has allowed me to devote hours of time to projects like these for multiple years, and it has been monumental in helping me become the person I am now.

It’s not all beneficial though. When people learn that I’ve been homeschooled, they often assume I have no social life, or I’m academically challenged. In the past few years, especially in my area, there has been more alternative education, but homeschooler is still a label and stereotype, which I don’t like and doesn’t align with who I am.

Q:  What has been your favorite part about living with your parents and brother? What will you remember most about this home? 

A: This is a great question because I am preparing to leave home for boarding school next fall. How do I make a home for myself? I’ve realized that home is not just the furnishings or pictures on the walls, it’s the memories you make there with people you love. So I am planning to bring my bedroom rug, some of my photography, and my quilt.  Although I won’t be home with my family, I take a little bit of them with me wherever I go.

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…

A: I wish someone had told me not to be afraid of change. I generally really dislike change, but I’m beginning to realize, as I get excited for school next year, that sometimes it can be really good. I don’t have very many regrets and those I do have are more about things I wish I could have discovered sooner for myself like self-confidence, that no one could have just told me about.


Emma, I loved getting the chance to share your perspective. Your mom and dad sound so thoughtful, and I know their parenting style will influence many readers today! All our best on your continued success and a wonderful life at boarding school and beyond. We will remember your name.

Wasn’t this fun? We always see these home tours from a parent’s point of view, but hearing from this exceptional teen really powered the thought that all of this we’re doing for our families really does matter and have an effect. Friends, do you have any advice for Emma as she embarks on her boarding school adventure? I’m sure she’d love your wisdom!

47 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Emma Freedman”

  1. Go Emma!!!! Thanks so much for sharing and for being AWESOME! Stepping out into the world with your loves – science, a tender heart, photography and food – will make your life so exciting.

  2. What an amazing girl!!! I loved when she said:
    “I think my parents really help me reframe adversity. Life can be hard, but you have to keep going. And those hard times make me savor the great moments even more.”

  3. thank you so much for sharing this post!

    I’m so inspired by this interview, Emma’s parents are definitely the kind of parent I aim to be. Emma and Max seem like great kids!

    So touched by the orangutan story and will be looking into her project.

    1. Thank you Lidia!
      I’m glad you will be checking out my project, and I hope you get your kids involved because we are the generation that’s going to make a difference.

      I’m working this very minute on a new website to invite other young Jungleheroes to showcase their work and get involved. We need environmentalism to be fun and exciting and uplifiting- something that we *want* to pay attention to every day.

      Next time you talk to your kids, ask them what their wish is for the planet. Go on a hunt in your kitchen and bathroom to see all the products that have palm oil as an ingredient, leading to devastating deforestation in Borneo.

      As young people, we *can* make a difference- demanding “deforestation-free palm oil” and spreading the word about the orangutans and the rainforest.

      Thanks for your support!

  4. Emma, it was a pleasure to meet you here and learn more about your work. I hope you have many more wonderful travels and things to learn in your future!

  5. I love this! I want my daughter to be adventurous, smart and thoughtul just like Emma. Great girl! Thank you for sharing.

  6. It was lovely to meet you, Emma! Your words and pictures are inspiring! I’m sharing your blog & project with my nieces. I will also read up because I think this is important, and I want to share with my children. Best wishes!

    1. Yes! We need more adults like you who recognize that kids can make a difference. When I was younger, I often felt overlooked, judged, and not taken seriously because of my age. I believe that anyone can make a difference, no matter how old they are.

      In fact, positive change-making needs to be something everyone does. The other day I asked my parents “why isn’t everyone trying to fix the environment all the time?”

      Because it can be depressing. But if we work together on this, we can make conservation and change-making something that is celebrated, and at any age.

      Thank you Heather!

  7. It would be really interesting to see home tours from the perspective of children, perhaps even younger. I think I’ll have my son do one (just for fun) of our home. I’d like to see what he thinks are the important elements of our home.

  8. Emma! You are a breath of fresh air. Bright, confident, adventurous, artistic, thoughtful and obviously a go-getter. I wanted to say that I have no doubt you are going to change the world, but you already are. And I really love the work ethic your parents instilled in you. One of my goals as a parent and now I realize I can step it up even more. Can’t wait to check out your blog and science project. Best of luck to you!

  9. Emma, I am fortunate to know many young people as passionate and heartfelt as you. When we couple youthful enthusiasm and energy with the experience of those who have been around a little longer, our world is certainly headed in the right direction. Keep adventuring, savouring, and living well. All the best!

  10. Wow, loved this perspective on a home tour. So amazing to hear about all of Emma’s interests and family life! I am feeling really inspired, thank you!

  11. I am so impressed with her! She is so articulate and passionate. I’m dying to hear from her parents too, they sound incredible. Such a great perspective of the home, I already love this series but seeing it through a child/teen’s eyes in so great (especially the pictures she chose). thanks Emma!

    1. Thanks Michelle! One of the things I love about photography is how it makes me look at things in a different way- paying attention to details and lighting, so it was interesting to do this with my home. Planning, photographing, and choosing pictures was my favorite part!

  12. Wow! Love your spirit, Emma. I am excited to read more about your efforts. Good luck at school and beyond!

  13. Thank you, Emma! What a wonderful, insightful post! I’m going to read it again and share it with my teenage son. I look forward to hearing more about you. Thank you for the inspiration to make a difference!

  14. Sharnjit Kaur

    Awesome interview!!! Yes, welcome the change with great heart, Emma. You seem to have incredible parents. God bless your adventurous life!

  15. In an age where so many girls are wrapped up in their appearance and the next party, I can’t even start to tell you how excited I am to hear that young girls (people) like this exist. Kudos to Emma’s parents for doing an amazing job! I am hopeful for the future!

  16. I want to hear more!!! This was an absolutly awe-inspiring post!
    Emma – I will take my kids on a palm oil hunt this weekend! I can’t wait to share this post with my daughter.

    1. Tamara- I’m so excited that you and your kids are going to get involved! Let me know how it goes. So many of us are unaware, consuming palm oil on a daily basis without knowing how pervasive it is.

      It’s really important for kids to see that they have power, they have choices, about the things they eat and what they influence their families to purchase. In 2009, snack food companies spent over 2 billion dollars on marketing to kids and teens- they care about what we think!

      If as kids, we are aware of the choices we have and use this for good- to pressure the global market towards more sustainable, environmentally friendly options like *deforestation-free* palm oil, we can make a big impact.

      Have fun with your palm oil hunt!

      1. So we couldn’t wait until the weekend…we went on our Palm Oil hunt last night. At first, we were so proud of ourselves (smiles all around, giving high fives)-no palm oil. Then we got to the snack shelf….man, you are right. Everything had palm oil. Our new project for the weekend is to figure out how we can replace some of those items with others that are just as yummy. My 8 year old is very excited about the project.

        1. Hi Tamara-
          Thank you for sharing your experience! Those snack foods sure are full of palm oil. It’s great to notice which foods have palm oil in them, and be conscious of the effects of this and how much we are consuming (it’s not just bad for the planet, but also for our bodies!) but it’s important to remember that avoiding palm oil is not the solution, deforestation-free palm oil is.

          Even if there was a huge drop in demand for palm oil, this would be terrible for the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, which could lead to more logging, mining, and poaching of the orangutans to make up for this blow to the economy.

          There are lots of things you can do with your kids to take action! This is the Junglehero Pledge, or the Orangutan Oath, that you can sign together to promise to protect the rainforest:

          One of the actions on the pledge is to pressure companies to use only “deforestation-free” palm oil. It’s really easy to send a letter to companies using this form: It has companies to choose from and a request already written for you!

          Thanks for taking action with your kids!

  17. I love this post! Thanks so much Emma for sharing your experience with us and for inspiring me to bring more thoughtfulness to my daughters’ education. Sometimes I dream about homeschooling them, but we live in such a tight-knit community where the whole neighborhood goes to the same school. It’s hard to break away from that, but it’s possible to supplement their education with more project based learning like you mentioned. Can’t wait to check out your blog and pass it along to my 12 year old niece!

  18. What fabulous insights. Thank you, Emma, for sharing with us. You certainly gave me a lot of food for thought, especially as the parent of a 14 year old. Keep writing and blogging… I look forward to reading more from you. And, thanks, Design Mom, for bringing us another amazing Living with Kids column. I just love these!

  19. I love this post! Ridiculously amazing young woman and a breath of fresh air! So well spoken and insightful. I feel now that I have most definitely been underestimating my own children and feel compelled to step it up so they can be the best they can be. Thanks for the motivation! I can’t wait to look more into Jungleheros as I’ve been wanting to learn more about palm oil. She will go far, I have no doubt!

  20. Yay Emma!! Definitely an inspiring kid and amazing family. I just had a moment where two worlds collide – this is the third time that someone I know (from completely different circles and realms of life) has been featured on Design Mom. It’s always such a nice surprise when that happens. I often have a strange feeling of connectedness when reading this blog. I discovered it when I was living in France, then I moved away and the Blairs moved to France. Now I’m living in Tokyo, where Emma often passes through, and Design Mom is located in Oakland, where I’m from! Small world indeed.

    Gabrielle, I think you should expand this series to include expats who love design but move to a new country every couple of years with assigned housing and no say in the matter, then who transform it into Home only to have to pack up and start again a very short time later. If one is settled permanently somewhere, design solutions can always be found, but for those of us in temporary quarters who aren’t even allowed to paint, but who love a beautiful home, it’s a challenge to say the least!

    Best of luck at your new school, Emma, so glad to see you featured here and we hope to see you when you come through Japan again next time!

  21. This was such a wonderful tour and interview. Emma is a treat! I love your series and LOVED reading this one especially. How refreshing! What thoughtful answers! Gabby, you bring so much good to light. I am always so pessimistic about the rising generation, and now I stand in awe.

  22. What an awesome kid and family! I think this has been the first Living With Kids that has made me feel a little bit jealous of the kids AND the parents. What a fabulous life! Well done, everyone, goodnight!

  23. Emma: I really enjoyed reading your writing – such wonderful and thoughtful responses! Can you tell us more about boarding school? What prompted the decision?

    1. Hi Suri-
      Although homeschooling and traveling around the world seems pretty ideal, over the last couple of years I’ve been wishing for a place to have a more regular schedule and a community. I’m looking forward to being in one place and having less schedule conflicts and being with a group of people the whole year.

      To be honest, when you’re designing your own schooling program, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to- you don’t have to expand to other things because you can go deeply into subjects that you’re passionate about. I’m actually looking forward to being required to branch out, and having the opportunity to try things I couldn’t do before like team sports, theater, robotics, woodshop, etc.

      Thanks for your question!

  24. What an incredible girl! Her confidence and deep perspectives are infectious. Her parents must be amazing people to help produce such an incredible person. It’s also really really interesting getting the child’s perspective. I can only look to my own experience, but to hear other kids’ points of view about growing up and becoming an adult is enlightening. Thank you for this!

  25. Emma, thank you for sharing your beautiful home, family and life with us. You and your family are amazing! One person really can change the world, and you are well on your way.

  26. Wow Emma, just wow!
    I can’t wait to hear about you and the difference you make in 10-20 years time. I’m sure it will be phenomenal.
    Definitely go to University in Japan if you can. I did it for a year and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
    Best wishes and love, Emma

  27. Emma, you remind me of my daughters, which is the highest compliment I can give! I love the way you described how your parents have taught you to “reframe adversity.” I usually say “there’s always a solution,” but I like the way you put it better! Do you mind if I borrow that for my own family? :)

    Best wishes for continued success and adventures!!

  28. BEST EVER!

    What wonderful interview. Emma, you are rad! Such a treat to get an insight into your life, family and ideals. The world needs more people like you! Good luck! Keep shining your bright light and inspiring people!

    (Thanks to Gabrielle for another brilliant, thought-provoking post! You are the best x)

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